Category Archives: Vintage Clothing

All Dressed Up…

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I love getting dressed up for vintage events. For events where the choice is mine as to which decade I’ll be wearing, I start to puzzle through my outfit maybe a week in advance. I have some dresses and skirts in my closet that make too big a statement for me to wear to work. They’re a bit on the costume-y side. For example, I love novelty print skirts, I love to wear hats, and I adore psychedelic op-art print dresses, but I seldom get to wear them. A vintage event is a perfect time to bring them out of hiding and let these clothes shine through in all their dramatic, rather loopy wonderfulness.

This summer for a trip to the East Coast, I decided to attend local events set in the 1920s. I went to a Jazz Age Ball in Providence, to Speakeasy Dollhouse’s play The Bloody Beginning (a prohibition-themed play with audience participation) in Brooklyn, and the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governor’s Island. The 1920s were outside the realm of my vintage sweet spot, the 1960s, so I checked out books and on-line images on 20s looks. And I had to sew! I tackled a black lace “flapper” dress with a silk slip and sash, and a cream-and-orange linen deco day dress.

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I also had a great time procuring 20s accessories to go with my dresses. A jadeite-green beaded purse, a long Peking glass beaded necklace, a pair of t-strap shoes, and the Jazz Age Lawn Party concessions just happen to be selling the perfect orange parasol to match my day dress ensemble.

I had a great time preparing to go to the east coast 20s events. I learned about 1920s style, how to sew lace and unraveling linen. I worried about the authenticity of the dresses I created since I tend to improvise away from original patterns. And in the end, I loved my new 20s dresses. I gingerly packed them into my suitcase and off I flew.

Which brings me to the title of the post. I’ll admit that I am often a bit at a loss as to what to actually do at vintage events. For 45 minutes or so, I immensely enjoy the people watching, admiring what everyone is wearing, the wonder of being in a room full of dressed-up people (it’s a rare occurrence in this day and age). I occasionally chat with other attendees about their dresses and suits – Did they find them at a local vintage shop? E-bay or Etsy? Sew them? Get them from Grandma or a great aunt? Everyone has a story about acquiring their best vintage garments. But these chats are brief – how much can one really connect over what we’re wearing?  We give one another the aesthetic appreciation that’s deserved for thoughtfully and creatively dressing, but it’s hard to know how to turn that into a more meaningful social connection.

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I think that I might feel different if I knew how to properly dance. The best place to be at the Jazz Age Lawn Party was dancing the Charleston or the Tango on the stage in front of Michael Arenella’s band – an area for dancer’s only. If I could dance and had brought a partner, I think  vintage events – whether the 1920s or a 1950s swing dance – would be a lot more socially engaging. At the Jazz Age Ball I attended in Providence, I had a great time with those who took the time to teach a woman with two left feet a few Charleston moves. How can you not smile and be happy to be alive dancing the Charleston?

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Maybe by next year, I’ll get some dance lessons under my belt and get the full vintage-themed experience!

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Like vintage? Say why for a chance to win gift certificates!

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Hi there vintage fans!

I’ll continue with regular blog posts after Feb 15th. In the mean time, if you haven’t yet had a chance to complete my survey on why you wear vintage, then click on the link below and get started! If you complete a survey, you’ll be entered in a drawing to win 1 of 3 $30 etsy.com gift certificates, where you can find a huge selection of vintage clothing. You can find more info on the survey by clicking the link or by checking out my December 2015 blog post. Thanks and have a groovy day!

Click here to start vintage clothing survey

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Back to the fifties…I mean eighties

It’s been a relatively mild November here in Minnesota (today is our first real snow) and my go-to coat for the month has been this black-and-white houndstooth swing coat.The swish of the fabric as I walk  feels flirty and luxurious. The swing coat’s open front is perfect when a chilly morning turns into a more temperate fall afternoon.

Because swing coats were originally designed to cover those voluminous 1950s full skirts, they are also easy coats to wear with today’s layers. Swing coats also wonderfully offset the slim designs of tight-fitting wiggle dresses and suits of the 1950s. This is the look featured in the November calendar image on my Style 2015 wall calendar.  Of course this elegantly sketched model carries off the post-war style with a bit more panache. After all, she has the Arc de Triomphe within walking distance.

How many decades has this coat seen? How many floral, full-skirted dresses with flouncy tulle petticoats has it covered? What skinny wiggle dresses or fitted smart suits has it complemented? Did it once grace the shoulders of a 1950s secretary strolling on Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis?

Well, it’s more likely that this particular swing coat just covered a tulle petticoat worn as a skirt, a la Cyndi Lauper. Or perhaps it covered an oversized t-shirt paired with stirrup pants and pointy-toed ankle boots (remember that 80s look?)

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Just as we recently witnessed a 1950s revival under the influence Mad Men (which premiered in 2007), movies and television shows (like Happy Days, which ran from 1974-1984) set in the 1950s inspired a “Back to the Fifties” fashion revival in the 1980s.

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Thus my “Fifties Swing Coat” is a reproduction – a bit of 1980s retromania where clothing companies released 50s styles  in the hope of cashing in on the Back to the Fifties trend. Perhaps the former owner of my swing coat might have been passed on the street by 1980s vintage afficionados who thought “You should have bought a real 1950s swing coat. They are cheaper and better made!”

This raises the question of how did I know the coat was from the 1980s and not the 1950s? It was just an intuition when I picked up the coat – something about the fabric and the shoulder pads, that Hayley, the shop owner of Lula Vintage, confirmed. Chronically Vintage has a great blog post on how to tell genuine 1940s and 1950s clothing from the Eighties-does-Fifties reproductions. The surged seams on my coat, and the fact that it’s a size Small, for example, are dead give-aways.  Nonetheless – now that my swing coat has 30 years under its lapels – it’s “authentically” vintage and I love it, even if I don’t have the tulle petticoat as skirt to wear it for its full 80s effect.

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Ethical Dilemmas in Refashioning Vintage Clothes

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My mother was an excellent seamstress when I was in high school. I didn’t have much incentive to learn to sew myself since I could never make anything that was as high quality as what my mother could produce. It was a love of vintage clothing that eventually brought me into the world of sewing decades later. I was walking by St. Paul’s awesome fabric store Treadle Yard Goods and noticed a 50s style dress that bowled me over. It turned out to be the diamond dress pattern from the retro pattern company Decades of Style. I went in and bought the pattern even though I didn’t even own a sewing machine. I’m now on my second sewing machine (a vintage Bernina) and I have accumulated a mini-library of vintage patterns (ironically, I still haven’t made that diamond dress!).

Learning to sew has expanded what vintage items I can buy and successfully wear. I regularly make routine alterations such as hemming, letting out or taking in seams. I think of these alterations as uncontroversial. I never even cut the hem when I take up a skirt so that if the next owner is taller, she’ll have something to work with. And I normally avoid trimming seam allowances I’ve taken in for the same reason.

Where things get a little more ethically uncomfortable for me is when I’m permanently altering the garment in ways that it can’t return to its original state. I’ve altered a maxi into a mini. And if I really love a long vintage skirt that has a tiny waist (I comfort myself with the thought that they wore girdles back in those days, right?), I’ve cut off the waistband and re-sewn it with a contour waistline (mark the new waist-line using a pattern if you’re trying this at home). The contour style waistband-less skirt is not authentic to the time period, but it fits me comfortably.

And re-shaping a waist is one thing, but what about a complete re-fashion? I adore Charity Shop Chic or Jillian Owens’ blog Refashionista where fantastic seamstresses take thrift store finds and makes them into cute clothes for a night out on the town. They, of course, work with cast-off clothing. What about cutting into a vintage garment and refashioning it into something more contemporary? I’m probably treading on vintage ethical thin ice, but I’ll admit I’ve done it. I love 1950s novelty print skirts like this brown one below, but they usually have the tiny waists I was referring to above.

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This leads me to the story of my first novelty skirt I found. It was a lavender novelty print skirt with a 23-inch waist. When I cut off the waistband in order to create a new one and shorten the skirt, I discovered over 2 yards of fabric tightly gathered in that tiny waistband!  I ultimately decided not to make it into another skirt – I had enough fabric for an entire dress and made the one you see below.

1950s skirt is now a dress

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And the jacket at the top of this blog post? The herringbone section made up a bulky skirt that I watched hang unloved in a local vintage shop for two years before I bought it and turned it into the 1960s Vogue jacket pattern.

But should I have made the cuts and re-worked the skirts?

I never really thought about the ethics of altering vintage until I had a conversation with a Ph.D. student from the University of Minnesota’s Design-Apparel Studies program. With her training in textile conservation, she brought up how altering vintage clothing posed a real dilemma – the conservationist in her wanted to leave the clothes un-molested, but the fashionista wanted to alter and wear. Re-fashioning old clothing to re-shape it into new styles is an old practice. Patricia Allerston in Reconstructing the Second-Hand Clothes Trade in Sixteenth- and Seventeen-Century Venice reasoned that there are few surviving examples of Italian Renaissance clothing because the fabric remained valuable after a particular style faded, and old garments were re-worked into new ones.

So does that mean (gulp) that when I remove a genuine 1950s tiny waistband that I’m contributing to a world where no one will know what these waistbands look like or how small 50s young women once were?

It’s possible. That’s why I’ve felt a little nervous about my past vintage refashions.  Yet, I will say that losing examples of 1950s skirts seems less probable than the loss of surviving 16th- and 17th-century Venetian dresses. The Venetian textiles remained valuable because they were rare, painstaking handcrafted by expert weavers, and so they were sewn into something else. The 1950s fabrics are high quality but mass-produced – not the same type of high quality as Venetian brocades. Finding examples today of 1950s textiles is thankfully not that difficult. Moreover, because we are more fascinated by our recent past than the Renaissance Venetians probably were, people keep their high quality old clothes. Museums and historical societies regularly collect antique garments – from haute couture to everyday wear – as part of their conservation efforts. And today’s grand dames of fashion are willing to ensure that the iconic clothing of past decades is conserved (for example, I recently watched the documentary Iris about Iris Apfel, who was donating her clothing to the Peabody Essex Museum).

I definitely haven’t taken the ethical high road of conservationism when it comes to making my vintage clothes work for today. I do keep alterations to a minimum rather than frequently engaging in a full-scale re-fashioning. And I should note that the designer garments I own are off-limits for anything but hemming – their value is retained through minimal to no change. But in the end I rationalize that re-fashioning old styles into new garments is also a part of our Western heritage and is a tradition that I’m carrying on, for better or for worse.

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Travel in Search of Vintage

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My grandmother Edith used to buy a set of salt & pepper shakers in every place she traveled. It was an eclectic collection, with some sets reflecting the specific place (like Mexican sombreros) and others not (like the set shaped like two stalks of celery). Her children and grandchildren also started sending her sets from where they traveled. The shelves where Grandma displayed the salt & pepper sets were right at eye-level for us grandkids, and I would always peruse the shelf for new ones, asking where they came from, who brought them. I would pick them up, turn them over, and examine them with interest thinking about the place from where they came.

I think many of us want to bring back something specific from the places we visit that reminds us of our travel, something that reflects the particulars of a place. We want to find gifts for our loved ones that can’t be found anywhere else. And doesn’t everyone still have that excited thought (leftover from being a kid) when a family member comes home, “What did you bring me? What did you bring me?!” And it’s not the latest from Target that we’re hoping for; we’re hoping for something we can’t find here, at home. Travel is supposed to give us a break from monotony and routine, including the clothing, objects and foods we bring back.

But finding something specific to a place has become harder to do. While there are always local food items – spice mixes, a fancy olive oil, rhubarb wine – with airline restrictions, even that is getting harder. Clothing is also difficult. Stores in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York have pretty much the same items as they do in Twin Cities. An H & M in Paris might have slightly different shirts than one in Minneapolis, but really, who cares?  And even if I buy an I Love NY T-shirt, it’s still likely to actually be made in Bangladesh or India.

This state of affairs is not new – I remember when I studied abroad in the late 1980s I was surprised to find Benetton, Esprit  and look-alike department stores in every major European city. It was then that I discovered that shopping secondhand is key to finding local or at least unique items while traveling. I first discovered this at the Waterlooplein Market in Amsterdam. I came home with aging Dutch lace curtains like the ones I saw in nearly every window, a short olive-colored Dutch army jacket and a crisp white cotton lace-trimmed nightgown, which I intended to belt and wear as a dress. The secondhand markets have been a something I look forward to on every trip.

And the vintage stores. I’ve learned that looking up city streets and neighborhoods where vintage shops cluster is key to discovering the part of town where more local, unique shops in general can be found. There’s a reason. When geographers Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe studied where vintage and secondhand shops cluster (for the book Second-Hand Cultures), they found that retro shops are found in urban neighborhoods with more edge than the “high streets” occupied by franchised stores. This occurs because such areas have lower rents. Vintage stores clustering with businesses that attract a similar crowd do best; thus the tendency for vintage shops to be located on streets with coffee shops, tattoo parlors, funky breakfast-all-day diners, t-shirt screen printing shops, and local designers trying to make a go of bricks-and-mortar retail.

I was recently in Vancouver, British Columbia and looked up where the vintage shops cluster. Sure enough, Main Street not only produced a fun vintage store tour of Vancouver (C’est La Vie Vintage, Woo Vintage, F as in Frank), but also shops that sold the work of local Vancouver designers (Twigg & Hottie Boutique, Two of Hearts Boutique, Devil May Wear or Motherland). I actually came home with some cool things that contain a “Made in Canada” label.

Making vintage stores a must-do for travel has also helped me see overall “trends” in vintage. While not as homogenous as H & Ms, there can also be a certain sameness to vintage shops. For example, it seems like the majority of vintage clothing stock is polyester. I think of this as an evolutionary process – a sort of “survival of the fittest” in used clothing, the Triumph of Polyester – because it, like other plastics, lasts forever. Vintage stores almost always have a certain whimsy, carnivalesque quality to them – mannequins dressed in wild hats, garish patterns, bright colors. And there’s usually a certain messiness – a sense that one has to hunt a little to make the great find (in fact, Gregson & Crewe found that making customers forage a bit was often key to making customers feel like they’ve found a bargain).

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And of course, I observe regional variations in vintage stores. For example, forget trying to find nice vintage sweaters in cold-climate stores – people here won’t give up a good sweater, even in the afterlife. Los Angeles vintage stores are impeccable – only perfect-as-a-Hollywood-costumes are on the racks. Places where it rains a lot (Portland, Seattle, Vancouver) have more leather coats in stock.

After years of making vintage shopping a much-anticipated part of my travel experiences, I’ve got a closet full of clothes that remind me not just of other times (distant from my own life), but of places and trips that have had meaning for me.

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Jumble Dressing, Pastiche and Androgyny

1980s Google Images of Androgynous Dressing

1980s Google Images of Androgynous Dressing

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Google Images of Androgynous Dressing 2015

A couple of days ago I was looking through photos from the late 1980s. When I first started to wear vintage, androgyny was cool. I would wear men’s trench coats or suit jackets and over-sized shirts over a pair of leggings or a black pencil skirt, a necktie in my hair as a headband. I felt both whimsical and confident in androgynous vintage looks like these.

What comes around goes around, as far as gender-bending looks go. Seeing the 80s photos reminded me of a recent New York Times article “Women Who Cover Up (Even as the Temperatures Climb).” Fashion & Style reporter Amy Sohn interviews young New Yorkers who “choose not to dress for a man’s gaze”. The article features a slide show of the 20ish set dressed in black, tights, loose-fitting shirts and coats, maxi skirts and dresses, wide-legged trousers. Said one New Yorker, “Sometimes I feel like dressing up like a boy, pretty androgynous, and sometimes I feel like dressing like a girl,…I don’t follow one particular trend or subculture. I just kind of jumble it all together.”

This “jumble style” was also how vintage style was initially interpreted in the 1980s. 1980s vintage was influenced by Punk subculture – ripped tulle skirts, topped with a black jacket, and torn men’s long underwear, dyed black (the original leggings). Similar to the sartorial savvy person in the New York Times article Angela McRobbie described late 80s vintage style as “pure pastiche,” that “plays with norms, conventions and expectations of femininity, post-feminism.” McRobbie also discussed 1980s androgynous style as “never unambiguously butch or aggressive, it was slim, slight and invariably ‘arty.’” When I look at 80s images of androgynous style (featuring pop culture icons like Grace Jones, Boy George or even Annie Lennox) I see parallels to the androgynous dress featured in Times. Both time periods feature colorful hair, loose-fitting coats, black stockings, bow ties and vintage items. Compare for yourself in the photos above (from Google images).

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Filed under Feminism and Fashion, Retro Style, Vintage Clothing

Vintage, the First 40 Years

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I’m back! Where have I been? It turns out I have been reading about one thousand magazine and newspaper articles published since 1950 on secondhand and vintage clothing. I wanted to uncover the history of the vintage fashion trend, and find out how wearing secondhand clothing shifted from being viewed as rather pitiful to vintage chic in the United States.

It was an interesting journey. I learned that (at least in the United States press) the word “vintage” was first applied to clothing in 1957 when the Chicago Tribune referred to new clothing that recollected 1930s looks as “vintage.” Then the meaning of “vintage clothing” was that the 30s-looking clothing, like well-aged wine, reflected good years for style. Ten years later, the New York Times reports that a 1966 London trend of wearing old clothing as street style has crossed the pond. This category of fashionable old clothing came to be called “vintage clothing.” I also learned that fashion magazines considerably trailed the newspaper press in announcing the vintage clothing trend. While New York clothing dealers worried that there was going to be a shortage of vintage clothing because the market was so hot through the 1970s – even department stores were selling it – it wasn’t until 1979 that Vogue magazine rather dismissively announced a “boom in vintage clothes.” Not surprisingly perhaps, I discovered that 1970s vintage consumers were looking for the same qualities in vintage that we love today – unique, high quality clothing that is sourced in a more eco-conscious way than newly made clothing.

If you’re interested in finding out how vintage clothing was talked about as it emerged as a trend, you can read my article, “Vintage, the First 40 Years: The Emergence and Persistence of Vintage Style in the United States” in the journal Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research. The article is part of a special issue on Circulating Stuff through Second-hand, Vintage and Retro Markets. I’d like to thank the editors Staffan Appelgren and Anna Bohlin for putting together a great issue!

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