Tag Archives: secondhand clothing

Travel in Search of Vintage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vancouver vintage store mannequinsVancouver vintage store door

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

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

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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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The Ethics of Vintage

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

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

The immediate answer is yes, as Siegle aptly explains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Nancy L. Fischer

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History of Hip: A Recap

History of Hip January 8 2013 prezi opening

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

History of Hip January 8 2013 sold out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hayley Bush and Nancy Fischer at The History of Hip

Hayley Bush and Nancy Fischer at The History of Hip

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

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

By Nancy L. Fischer

Photos by Lars Christiansen

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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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