Category Archives: Vintage Clothing

Shopping Secondhand in the Twin Cities

Twin Cities shoppers – or anyone who plans to take a trip to visit Minneapolis-St. Paul, here’s a guide to shopping re-used items in the Twin Cities from the Pioneer Press. I was interviewed for the piece by Nancy Ngo.

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Is it Vintage, Retro or Secondhand? Identify that Retrorama Dress!

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Last weekend I attended one of my favorite vintage events in the Twin Cities: Retrorama at the Minnesota History Center. It’s the one night of the year when I blend into a crowd, wearing a vintage 1960s black lace cocktail dress and my ice-blue cat-eye glasses!

Retrorama has me thinking about some questions that I am frequently asked: What makes a garment “vintage”? Does “vintage” differ from other types of secondhand / used clothing? And does “retro” mean the same thing as “vintage”? I’ll use some photos from Retrorama to answer those questions.

What does “vintage” refer to? My own general definition is that “vintage clothing” refers to garments that are at least 20 years old that have a recognizable look that communicates the style of an earlier decade. The key to this definition is that the garment is really 20+ years old rather than a newer reproduction of an older look. Thus, “vintage” as a concept is closely linked with authenticity. If you buy a vintage dress or necktie, it’s probably because you find it rewarding to wear the genuine article. These fabulous 1970s orange vinyl boots (from this year’s Retrorama) are authentically vintage:

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1970s Orange Vinyl Boots at Retrorama 2013

But that’s my definition. Hayley Bush, the owner of Saint Paul’s Lula Vintage informed me that, for the purposes of obtaining a business license, the City of Saint Paul defines “vintage” as clothing that is 25 years or older.

Why, you might ask, would a city bother to define vintage? I suspect the answer is to distinguish vintage clothing stores from ordinary secondhand and/or thrift stores, which have less cultural cache. It turns out cities regard secondhand clothing stores as a possible indicator of urban blight (and perhaps they associate vintage clothing stores with gentrification or urban revitalization). For example, the City of Minneapolis has an ordinance that regulates that pawn shops, homeless shelters and secondhand clothing stores must not be located close together. Is it fair to assume all secondhand stores will encourage a downward spiral of a neighborhood’s economy? Probably not. But I digress.

My digression brings me to the next question: What is secondhand? Secondhand clothing is the umbrella term for all used clothing, whether 20+ years old or younger. So “vintage” is a special type of secondhand clothing. So ordinary secondhand is the dress from H & M that you found at Buffalo Exchange. It’s also most of the apparel that populates thrift stores and, on the more upscale end of the continuum, the clothing at consignment stores.

This leads me to another digression – a pet peeve. The word “vintage” sounds more exotic than “secondhand,” so some stores and media photo shoots call a garment vintage when it’s really a recently-used garment. I will look at the shirt and think, “I saw this in the stores a few years ago – this is not from an earlier decade and it’s not vintage!” No wonder I am frequently asked what “vintage” means – the label increasingly is employed to describe all used clothes. Anyway, here’s an example of a cute secondhand dress from Vita’mn’s photos from Retrorama:

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Secondhand Dress, Retrorama 2013 (from Vita’mn)

Finally, what does “retro” mean? Now that’s more slippery. Merriam-Webster’s on-line definition illustrates the slipperiness: “relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past : fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned.” See? Retro can refer to something that “relates” or “revives” or actually is a fashion from the past. With this definition, vintage and retro can be the same thing. And in Europe, I’ve noticed, “retro” is usually the favored term over “vintage.”

However, I prefer Wikipedia’s definition of “retro”: “Imitative of a style, fashion, or design from the recent past.” The key word here is “imitative,” thus suggesting that “retro” is “repro” – it’s a reproduction of a past fashionable look. I prefer this definition because it keeps “vintage” and “retro” distinct.

Why am I so fussy about “retro” versus “vintage”? It’s the authenticity issue – vintage is a genuine artifact from the past. For example, when I pick up a vintage dress, I can tell something about what colors were once in vogue. I can tell how clothes were made to have a different fit reflecting earlier ideas of what a body should be doing (for example, armholes were higher, encouraging straighter posture for the wearer). That’s why I think it’s important to know what is vintage versus what is a reproduction.

Don’t get me wrong – I love retro clothes. The advantage of retro over vintage is it’s easier to find your size, and the fit reflects today’s expectations of what a body does and thus gives the wearer more ease of movement. It’s fun to go into a retro store and see older styles in so many colors and sizes. So not surprisingly, at “Retro”rama, there are fine examples of retro:

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Bettie Page “retro” look, Retrorama 2013 (from Vita’mn)

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Bettie Page “retro” look, Retrorama 2013 (from Vita’mn)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But, I’ll admit, the real-deal vintage gives me a thrill. Here was my favorite vintage look from this year’s Retrorama – dig the matching lace pants to that empire-waist tunic!

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1970s Lace Tunic and Matching Pants, Retrorama 2013

Want to see more Retrorama fashion? Here’s a link to the Retrorama Runway photo stream. Enjoy!

– Nancy L. Fischer

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The Ethics of Vintage

Photo of bales of used clothing at a rag grading facility, Whitehouse and Shapiro

This week, I have been mulling over a March 16 editorial I read in The Observer. Lucy Siegle asks, “Are vintage clothes more ethical?

The immediate answer is yes, as Siegle aptly explains:

If we think of a hierarchy of ethical ways of dressing, vintage should be near the top. It is the antithesis of throwaway fashion, being rare, covetable and tradable. Rewearing old clothes also displaces the need to make new virgin fibres – manufactured with oil-based petroleum or using cotton – both with hulking environmental impacts (also add in dyeing, finishing and the use of factories with dubious ethics).

Thus, from an environmental standpoint, wearing vintage and contemporary secondhand garments keeps clothing out of landfills, and just as importantly, does not necessarily require the use existing resources like water or petroleum.

Siegle then goes on to question the ethics of how vintage clothing is sourced today:

Unfortunately we now need to ask a few more questions of vintage sellers….There are far more now who don’t give a fig for crystal beading and built-in corsetry. They just buy and sell clothing by the kilo, rebranding them as vintage or retro.

Here the business model begins to resemble fast fashion. It’s a global market (as is the second-hand trade in textiles), and we now see outsourcing of collection and supply. There have also been unofficial reports of exploitation in sorting factories. International traders deal in huge quantities – the biggest in the US sorts 35 tonnes every day of printed T-shirts and nearly 8 million kg of “vintage” every year for export. Buyers often buy bales “blind”. Vintage becomes about trucks and containers and trading “rag” by the kilo.

Here is where my reaction to her piece on the ethics of vintage clothing becomes more complicated.

First let me state that if sorting facilities in the U.S. (or other countries) are engaged in unethical labor practices, that is a concern that I share with Siegle.

Yet my view of large-scale sorting facilities – they are known as “rag graders” – is tempered by my knowledge of where they fit in the U.S. recycling picture.  Few Americans know about rag graders and what they do, so I’ll devote a portion of this post to what I’ve learned so far about the U.S. rag grading industry before coming back to the ethical questions.

Rag grading is a centuries-old industry. Rag grading facilities sort and “grade” used textiles to determine their quality and what the next stage will be in textile’s “life cycle.” For example, textiles which are unlikely to be used again (stained, ripped, unwearable) or that have a certain fiber content are recycled for use in packing materials, insulation, cleaning cloths, etc.  Clothes that are still wearable but have proven to be unsellable in the U.S. (these are often the unsold garments of charity shops) are sorted, baled and shipped to countries where they may find a wearable life again. [Check out Karen Tranberg Hansen’s book Salaula for an excellent anthropological account of the secondhand clothing trade of these bales in Zambia – her book also delves into the ethical questions surrounding this trade.]

Clothing that is from decades past is  graded as “vintage,” baled, and is sold back to vintage-clothing sellers who are looking for more supply. All of these graded textiles are baled and sold by weight, and the grades determine the price per pound, with vintage clothes most likely commanding a higher price.

Rag graders were once mostly local facilities, with nearly every second-tier city having a local rag-grader. As with the clothing industry as a whole, over the last three decades, the industry has become more centralized, consolidated and operates under larger economies of scale, which means there are some large sorting facilities that process tons of used clothing. That said, according to National Geographic, there are 2000 sorting facilities in the U.S., and most are family-owned.

Now back to the ethics. As long as a rag grading facility pays fair wages and has good working conditions, I do not view the clothing obtained from them as inherently unethical, as Siegle seems to imply.

In the U.S. these sorting facilities are a key component of clothing recycling. According to National Geographic, Americans on average discard 68 pounds of clothing a year, and only purchase 1o pounds of recycled clothing. To the best of my knowledge, the U.S. does not have government- subsidized clothing recycling. This means that someone – in this case, rag-graders – must be able to make a profit in order for the recycling of textiles to exist here in any large-scale way. The U.S. used-clothing recycling industry employs 17,000 workers in the U.S. and keeps 2.5 billion pounds of fabric from landfills (and if Americans were far better about recycling every textile as they should be, then it would be exponentially more).

The carbon footprint of shipping used textiles – whether it’s vintage clothes traveling in the back of a vintage clothing store owner’s van or bales of used clothing heading by ship to Africa – is a legitimate environmental concern. It would be better if all used clothing went into re-use locally. But if that’s not possible or presently likely, I would rather that the clothes move on a slow boat (or better yet, rail) than be deposited in local landfills.

Siegle ends her editorial with the words that “Vintage needs to be cleaned up.” My thought is that relatively speaking (with the caveats about labor and the environment I’ve already expressed), I don’t think that vintage is all that dirty to begin with and that vintage (or contemporary secondhand) is still a reasonable ethical choice.

– Nancy L. Fischer

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History of Hip: A Recap

History of Hip January 8 2013 prezi opening

On a rather temperate Tuesday night (for January in Saint Paul), the Clown Lounge at the Turf Club was filled with a fashionable audience interested in hearing about vintage clothing. As part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s History of Hip Series, Hayley Bush (owner of Lula Vintage) and I talked about how vintage style became a trend, and how the vintage clothing business has changed over time.  Since the event sold out (thanks to the great publicity from the City Pages A-list and Vita’mn), I thought I’d give a brief recap of a fun and engaging night at the Turf Club.

History of Hip January 8 2013 sold out

We started out the evening by talking about the difference between clothing that is secondhand, vintage and retro.  Although these are categories that overlap in popular usage, there are useful reasons to make distinctions between them. When most people say “secondhand clothing,” they are probably thinking about contemporary clothes (just a few years old) that happened to have been previously used. Vintage garments are a type of secondhand clothing, but they are usually 25 years old or more and have a definite look that suggests, stylistically, an earlier decade. Retro clothing is usually new clothing that looks vintage – like mod dresses with peter pan collars from Mod Cloth or the fab 50s dresses from Bettie Page.

Since this was a history talk, I discussed the history of wearing secondhand clothing and how wearing vintage eventually moves from being a counter-cultural fashion statement to mainstream street style.

Wearing secondhand clothing, of course, goes back centuries. Outdoor flea markets that sell secondhand clothing like Petticoat Lane in London have been around since the 1600s. While the uppermost economic classes shunned the secondhand markets, other classes sought the cast-offs of those in the class above them for the potential higher quality. Like today’s secondhand shopper, most probably sought clothing that was still in style rather than obviously from decades past. Buying secondhand did not necessarily have a stigma attached to it until the late 1800s when ready-to-wear styles were becoming more affordable. This meant that by the 1890s, secondhand clothing was mostly available through charity shops and was associated with poverty. [For a more complete history of the trade in secondhand clothing, see Beverly Lemire’s 1988 article “Consumerism in Preindustrial and Early Industrial England: The Trade in Secondhand Clothes,” in The Journal of British Studies]

The idea that secondhand clothing was only a sign of poverty was challenged in the 1950s, as various subcultural groups started using anachronistic looks to sartorially distinguish themselves and to provide a visual critique of mainstream American consumerist values. The Beatniks of the 1950s and 1960s, the Hippies and Yippies of the 1960s and 1970s and the Punks in the 1970s and 1980s all used clothing that was recognizable from the past, like Hippies’ Edwardian coats or Punks wearing ripped 1950s tulle petticoats as skirts. [See Tove Hermanson’s insightful post “Poverty and Power: Secondhand Clothes as Protest” on her blog Thread for Thought for a more thorough description].

The decades when anachronistic, thrifted looks were associated with protest made me wonder:  When did wearing decades-old secondhand clothing move to the mainstream?

The short answer to my research question is that in the late 1970s, mainstream fashion magazines began to feature photo spreads and small articles about wearing vintage, though they didn’t refer to it as “vintage” in the beginning. The long answer will require a future post!

It was at this point in the evening that I announced that the next phase of my research will involve a survey of vintage clothing wearers about why they wear vintage clothes.  What does it mean to us when we put on a dress that’s 20+ years old? Stay tuned for that – I’ll be posting a link to the survey on this site soon.

Hayley Bush then swung into action, talking about how she entered the vintage clothing business. Lula Vintage, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Hayley talked about how she got started in the vintage retail business and what changes she has seen since Lula opened.

Wearing vintage clothing must have taken a little while to catch on in the Twin Cities. When Hayley first opened, people would come into the store, look around, and ask, “Do people buy things here?” Fortunately, the answer was yes, and Lula became a Twin Cities go-to for vintage apparel.

In terms of trends in the vintage clothing business, Hayley regularly witnesses how television shows and film shape what customers want to see in the store. Downton Abbey and Gangster Squad lead to requests for clothing from the 1920s, and Mad Men for the 1950s and 1960s.

During a lively Q & A, the topic of “heritage wear” and whether the recent interest in high-quality USA-made menswear has a relationship to vintage clothing.

In case you haven’t heard of heritage wear, I think of “heritage wear” as sturdy, classically-styled clothing and footwear made in the United States, like Levi’s Made in the USA line, scarves from Faribault Woolen Mills, or boots from Redwing Shoes. You can spend a pretty penny for contemporary clothing that is made in the U.S., so that means those who like the trend are also seeking the older versions in the vintage shops.  For more information, see my previous post on menswear.

Other changes in the clothing industry are helping vintage remain a trend. Both Hayley and I discussed how the quality of contemporary clothing is changing in terms of whether natural fibers (cotton, wool, silk) are used and whether a garment in constructed in a way that allows for years of use and re-use. When a new shirt has a gap at the seams after a couple of washings or a new winter coat pills after two months, it is an incentive to see what’s “new” at the vintage shop. Thus, there are many reasons that people seek vintage clothes and visit the many great shops like Lula.

Hayley Bush and Nancy Fischer at The History of Hip

Hayley Bush and Nancy Fischer at The History of Hip

I was honored to be with Hayley for 2013’s first installment of the History of Hip series at the Turf Club. A big thanks the Minnesota Historical Society’s Aleah Vinnick for making all the arrangements.

Please check out the next installment of the History of Hip series is “The New Nordic?” featuring food blogger Patrice Johnson and Fika’s Michael Fitzgerald’s (the new restaurant at The American Swedish Institute) talking about the resurgence in popularity of Nordic cuisine. The event is again at the Turf Club on Tuesday Feb. 5 from 7:30 to 9:00pm; purchase the $5 tickets from the MNHS website before they sell out!

By Nancy L. Fischer

Photos by Lars Christiansen

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Tues Jan 8: The History of Hip at the Turf Club

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Hey Twin Citians!

Want to learn more about the history of vintage clothing? What it’s like to run a vintage clothing store? As part of the Minnesota History Society’s History of Hip series, I will team up with Hayley Bush, owner of Lula Vintage in Saint Paul to talk about how and why wearing vintage clothing became a trend, the ins and outs of running a vintage clothing store, and the future of vintage. Come join us, get a beer, and let’s talk about vintage!

We will be at the Turf Club on Tuesday, January 8th at 7:30pm in the Clown Lounge. Tickets are $5 (free if you’re an MHS member!) and can be purchased at this link or by calling the Minnesota Historical Society at (651) 259-3015.

Happy New Year!

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You Don’t Have to Be Superman to Wear a Cape

Capes on the Line

It’s that time of year again. The orange, red and yellow leaves crunch beneath my feet. The crisp, cool fall air enlivens my consciousness as the fabric of my wrap flutters in the breeze. It is cape weather. Like the most beautiful part of fall when the leaves display their brightest array of colors, cape weather is far too short. There’s a brief window of time – perhaps just the month of October – when a cape is  perfect. Just warm enough over a sweater. By November it will be too cold and only a snugger fitting coat will do. But for now, I have wings.

When I glance through current trends for fall, it seems like capes make the list every year. It’s understandable; they photograph well and make an ordinary look more glamorous. You can check out this slideshow titled Shop the Trend: Capes – whether a short shrug or a luxurious expanse of fabric, capes add panache to a look. Yet despite the ubiquity of capes in fashion slideshows, I rarely see someone else on the street wearing a cape. It’s too bad because the cape has been part of fashion – for both women and men – for centuries, at least as early as medieval times – and it would be nice for the tradition to continue.

This is my first cape, a wool/acrylic blend from the 1960s that has a matching skirt. The first day I wore the ensemble to work, one of my colleagues recalled that her mother had a cape suit that she wore in the 1970s. Her mother told her that she felt different when she wore her cape – more confident, powerful. She asked me if I feel different when I wear a cape. I do.

I don’t know if it takes confidence to wear a cape, or rather if it brings out my confidence once I hear the whoosh of the wool when I whip it around my shoulders. It’s a transformation, like Superman changing in the phone booth. The confidence I feel could come from that superhero association, though the wool certainly doesn’t remind me a bit of the spandex version superheroes seem to prefer.

Or maybe it is that when you wear a cape, all eyes are on you – it adds a bit of mystery. After all, it’s not just Superman who wears a cape. So does Dracula. And there are many melodramas  and films noirs where the villainness wears a cape –  like this 1940s black boucle capelet.

Perhaps the sense of drama is the reason that I don’t see many other women wearing capes, even when they make the fashion magazines’ “must-have” lists and when it is perfect cape weather. Maybe donning a cape feels like becoming a character in a costume drama and that you’ll have to start speaking as if you’ve taken diction lessons.

Nonetheless, when I look at my wool capes, I think Mary Tyler Moore, not Joan Crawford. Whether plaid, bright colored or earth-toned, most capes are somehow happy. Fun. Light. Like I could leap tall buildings in a single bound. Or maybe, just toss my beret into the air on Nicollet Mall.

– Nancy L. Fischer

Me, at Blacklist’s “Vintage Did It First” fashion show, fall 2012. Photo by Ed Neaton.

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Paris and the Time Traveling Tourist

I was cleaning out a closet this weekend, when I rediscovered a scrapbook I made after my first trip to Europe. It was 1984, the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, and I had been a member of a American-Canadian orchestra that toured Europe – six countries in two weeks. Traveling from my farm in rural North Dakota to Holland, Germany, Lichtenstein, France, Switzerland and Belgium remains the most mind-opening two weeks of my life. “How are you going to keep them back on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?” indeed.

As our group traveled through Europe, I bought trinkets for my family and friends, and I saved every single shopping bag and even paper placemats from fast-food joints. The different languages, styles of graphic design and fonts all fascinated me – everything from Europe looked different, and different was good.

Paris was the city that made the biggest impression on me during that whirlwind tour. We of course visited the major Paris landmarks, including the Champs-Elysees. In the small bit of free time that I had, I bought an aqua, loose-fitting, squarish summer jacket, and a pair of leather charcoal gray oxford shoes that I adored (and unfortunately grew out of by the following summer). Both were designed and made in Paris.

Unfortunately, the days when a seventeen-year old farm girl could go to Paris and come home with a French-made jacket and pair of shoes from the Champs-Elysées have passed.

“The Champs-Elysées, a Mall of America” was the headline of a New York Times story by Steve Erlanger on how there is little French culture or couture on the Champs-Elysées amongst the international brands that have taken over the grand boulevard such as The Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, H & M, Tiffany & Co., Nike, Abercrombie & Fitch.  

Sociologist George Ritzer uses the phrase the Mcdonaldization of Society to describe how the production and consumption “efficiencies” of the fast food industry have spread throughout other types of industries (apparel being one of them). One of the key downsides of globalized McDonaldization is cultural homogenization, something the French have fought in other areas of culture such as food and language.  But the Champs-Elysées is apparently a casualty, taking on some of the homogenized characteristics of what James Howard Kunstler referred to as a “Geography of Nowhere;” urban spaces where the same brand-name stores occupy the main commercial districts, giving what could be distinctive places a look of sameness.

Of course, Paris’s architecture saves the Champs-Elysées from the banal soul-lessness of Kunstler’s suburban geography of nowhere.  According to a Franco-American joint research project, “What Makes Paris Look Like Paris?” the look of Paris is unique, its urban planning grammar recognizable to almost anyone, even when simply viewing random images from Paris streets that do not contain its iconic landmarks.

While we should all rejoice that Paris still looks like Paris, I do regret that the interiors – the shop floors – no longer look like Paris, but, as the headline said, like the Mall of America.  French-made apparel still exists. Mephisto still produces shoes in France, and there are small boutiques that feature French designers whose garments are custom-made (though such boutiques are not on the Champs-Elysées). Unfortunately, I can only look, not buy, since a purchase would be a major investment.

My interest in vintage clothing was also cultivated during that 1984 tour of Europe. I remember an Amsterdam outdoor clothing market that had a mix of old and new clothing (possibly the Waterlooplein Market). I bought a secondhand short wool Dutch Army jacket that I thought looked quite smart.

The flea markets and the secondhand shops have been my shopping destinations abroad for years now, although unfortunately, even open-air flea markets now hawk more new, cheap, China-made garments than secondhand.

Nonetheless, the secondhand spaces are the only places where I feel like I have a chance of finding apparel that is local, and where I can possibly come across something unique that I possibly could not find at home.

It is telling –  today I not only travel to a different country, but I must time travel in order to bring back a souvenir that is made in France.

– Nancy L. Fischer

Photos by author

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Making Mends

It’s Labor Day weekend, and for many of us, a new school year is about to begin. When I was a kid, the month of August meant shopping for a few new outfits and a new pair of shoes for school. We lived in a rural area and so back-to-school shopping was an all-day affair – getting up early in the morning, driving two hours to Fargo, spending the entire day in West Acres Mall, and then driving back at night. It was both fun and tedious as the day wore on.

I don’t do much back-to-school shopping now even though I still work in education. Without the problem of growing out of pair of shoes or facing the prospect of going to class wearing “high-water pants,” there is less incentive to shop in late August.

This Labor Day weekend, I’m trying to start a new back-to-school tradition by going through my closet and identifying which pieces I’ve been ignoring because they are currently in need of a little attention. I was inspired by an article on Ecouterre about a chic little sewing machine designed to encourage consumers to “Make Do and Mend” their clothes.

Make Do and Mend Poster WWII

“Make Do and Mend” has a history. It was the motto of a British 1940s war rationing campaign that encouraged women to conserve their family’s clothing and ultimately to purchase less fabric, which was gravely needed to make military uniforms. Women were encouraged to reinforce seams, patch holes and make new garments out of men’s old trousers or ill-fitting suit jackets, as seen in this helpful video of the time.

As the Ecouterre article indicated, the idea of mending clothes is making a comeback as a matter of ethical fashion. Clothes that receive repairs have longer lives in our closets and are less likely to wind up in a landfill. While we might assume that the pants missing the button are perfectly fine for a Goodwill donation and that someone else will repair them, the truth is Goodwill customers are also likely to pass on it in favor of clothes that are literally ready to wear. Mending clothing means they have longer lives for us and the future wearers of our donated clothes. And, as during war rationing, mending encourages us to consume less (and save money) by getting more value from our existing wardrobe.

My own Make Do and Mend project that I’m tackling this Labor Day weekend involves reinforcing the seams of a vintage dress. The seams have become badly frayed over the years. The dress is made from a soft, coarse basket-weave cotton with a print that for some reason reminds me of the graphics of  The Partridge Family theme song. There’s no label in the dress, so I assume it was originally home-sewn.

The Partridge Family theme song graphic

the print of my vintage dress

Here’s the problem. The seams in some places have frayed right down to the thread-line. If I continue to wear it this way, the unraveling will soon break through the seams, and the dress will be difficult to save without making it significantly smaller.

Badly frayed seams

I am a novice seamstress, so I sought help. I went to a local sewing store near my house and asked for advice on how to fix the problem. It turns out that I need to encase the seams in bias tape. This make the seams subject to less of the friction that causes them to fray. I left the store with several packets of black bias tape in different widths for the project.

First I clipped away the frayed edges so that I could get the bias tape close enough to encase the part of the seam that was still intact. I used a thin bias tape where the seams had almost disappeared, and a wide one for where they were mostly intact.

I have to admit that this wasn’t exactly the quick little project I had hoped it would be; it took me an entire afternoon. It was, however, worth it to me to save a loved 40-year old dress that is one of my favorite summer frocks.

Finished seams w/bias tape

The mended dress

I thought to myself (after sticking my finger during the pinning process) that I wouldn’t do this for just any dress.

And then I paused to think about why that is the case. Why wouldn’t I go to this effort for any dress in my closet?  This realization reminded me of a point that Elizabeth Cline makes in her excellent book Overdressed, and in her blog The Good Closet: that if we find ourselves easily willing to discard articles of clothing in our closet, then maybe we’re not investing enough in clothes that are of high-quality and that we truly love in the first place.

For now, as fall gets closer, I’ll make do and mend the clothes that I have and build on my sewing skills. And maybe I’ll get some of those rubber thimbles.

–          Nancy L. Fischer

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Everything Old is New Again

Why do we wear the past? Or rather, why do some of us wear the past in the form of vintage clothing? I find myself asking this question frequently – what is the attraction to decades-old clothing?

One of the many possible answers to the question is that the past is very much alive and with us, everyday, in our visual culture.

The new fall fashion magazines are beginning to appear in my mailbox, thick as phone books. I page through to see what is new, employing the word “new” loosely. As in previous seasons, there is very little that seems truly novel in the realm of designer fashion.  While fashion is supposedly about now, it is quite common to spot the Ghost of Seasons Past amongst the latest looks. After all, fashion designers regularly look to old photos, patterns, vintage garments and the like for their inspiration – just Google almost any interview of Marc Jacobs and there’s sure to be mention of the vintage looks pinned to his “inspiration board.”

I know of vintage enthusiasists who specifically enjoy the challenge of finding today’s new old looks in their closets. In her autobiography, Alligators, Old Mink and New Money Alison Houtte notes that fashionistas regularly visit her Brooklyn vintage boutique Hooti Couture after window shopping in Manhattan.  Here in Minneapolis, my favorite fashion event last year was Blacklist Vintage’s “Vintage Did It First” Show. The show featured projected images of Fall 2011 designer looks on a screen while a similar vintage ensemble was modeled on the store runway. You can see the slideshow here.

Just for fun on a cloudy Sunday, I decided to take my own “Vintage Did It First” challenge with the old clothes that now look new in my closet.

Fall 2012 Ralph Lauren Ad

Ralph Lauren’s Fall 2012 collection recalls menswear from the 1920s – 1930s, with brown tweed short jackets, vests and pants, and cloche hats.

It’s not the first time this tweedy pageboy look has been recycled – I have a vintage 1970s brown tweed jacket and vest that look quite similar.

Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton also has an early 1900s vibe with the double-breasted overcoats and oversized hats that reflect 1920s fashion; his Fall 2012 silhouettes suggest that perhaps he’s a fan of the BBC television series Downton Abbey. But it’s Downton Abbey meets That Seventies Show – the prints suggest the psychedelic 70s and the hats wouldn’t be out of place at a Grateful Dead concert.

Louis Vuitton Fall 2012 Advertisement

The Louis Vuitton ad helped me recall that I have a similar fabric from the 1970s in my stash. I also retrieved my 1920s cloche from its hatbox. The round suitcase doesn’t quite match Vuitton quality, but the bar is low considering it was a $1.00 garage sale find.

Prada’s fall collection has an early 1970s feel as well with the diamond print and the long knee-length vests and coats worn over pants (in the 1970s, they would have paired the vests and coats with long flared pants rather than capris).

Photo of Prada Fall 2012 Ad

My maroon, navy and tan double-knit topper from the 1970s has a similar look and it’s warm for a Minnesota winter.

In the book Retromania, critic Simon Reynolds discusses how the past – in the realm of popular music – has come to dominate music industry catalogs. Technology has made songs from the 1950s to the 2000s instantly accessible, and there is simply more of past pop to chose from when DJs are looking to fill the airwaves.

Fashion has followed a similar dynamic since the 1970s. Images of the fashion past are available to us like never before. Does Mad Men make you curious about the 1960s? Start Googling and you’ll come up with more groovy looks. And with an industry characterized by “fast fashion,” designers have to come up with new looks on a constant basis that is often quicker than the traditional two-season cycles that might have sufficed in the past. And so drawing from the vintage looks is a quick, accessible and easy way to mine design ideas.  Which is one of the reasons why we wear the past – because the looks of the past occupy a good deal of our present.

–          Nancy L. Fischer

Photos taken by the author

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Is There More Vintage Dressing Today?

“Are more people wearing vintage, or is it simply getting more press?” asks Brenna in “The Original Upcycling” on Worn Through.

I’m a sociologist, which means my mind starts with data.  It is difficult to say whether more people wear vintage clothing today, simply because we do not know how many people were wearing vintage clothing in the past – we have no baseline against which to compare. The tendency to purchase vintage is not a Census question or part of other large national polls like the General Social Survey that provide easy comparisons.

Before going further, it’s useful to think about the difference between “vintage” and “secondhand” clothing. “Vintage,” a term applied to clothes only in the last few decades, is a subset of secondhand garments that are usually 20 years old or more. Secondhand clothing includes newer clothing and it is usually difficult to discern whether it was purchased used or as new ready-to-wear. Vintage clothing, by contrast, is usually acquired and worn precisely for its anachronistic look.

That said, secondhand clothing purchases are up. In fact, they almost always rise when there is an economic recession. Secondhand clothing purchases rose in the 1930s and 40s (Great Depression followed by war), in the 1970s (during the oil crisis) and again in the 2000s with the world economic recession. In fact, my interest in researching secondhand clothes was piqued when I read a 2008 Observer article on how charity shops in Britain were presented with the problem of not enough supply of quality secondhand clothing to meet the demands their customers.

Is vintage clothing following the same trend of rising sales? While it makes sense that when household budgets are stretched shoppers would seek secondhand shops, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they are looking for clothes from decades past.  Vintage is often priced much higher than clothes at the local Savers or Goodwill.  On the other hand, vintage dresses are often priced lower than a new designer garment of comparable quality.

At this point, I don’t know for certain whether vintage retail sales are up. Yet, where I live, in the Twin Cities, there are more vintage stores today than in the 1980s. And bricks-and-mortar stores are not the only game in town now anymore. On-line retail sites like E-bay, Etsy and even Modcloth also sell vintage clothes. Also, the population of  15-25-year olds, the primary market for vintage clothing stores, is larger. Thus it is highly likely that, in absolute numbers, there are more people wearing vintage clothes today than in the past.  What we don’t know is whether the proportion of people who wear vintage has changed.

Brenna also raised a publicity question – is there more publicity given to wearing vintage clothing than in the past?  I have been researching when wearing vintage clothes became a mainstream fashion trend (Tove Hermanson gives a great account the history of vintage as a countercultural trend).

What I found was that mainstream magazines started discussing wearing old clothing in the 1970s.  It was first referred to as “antique dressing”  in 1978 by Seventeen magazine. In April 1979, the label “vintage” appeared in Vogue (though it is unlikely that Vogue first coined the term)While Vogue writer Anne Hollander mentioned the new “boom in vintage clothes,” her initial assessment of the trend was not very favorable. It took slightly longer for fashion magazines such as Vogue to give positive publicity to vintage dressing, in the early 1980s. But once vintage broke that barrier, I found that fashion magazines, newspapers and other publications (like Time or Newsweek) have annually had a constant flow of articles, photos and vintage guides ever since. Judging from the fashion press, dressing vintage has been “trendy” for 35 years.

This persistence of vintage as a “trend” begs two more questions:

Why did dressing in clothes from decades past become popular when it did?

And, more importantly, why has dressing vintage remained popular for so long?

What do you think?

Nancy L. Fischer

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