Saturday October 26th: Come to Northtown Library and Let’s Talk Vintage!

Hey there Twin Cities Vintage Fans!

I will be giving a talk, Forever Vintage: Why We Wear the Past this coming Saturday (October 26th) at the Northtown Library from 2:00 – 3:00pm. I’m speaking as part of Anoka County Library’s Hair, Handicraft and History of Beauty Series.

I will be discussing how wearing vintage clothing became trendy and why we love secondhand clothes today! I’ll bring some of my own vintage garments. Please come and share your love for vintage! 

Here are the details:

Forever Vintage: Why We Wear the Past

When: Saturday, October 26th from 2:00-3:00pm

Where: Northtown Meeting Room, Northtown Library

Address:

707 County Road 10 NE

Blaine, MN 55434

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Out of Sorts: Closet Encounters of the Emotional Kind

Closet

“All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray……” Actually, the sky might be gray right now, but the leaves are a bright mix of green, yellow, orange, red and brown. This week, the telltale chill and crispness entered the breeze, signaling it’s truly fall. Here in Minnesota we have four distinct seasons dictated by the weather, and most inhabitants who are able shift what they wear with each season. Yes, we layer summer’s t-shirts, but the sundresses and tank tops vanish. Out come the long-sleeve t-shirts, sweaters, caps, jackets, scarves and darker colors.

Today I ushered my closet through its seasonal shift from summer to fall. I got up from breakfast, coffee in hand, feeling energetic and ready to undertake the task. I put on some music, bring out the storage containers and start sorting through what can be packed away and what will stay, awaiting supplemental layers. I will complete this task by lunch, and then move onto others on my to do list. This is the attitude with which I always begin a seasonal sorting of my closet – ready to go, resolved to efficiently undertake the task with enthusiasm.

And then I notice that it’s already 2:30, the cat is desperately trying to get my attention because I’ve forgotten his lunch. When I notice his cries, I realize I’ve been staring into space for 5 minutes, a heap of clothes piled over my arm. Where did the time go? Why am I unable to efficiently move forward and complete the task at hand?

It occurs to me that this has happened every single time – every season. It’s never as simple as putting away the sundresses and replacing them with sweaters. The sorting process is not as rational as establishing one pile for clothes that need repairs, others that need a wash, a third that will go to Goodwill.

Why does the seemingly simple process of sorting through my clothes become so emotionally fraught? As I contemplate my lost afternoon, I finally realize this is an inherently emotional task.

There are the moments of regret, when I think “What was I thinking? Why did I buy that?” These items are the easiest to dispose of, the offending item pulled off the hanger and into the pile for a local charity.

Torn Hawaiian shirt

I get a deeper stab of regret and loss as I realize some garments are at the end of their “life cycle,” (at least in their current form). I ripped my beautiful blue Hawaii’ian shirt on a tree branch this summer – I don’t think I can repair it, so do I cut it apart and incorporate the fabric elsewhere? If I put it in the sewing room, will I be able to bring myself to take the scissors to the shirt? It now makes me a bit sad.

Sorting my clothes into different piles also leads me to occasionally hop aboard the guilt trip express. I encounter garments that represent failed aspirations. I intended to repair that dress, but here it hangs, in need of mending. This 1940s peplum jacket from Dayton’s still fits, but I’ve never had a skirt to match it; I’ve been intending to find or sew one since, well ………maybe 1986.  late 40s jacket, Daytons

And it hangs next to this blue silk swing jacket that I purchased in the late 80s because I loved that it had such a specific geographic location on the label, “Just Opposite the Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay” Like the 40s peplum jacket, I have never been able to match the silk jacket. I don’t have the heart to give either jacket away; they are last two examples I have of the first vintage clothes I ever purchased. So here they remain, old friends that haven’t received their fair share of attention, still waiting for me to find them appropriate acquaintances so that we can all hang out together in public. Silk jacket from Bombay

And speaking of guilt, what do I do with gifts? Some clothes I acquired through the thoughtfulness of others but they really don’t fit that well or suit my tastes. Wouldn’t it be wrong to put them in the Goodwill pile? And what if gift-giver goes to Goodwill and sees it hanging there? I pack the item away for now, ensuring that I’ll be taking another little guilt trip in spring when I re-encounter this particular storage bin.

Sorting through my closet also leads to wistfulness. As I make my way through my closet, I inevitably encounter ghosts of bodies and selves past. The dashed hopes that one day I will lose enough weight to fit back into my beloved mod arrow dress. Even some of my newer clothes fit in all the right places a season or two ago, but now I must face that age and gravity have taken their toll.

E.C. Star Arrow Dress

Thankfully, not every emotion of entering the closet is negative. As I near the end of my task, things begin to look up. In storage bins, I rediscover favorites of my fall wardrobe and smile, as if encountering old friends who are dear to me and make me feel good when I’m in their presence. It is these familiars who now move to front and center, giving me a nod of reassurance whenever I open the closet door.

It’s almost late afternoon now, the laundry nearly done, the newly cleaned clothes that survived summer are now packed away. There’s a grocery bag full of items ready for a local charity shop. I’ve put my torn and stained clothes whose fabric I loved in my sewing room – perhaps I will learn to quilt and they will once again bring me a smile in a new form.

I sit with a cup of hot tea, looking out at the October gray sky, finally feeling emotionally settled, my closet encounter perhaps having helped me, for now, to come to terms with bodies and selves of times present.

– Nancy L. Fischer

photos by Nancy Fischer

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October 6, 2013 · 5:17 pm

The Dark Side of Buying Secondhand

pawn america photo for blog

One August day back in 1987, I was spending part of the summer in a house with about 8 roommates. I knew everyone at acquaintance level, got along fine, rent was cheap. I was downstairs one sunny morning, washing dishes, thinking with excitement about my impending travel to France for a semester of study abroad. I would be leaving in just over a week! In a haze of daydreams about what wonderful new French adventures awaited me, I left my mother’s gold high school class ring next to the sink. I treasured the ring – Mom and I had graduated from the same small town high school exactly 30 years apart.

I was in my bedroom for no more than a half hour when I realized the ring was not on my finger. I went back down to the sink and it was gone. I knocked on the door of the guy whose bedroom was right next to the kitchen – the only other person at the house in the middle of the weekday. No, he hadn’t seen it – I must have lost it somewhere else. There were rumors about the house that he had a cocaine habit, and that things of value tended to disappear when he was around. I told him how important the ring was to me, how it was my mother’s. I tried to give him the honorable way of returning it by asking him to help me find it. I even had another friend scour his room whenever he went to the bathroom. But to no avail. My roommates told me that my ring was probably in a local pawnshop, a casualty of his coke addiction.

I weighed up visiting the local pawn shops in search of the ring. I had a vague idea that in the days after the theft, the ring would not yet be in a display case and that I would have to ask each pawn dealer about the ring. Would they even tell me if they had purchased it? Why would it be in their interests to do so? I imagined seedy places run by corrupt shopkeepers. With hundreds of tasks to complete before boarding the plane to Paris, I decided to give up on the ring, and that is the unfortunate end to the story.

That stereotypical image of the pawnshop – as a place that fences stolen goods run by less-than-honest shopkeepers – remained with me. So when our home was burglarized last month, I asked the police officer who came to take the report whether I would most likely be able to find my stolen items in local pawn shops. “No,” he explained. Pawn shops need proof of ownership to accept goods, and the goods they purchase are all uploaded into a database for police to check whether they match the descriptions of stolen goods. Pawn shops were selling things on the up and up. I later learned that in fact pawn shops have been improving their image and expanding their services to appeal to more customers.

The police officer speculated that Craigslist was mostly likely the place to find my stolen goods  – no requirement to list serial numbers, no way of verifying whether the person selling is the actual owner. In the days that followed, I thought about how in the past I had raised my eyebrows when someone had mentioned buying used bicycles at local pawnshops, but I never batted an eyelash over the years at similar stories of “great deals” found on Craiglist.

Of course, stories of people finding their stolen goods on Craigslist abound – my favorite is the one about the girl who went to go “buy” her stolen bicycle that she saw posted on Craiglist. She asked to test ride it, and simply rode away. Payback (though this approach is not law-enforcement recommended)!

I did a little internet research on how to try to spot stolen goods on Craiglist. According to this ABC News Story, “Is Your Stolen Stuff on Craiglist?” check Craiglist frequently in the days following a burglary. Watch for descriptions of items like those you lost being sold by one seller – very suspicious if the seller’s location is somewhat close to your home. If you suspect your items are being sold there, you can try expressing interest and request more photos to hopefully obtain confirmation that it is indeed your stolen bicycle, computer, etc. And then call law enforcement to follow up if it is likely that it is indeed your goods being sold (rather than risk potential violence in an angry confrontation with a thief).

The ABC News Story also gives buyers some red flags to note in order to avoid purchasing stolen goods on Craiglist such as the use of stock photos rather than actual photos of the item in question, poor descriptions, and sellers who want to meet away from their residence (though, with that last one, I think a seller might want to protect themselves from a shady buyer by meeting in a public place).

This made me think about other on-line sites where I buy secondhand goods, like e-bay or Amazon Marketplace. Do stolen goods also show up there? I even found a website that gives tips for selling stolen goods that recommends thieves use Craiglist and ebay (though warns to watch quantities on ebay).  Amazon Marketplace is apparently less desirable for thieves because they ask for tax information from their sellers  (they would have to report sales as income to Uncle Sam).

Earlier this year, a Sacramento man was arrested as part of a shoplifting ring that had sold thousands of stolen items on ebay.  I did some more poking around the internet on the warning signs for shady e-bay auctions. While not all on the lists seemed fishy to me (seller with multiple items, for example), some made sense, like:  sellers with many NWT (New With Tags) items;  the same seller with an item in different sizes and colors;  a seller with products that match description of recently stolen goods located in the same area from which they were stolen; and auctions that do not use paypal (because paypal apparently makes it easy for investigators to follow the money). Now I can think of situations where there are innocent reasons for any of these red flags, so unfortunately, there is no sure way to tell.

Personally, I primarily use e-bay to find vintage items, so I’m not going to lose sleep over whether I’ve inadvertently purchased stolen goods – I’d be shocked if there’s market for fencing stolen vintage sweaters. And even with newer items, most sellers provide ample photos and descriptions which suggest they are quite familiar with the objects they are selling.

Are there any happy endings here? I do have a more favorable image of pawn shops. As for the burglary, we did not recover any of our stolen goods. However, if anyone reading this happened to have purchased a 1955 gold high school ring in the Twin Cities back in 1987, drop me a line. So far no luck on ebay.

– Nancy L. Fischer

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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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Fashion’s Unreal White World

The New York Times has published an excellent article, Fashion’s Blind Spot, on the unapologetic whiteness of most of fashion’s runway shows.

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August 8, 2013 · 11:33 am

The Conscientious Consumer and the Guilty Closet

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me, pleased with myself and my morning coffee

I’m sipping a locally-roasted latte, with creamy milk sourced from a local farm (Autumnwood Farm) in paper cup with a “25% post-consumer recycled content lid”, purchased from a local coffee roaster (Dogwood Coffee) from a local independent coffee shop (Groundswell). I’m wearing a vintage dress, a 1960s black-and-white floral with French darts that I purchased from a local shop (Up 6), accessorized with a vintage pin and earrings from another local vintage shop (Blacklist Vintage). My black sandals are my last pair standing, after half the summer left two others in a bag, waiting to go to shoe repair.

Do I sound like a virtuous, ethical consumer? I immediately think, “If I were more virtuous, I would have brought my own mug to the coffee shop so that I’m not wasting paper,” and “I should have bought these sandals secondhand, but I think I got them at Herbergers.”

There are many vintage, secondhand items in my closet. Some, like my Skunkfunk dresses and skirts, are from brands that claim to produce with sustainability in mind. I also have dresses that were made in the USA, ones I’ve sewn myself, or purchased from local independent boutiques and Etsy.

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me, not pleased with my history of unethical purchases

Also hanging in my closet there are…..ummmm…..gulp………clothes from Target. I’ll also sheepishly admit that I am typing on a desk from Target, my mouse rests on a Target mousepad, and a tall Target shelf stands to my right. Heavy chagrinned sigh.

I could have furnished my office with antiques, I could have gotten a mousepad from the “please take” table at my college, but the stuff from Target was easy (there’s a superstore 5 blocks from my house), attractive enough, and cheap.

I hold no illusions about the ethics of these purchases; I don’t try to justify it with Target’s charitable donations (after all, I know about their political donations as well). They were items whose low price was made possible by paying people next to nothing in poor factory conditions. I can’t pretend these objects were made with practices meant to reduce their environmental impact. And yet there they are in my home.

The road to ethical consumer-dom is a straight and narrow one, with guilty purchases strewn about, littering its shoulders like road kill.

I’m afraid I am what sociologist Keith R. Brown calls a “conscientious consumer” in his new book Buying into Fair Trade: Culture, Morality and Consumption.  Brown interviewed people who buy fair-trade coffee from independent coffee shops and fair-trade gifts from Ten Thousand Villages. The “conscientious consumers” he interviewed were “somewhat critical of the belief that shopping can change the world but still willing to shop for a cause….acutely aware of the widespread contradictions between their professed values and their everyday shopping patterns” (ch. 4). For most who shop with social awareness in mind, the fair-trade coffee, the organic food from the co-op and the thrifted clothing is almost always interspersed with other items from Target and the Gap.

Only a small proportion of shoppers take ethics into consideration for almost every daily purchase. And even the most thoughtful ethical consumers still face difficulty making purchases from companies that completely align with their values, as this excellent post on “Questioning the Meaning of Ethical Fashion” by A l’allure garconniere discusses.

The rest of us mostly feel guilty and seek ways to rationalize our consumer behavior when it falls short of our ideals. We muddle through, perhaps comforting ourselves that we’re at least doing more for a better consumer world than the average Walmart shopper (Walmart seemed to be the one place where most of Brown’s research subjects drew the line that they would not cross).

And here’s some food for thought: our ethical purchases might be precisely what we use to license our unethical shopping. Like the man on a diet who feels he has a pass to eat an entire pizza because he went on a five-mile run, buying the occasional fair trade, local, organic, eco or thrifted item can serve to relieve guilt about the Target t-shirts and home decor.

And yet, Brown found evidence that consumers’ behavior is changing. In the final chapter of Buying into Fair Trade he describes market research conducted at Home Deport that found that those who shopped the eco-aisle were becoming more mindful of the social impact of their purchases. And buying fair trade does make a small difference – particularly to the producers who supply fair-trade products. Brown concludes, “We will never be able to shop our way out of the huge social problems associated with over-consumption. Nevertheless, if we are going to continue to shop, we can do it in a better way.”

  • Nancy L. Fischer

Photos by Nancy Fischer

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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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Filed under Ethical Fashion, Vintage Clothing

Sustainable Fashion Design Exhibit at the Goldstein Museum of Design

Redefining Redesigning Fashion: Designs for Sustainability

January 19 – May 26, 2013

Goldstein Museum of Design

admission is free

The principle of sustainability describes not using up more resources than can be replaced from generation to generation. Sustainability is not usually associated with the fashion industry. The concept of fashion – as opposed to clothing – is about novelty and change. When we pursue fashion, we seek new clothes because we want a new look, an innovative change in design. That means we may discard garments that are still perfectly wearable from a use standpoint.

This raises the important question of whether one can make clothing choices that are both fashionable and sustainable, or are the two ideas inherently antithetical?

New fashion designers are taking on this issue. They have come of age during an era when “green” consumer choices have become more prevalent, and recycling (rather than trashing) has become a habit. This has led to thinking about how creating new looks can take less toll on the environment.

The new exhibit, “Redefining Redesigning Fashion: Designs for Sustainability” at the Goldstein Museum of Design is a fascinating exhibit for those who are interested in exploring the possibilities for sustainable clothing design.

Curators Marilyn DeLong, Barbara Heinemann and Kathryn Reiley have categorized the exhibition entries according to five sustainable design criteria:

Alternative Construction & Techniques

Emotional Connections

Repurposed Materials

Versatility

Valuing Resources

The exhibit features many fun garments that are made from repurposed materials. Most eye-catching is the colorful dress made out of repurposed soda can pop-tabs. If you don’t fancy wearing aluminum, there are dresses and jackets made from discarded linens and clothes that were once donated to Goodwill – if you have sewing skills, it might spark the imagination.

I found the clothing made from using alternative construction techniques intriguing. Before visiting Redefining Redesigning Fashion, I had never really thought about how much fabric goes to waste simply by being cast off the cutting table because bolts of fabric are rectangular, while bodies (and therefore patterns) are curved. One of my favorite items on display (you can see it in this photo) is a gray “tent” dress designed to minimize the amount of fabric that is cut away from the pattern and discarded.

The inclusion of the category “Emotional Connections” is often overlooked in sustainable design but it is very important. With Emotional Connections as a criteria of sustainable design, we are asked to think more consciously about our emotional attachments to our clothes. Whenever I visit a vintage shop, I’m aware that someone held on to their dresses, sweaters and suit jackets and perhaps lovingly cared for them even when they were no longer in style or they no longer fit. It’s that emotional connection that often leads us to preserve our clothes, keeping them safely packed away for years, rather than donating or discarding them, where they may make their way more easily to a landfill.

The exhibit also implicitly begs the question of whether the fashion industry can be sustainable. Everything on display is hand-sewn and unique – only 1-2 items could possibly lend themselves to mass production. Thus like the slow food and localvore movements, sustainable fashion may be a practice that asks us to think globally and act locally with our purchase power.

If you live in the Twin Cities and have an interest in ethical fashion, I highly recommend visiting the Goldstein (rhymes with “design”), which has free admission to its gallery where this exhibition is showing. There will also be a free lecture by Sandra Black, an expert on sustainable fashion from London on Thursday, February 21st at 33 McNeal Hall on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota.

– Nancy L. Fischer

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Filed under Ethical Fashion, Sewing

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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Filed under Made in USA, Twin Cities, Vintage Clothing