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.
Tag Archives: secondhand
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.
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.
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
“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