Tag Archives: retro

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

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Hi there vintage fans!

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

Click here to start vintage clothing survey

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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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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

Ironically Engaged with the Times: Hipsters and Living With Irony

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I feel a little bad for Christy Wampole. She’s the assistant professor of French Studies at Princeton who published the op-ed piece, “How to Live Without Irony” in the New York Times last Sunday. In my mind, I see her finishing the essay, polishing the language, getting it to a place of feeling good about it. I can imagine the excitement, anticipating that it would be published in the Opinionator section of the Times. Perhaps she wondered how many people would read it.

Once published, it was one of the most e-mailed and commented-upon articles of the week – and not necessarily in a good way. Though most of the commentary has been quite civil and thoughtful, the flaws in the argument were easy to spot: the lack of precision in locating irony within Western history; the assumption that hipsters can be stereotyped as apathetic, insincere, superficial individuals by virtue of how they dress and the objects with which they surround themselves; failure to acknowledge how irony is desirable in many social and political situations; and on and on. Perhaps it’s true that any publicity is good publicity, and this is a career-maker for a professor who just began her career at Princeton. But still, I feel a little bad.

So I’d like to start by making connections between Wampole’s argument and that of others who have made similar linkages between retro (looking backward in the realm of aesthetics and material culture), irony and social distance.

As someone who is interested in our culture’s engagement with retro style, it was this paragraph from “How to Live Without Irony” that particularly stood out to me:

The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.

Christy Wampole is not the first to observe that “nostalgic” dressing is ironic and find the practice problematic.   In my research on when vintage dressing moved from fringe to mainstream in American culture, I have encountered similar expressions of irritation with young people who” appropriate outmoded fashions” for the sake of expressing individuality.

When vintage dressing first began to move from being a strictly subcultural style into the sartorial mainstream in the 1970s and 1980s, writers like Tom Wolfe, Angela Carter and Kennedy Fraser lobbed very similar critiques. Wolfe and Carter saw the middle-class thrift-shopping youth (hippies, in this case) as making a mockery of working-class youth who had to shop the thrift stores (see Angela McRobbie’s excellent essay “Second-hand Dresses and the Ragmarket”). And similar to Christy Wampole’s view, Kennedy Fraser, a former writer for Vogue and The New Yorker, in the 1980 essay “Retro: a Reprise” expressed the view that retro dressing is a failure on the part of young people to engage with their own time and express themselves authentically. In her words:

Clothes came to be worn and seen as an assemblage of thought-out paradoxes, as irony, whimsy or deliberate disguise.  Thrift shop dressing carried it all to its ultimate.  We took to clothes for which we had spent little money, which didn’t necessarily fit us, and which had belonged in the past in some dead stranger’s life. Behind the bravado of what came to be known as “style,” there may have lurked a fear of being part of our time, of being locked into our own personalities, and of revealing too much about our own lives. (Fraser 1981:238).

Elizabeth McGuffey, author of Retro: the Culture of Revival, is a more recent author who, like Wampole, makes a connection between irony, Western culture’s recent adoration of things past, and social distance.

Retro’s highly self-conscious mix of derision and nostalgia provided a seductive ether, suggesting that history was something to be plundered rather than taken seriously….But it also posited a great divide, marking a cleaving away from the recent past; rather than forming continuity, retro’s nostalgic mockery fueled cultural narcissism. Retro’s translation of recent history into consumable objects suggests how previous periods of popular culture and design can be used to characterize ourselves as distinct from the recent past. p. 159.

One insight I took from reading McGuffey’s book is that when we, as a culture, appropriate looks and objects from the past, it is not an act of sentimental nostalgia of earnestly remembering times past. Instead, it is an ironic act that distances us as a culture from recent decades past (and indeed, even thinking of style as bounded by specific decades is a relatively recent trend). Retro style decontextualizes looks and objects of past material culture, separating them from the aesthetic whole that once defined the era. It does involve distance in some way – either one takes past styles and combines them with current looks that decontextualize them (and thus presents an ironic appearance), or if one completely embraces, say, the 1950s secretary look, then the distance is from one’s own time period.

So, Wampole is not wrong to connect irony, retro dressing and social distance, but it is the level of analysis that is key. McGuffey’s book addresses these connections at the level of culture, not the individuals who consume what culture is available to them. For example, she explains the role that members of the artworld (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein) played in making aesthetic styles from the past (Art Nouveau, Art Deco) popular and the role that culture industries (like advertising firms) played in using anachronistic styles to sell products.

This leads me to ask a question: Is wearing clothes and surrounding oneself with objects from the past really a failure to engage with our own age?

I would argue that hipsters – whether or not they are doing it out of irony – are in fact engaging with the present precisely through culling looks and objects of the recent past.

Simon Reynolds, in Retromania  makes a compelling case that one of the biggest changes in popular culture over the last 30 years is that the digital age has made the mediated past ever-present – we have easy access to old record albums, books, movies, past tv shows, and even old ads. In fact, Reynolds points out that music industry catalogs for past pop music occupies more market space than new music – it has to; there is more past than present music to sell.

So when so-called hipsters go to a secondhand record shop to buy vinyl or when they make a score at the thrift store, or they think Steve McQueen is cool from streaming his films on Netflix, they are not (just) engaging with the past. They are engaging with their present. This is a present that makes the recent past immediately available to them to mine for “new” looks and sounds, and combines them in different, decontextualized ways.

I can pose a counter question —  Is buying new clothing and objects a way to be “authentically” engaged with our own age?  Should hipster-ish youth stick to buying clothes at The Gap or American Apparel? Or perhaps L.L. Bean would be more sincere. Should they throw out their “nostalgic” owl pendants and fedoras to languish in closets and drawers or the landfill?

This suggests another way that so-called hipsters are in fact engaged in their own age. Not only is the past their present, but their present is one in which they were brought up with the habit of recycling and creative re-use, of thinking about pollution, of being concerned about the planet. And the pastiche hipster style that mixes past and present does in some minor way, address these concerns.

In conclusion, I believe Wampole correctly recognized a connection between retro style, irony and social distance, but it was a mistake to individualize the tendency and assume that those who sport hipster-ish decontextualized style are disconnected from their own feelings, or the concerns of their own time. Without systematically studying stereotyped hipsters (if they are indeed identifiable as a distinct group), there is, at the most, only anecdotal evidence to believe that there is a correlation between hipster style and apathy. And anecdotally, counter-examples are also easy to find. I have had quite a number of  hipster-ish students who have also been among the most politically engaged on our campus, who have been significant advocates of broader gender and sexual expression, and who later seek careers in social justice and social welfare.

–          Nancy L. Fischer

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Filed under Retro Style, Why We Wear the Past

An Urban Ecology of Fashion

In one sense in North America today, one could say fashion is suburban, not urban. According to the 2010 census, most cities in the U.S. have continued to lose population to their surrounding rings of suburbs, where most Americans now live. What this means in terms of fashion is that, from a retail standpoint, most clothing is purchased in suburban malls, not city boutiques, department stores, or vintage shops. And yet, to think of suburban fashion seems oxymoronic. Critic James Howard Kunstler refers to the suburban landscape with its ubiquitous chain stores as a “geography of nowhere.” There is some truth in the observation that many suburban spaces lack specificity — a sense of being in a particular place with a particular history that can be recognized from its built environment. It is no wonder that fashion designers, editors and marketers often refer to the apparel they hawk as having an “urban look,” an “urban edge,” or an “urban feel.”  It is the city with its storefronts and plate glass windows, its sidewalks, plazas, bars, coffee shops, nightclubs and theaters that is the setting where fashion blooms and becomes a feast for the eyes.

Georg Simmel observed that there is an inherent paradox of fashion; to be fashionable, one must both stand out and fit in. And the city is the setting where the success of one’s efforts are judged. With a large audience of strangers whose gaze one can attempt to attract or avoid, urban dwellers must decide where to locate themselves on the continuum of standing out and fitting in. Many people dress to be looked at in the city – at least to attract a glance or a brief acknowledgement. With the exception of teenagers, the suburban shopping mall is not a place where shoppers “dress to impress” those who walk its broad corridors. There is something about the city street that communicates the social significance of public space which makes strolling down a fashion avenue an engaging visual experience, whether one looks at the store windows or at the reflections of others looking.

In fact, fashion, in terms of how it is displayed for visual consumption in store windows on city streets, has the ability to define an urban area perhaps like no other commercial good. The display of clothing can determine whether there is active street life in particular parts of the city. It seems that only fashion retail can draw people to slowly walk up and down a particular avenue, looking at the window displays and at one another, even after stores have closed for the evening.

William Whyte, in the Street Life Project in which he studied the public plazas of New York, observed that the number one activity there was “People watching people…watching people.” Fashion has always been dependent upon cities for providing spaces where there is a potential audience to gaze upon those who walk its sidewalks. Elizabeth Wilson in Adorned in Dreams describes how eighteenth century Paris was a city where fashionable aristocrats promenaded in their finery through its parks and boulevards. As Thorstein Veblen observed, displays of class difference was the point of fashion for most of its history, though the 20th century eventually witnessed more diverse displays of street style. Veblen, were he alive today, would have difficulty recognizing class difference through dress. Valerie Steele contends that this blurring of class boundaries through fashion represents a “democratization of fashion.” The types of clothing purchased by elites is no longer noticeably different from that bought by the middle-class.

But the spaces where different types of fashion is sold is not democratic. These spaces are marked in ways that remain deeply inscribed by class.  There is a reason why, in Chicago, elite brands like Burberry, Escada and Ferragamo seek storefronts on Michigan Avenue and not the suburban shopping mall. Such downtowns of major cities remain the centers of finance, and therefore they are most likely to have the elite “one percent” of the population who can afford their apparel.

Crowds stroll up and down these fashion avenues to look in the windows of the elite boutiques, but affluent stores’ use of subtle codes signal middle-class customers not to venture further than window-shopping. And thus Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, and Armani are relatively quiet, their clerks patiently waiting for a wealthy customer to pay $2,000 for fine Italian wool slacks, while there are lines at the cash registers of the Michigan Avenue H & M, Banana Republic and the Gap. These same stores could be found at the mall, but in the built environment of downtown, the stores for the wealthy seem equal to the mass-market retailers, thus adding to their allure in this particular urban space.

When looking at fashion magazines it is easy to forget that designer fashion is only one part of “Fashion.” There are multiple fashion scenes in metropolitan areas, with smaller scenes occupying the commercial main streets of neighborhoods that cater to the specific communities who live nearby. Here, the store windows may display clothes that appeal primarily to working-class African Americans. And, there are immigrant neighborhoods whose windows are filled with brightly-colored head scarves and the ankle-length skirts of the East African immigrants.

There are also alternative fashion scenes for those who want to bypass mainstream homogeneity and find the unique or quirky. These scenes are marked as “edgy” by the way the urban spaces are coded by graffiti, a bit of grittiness, and post-industrial decay.

Clusters of vintage and secondhand clothing stores, and indie boutiques often appear in these areas. If the stores in the downtown fashion avenues suggest affluence and elegance, the atmosphere of these fashion scenes suggest irony. Such stores are playful, with a somewhat disheveled layout; shelves of old toys, mid-century housewares and oddball art interspersed with the clothing. Playing the role of urban ethnographer, I observe hipster couples who make a Saturday of visiting the secondhand shops in Northeast Minneapolis, first joking with one another about buying the outrageous kitsch items that first attract their eyes. After the joking back and forth of “you should get this [red, white and blue sequined short shorts],” they become serious, intently foraging through racks and bins for the perfect ironic t-shirt or disco dress for an upcoming 80s party.

What the secondhand and vintage shops add to the urbane fashion scene is a sense of  spontaneity, discovery and surprise. Chain stores like Urban Outfitters, American Apparel or Brooklyn Industries try to capture some of the vintage/secondhand stores’ ambiance by locating themselves within the same neighborhoods and having a similar set-up, with small toys, kitschy apartment-wares, and clothing. If shoppers do not find the perfect fit in the vintage store, success is more likely to be found in these chains that at least have a retro look about them.

According to Nicky Crewe and Louise Gregson in Secondhand Cultures, the resale shops and vintage clothing stores in the “edgy” parts of town are eventually threatened by the very sartorial popularity they help create for these urban areas. Chain stores encroach, nearby buildings are rehabbed into condos, the rents rise, and eventually the resale shops with their smaller profit margins try to find other “up-and-coming” parts of the city that attract hipster youth who are also likely to move on, away from the gentrification, thus maintaining a cycle of fashion defining and redefining the scenes of the city.

As the world economic recession continues and Western cities become more economically polarized, the question arises of whether all of these multiple metropolitan fashion scenes – suburban malls, elite flagships, small ethnic boutiques and vintage shops – can all remain part of the urban shopping ecology.

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

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The Social Life of Secondhand Clothes

Welcome to The Social Life of Secondhand Clothes!

I am a sociologist and an urban studies researcher from Minneapolis-St. Paul who is endlessly interested in secondhand clothing – particiularly vintage – and the people who wear it. I will be blogging about secondhand and vintage clothing, the urban spaces where it is bought and sold, and what it means to those of us who wear it. Stay tuned….

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