Category Archives: Vintage Clothing

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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Filed under Fashion Trends, Retro Style, Twin Cities, Uncategorized, Vintage Clothing

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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Filed under Fashion Trends, Vintage Clothing

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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Filed under Fashion and the City, Vintage Clothing

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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Filed under Ethical Fashion, Sewing, Vintage Clothing

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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Filed under Vintage Clothing, Why We Wear the Past, Worth Reading

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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Label Love

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Many people, when secondhand/vintage clothing hunting, look first (well, maybe second, after seeing an interesting print on the rack) at the label. There are labels that perhaps we are delighted to see, associating a particular designer’s name or clothing company with quality, comfort or as “our” style.  Labels often play a bigger role in determining the price of the garment than its actual condition. I’ve seen secondhand Chanel or Prada still command a hefty price, even with stains or the stitching coming undone.

Why the fascination with labels? According to Dana Thomas in Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster the valuing of labels in fashion may have gotten its start in 1888 when Georges Vuitton (son of Louis) put the label “Marque Louis Vuitton deposee” (registered trademark Louis Vuitton) in one of its signature traveling trunks to mark it as authentic from those of copying competitors. A label of a trusted company meant authenticity and high quality. By the early 1950s, Parisian couture designers like Christian Dior and Pierre Cardin were licensing their names to hosiery producers, American department stores and clothing manufacturers so that the newly prosperous middle classes could afford a piece of luxury, albeit if mostly in name. The association of a designer label with social status remains today.

Of course most labels in one’s closet may not have a luxury association. When I look through vintage clothing, what I love about the labels is the sheer diversity of the clothing companies, stylists and designers who, at one time, produced clothing. Some have quirky names, use funky fonts or quaint imagery.

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Whenever I look at this Kenny Classics label in my 1960s yellow gingham dress, I always wonder, “why did the company use a wood-burning stove on its label?” Perhaps they thought that yellow gingham went with home and hearth.

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What I really love seeing in vintage labels is the regionalism. When I look at secondhand clothing that I’ve acquired within the last 10 years, the bulk of the labels say “Made in China.” But in my clothing from the 1980s or earlier, I don’t just see “Made in the USA” but “Styled in Philadelphia,” “Cleveland,” “Minneapolis,” and “Dallas.”

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The Vintage Fashion Guild website is a great resource for learning more about the labels inside vintage clothing. There are 16 pages worth of photos of labels and brief histories of companies that produced them. It can be a useful resource in dating an item of clothing, using the photos of designer labels from different decades.

I looked through each page of the VFG’s guide, perusing the histories of the designers and companies. I noticed a general pattern. For labels like Edward Abbott, B. Altman and Co, and Bonwit Teller that are no longer on the market, it seemed as if they closed or were purchased by larger companies in the 1970s or 1980s.

The 1970s and 1980s were a period of intense change in the American textile and fashion industry. Through most of the 20th century, clothing “Made in the USA” was common. The United States had textile mills, knitting mills, and many small clothing companies who hoped for a hit from a “hot little number” each fashion season. The variety of labels and their regionalism in my closet reflects the structure of the pre-1970s clothing industry.

But in the 1970s, U.S. clothing makers increasingly encountered competition from foreign imports from places like Hong Kong.  U.S. clothing manufacturers began to close textile mills, laying off workers and seeking cheaper labor and lower production costs overseas. The well-known “Look for the Union Label” television ad campaign was launched in 1975 by the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union to stem the tide of loss. In this 1978 version of the ad, the explicit plea to Americans to not buy imports is plain.

As I look through my contemporary clothes, I see label variety, but sometimes each label only represents a particular clothing line or limited style run from a larger company. Merona, Converse OneStar, Liberty of London for Target. Banana Republic, The Gap, Old Navy. And the fact that all are imports shows how the ILGWU’s Look for the Union Label Campaign didn’t convince enough American consumers to buy American.

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As with the vintage clothing, the newer labels represent the way the larger clothing industry is now organized, with a smaller number of large, conglomerated companies who produce clothing on a “fast fashion” cycle using mostly Chinese labor.

There are also alternatives to this mass-produced, “fast-fashion” model that characterizes most of the industry today. We are witnessing increasing interest in “buying local” “fair trade” and making more eco-friendly clothing decisions (such as buying secondhand, clothing made from recycled products, or buying US made clothing that has traveled fewer miles as part of its carbon footprint). The website Ecouterre produces a daily newsletter on the latest in clothing that is made in the USA, fair-trade fashion, and eco-friendly textiles.  And the show Project Runway has helped call attention to the efforts of local designers by featuring a new cohort each season.

In terms of Made in the USA, I have been captivated by the story of Seema Sudan, the American designer of LiaMolly knitwear whose story I learned about on Kickstarter.  When a Chinese manufacturer ended her contract producing sweaters she designed because her orders were too small, she decided to produce her creations at home.  Her Kickstarter fundraising brought a new high-tech digital knitting machine to New Orleans and she is about to begin making sweaters again.

Such changes are welcome, giving us more labels to love.

[All photos in this essay were taken by the author, Nancy Fischer]

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