Tag Archives: vintage

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

You Don’t Have to Be Superman to Wear a Cape

Capes on the Line

It’s that time of year again. The orange, red and yellow leaves crunch beneath my feet. The crisp, cool fall air enlivens my consciousness as the fabric of my wrap flutters in the breeze. It is cape weather. Like the most beautiful part of fall when the leaves display their brightest array of colors, cape weather is far too short. There’s a brief window of time – perhaps just the month of October – when a cape is  perfect. Just warm enough over a sweater. By November it will be too cold and only a snugger fitting coat will do. But for now, I have wings.

When I glance through current trends for fall, it seems like capes make the list every year. It’s understandable; they photograph well and make an ordinary look more glamorous. You can check out this slideshow titled Shop the Trend: Capes – whether a short shrug or a luxurious expanse of fabric, capes add panache to a look. Yet despite the ubiquity of capes in fashion slideshows, I rarely see someone else on the street wearing a cape. It’s too bad because the cape has been part of fashion – for both women and men – for centuries, at least as early as medieval times – and it would be nice for the tradition to continue.

This is my first cape, a wool/acrylic blend from the 1960s that has a matching skirt. The first day I wore the ensemble to work, one of my colleagues recalled that her mother had a cape suit that she wore in the 1970s. Her mother told her that she felt different when she wore her cape – more confident, powerful. She asked me if I feel different when I wear a cape. I do.

I don’t know if it takes confidence to wear a cape, or rather if it brings out my confidence once I hear the whoosh of the wool when I whip it around my shoulders. It’s a transformation, like Superman changing in the phone booth. The confidence I feel could come from that superhero association, though the wool certainly doesn’t remind me a bit of the spandex version superheroes seem to prefer.

Or maybe it is that when you wear a cape, all eyes are on you – it adds a bit of mystery. After all, it’s not just Superman who wears a cape. So does Dracula. And there are many melodramas  and films noirs where the villainness wears a cape –  like this 1940s black boucle capelet.

Perhaps the sense of drama is the reason that I don’t see many other women wearing capes, even when they make the fashion magazines’ “must-have” lists and when it is perfect cape weather. Maybe donning a cape feels like becoming a character in a costume drama and that you’ll have to start speaking as if you’ve taken diction lessons.

Nonetheless, when I look at my wool capes, I think Mary Tyler Moore, not Joan Crawford. Whether plaid, bright colored or earth-toned, most capes are somehow happy. Fun. Light. Like I could leap tall buildings in a single bound. Or maybe, just toss my beret into the air on Nicollet Mall.

– Nancy L. Fischer

Me, at Blacklist’s “Vintage Did It First” fashion show, fall 2012. Photo by Ed Neaton.

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Filed under Fashion Trends, Vintage Clothing

Paris and the Time Traveling Tourist

I was cleaning out a closet this weekend, when I rediscovered a scrapbook I made after my first trip to Europe. It was 1984, the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, and I had been a member of a American-Canadian orchestra that toured Europe – six countries in two weeks. Traveling from my farm in rural North Dakota to Holland, Germany, Lichtenstein, France, Switzerland and Belgium remains the most mind-opening two weeks of my life. “How are you going to keep them back on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?” indeed.

As our group traveled through Europe, I bought trinkets for my family and friends, and I saved every single shopping bag and even paper placemats from fast-food joints. The different languages, styles of graphic design and fonts all fascinated me – everything from Europe looked different, and different was good.

Paris was the city that made the biggest impression on me during that whirlwind tour. We of course visited the major Paris landmarks, including the Champs-Elysees. In the small bit of free time that I had, I bought an aqua, loose-fitting, squarish summer jacket, and a pair of leather charcoal gray oxford shoes that I adored (and unfortunately grew out of by the following summer). Both were designed and made in Paris.

Unfortunately, the days when a seventeen-year old farm girl could go to Paris and come home with a French-made jacket and pair of shoes from the Champs-Elysées have passed.

“The Champs-Elysées, a Mall of America” was the headline of a New York Times story by Steve Erlanger on how there is little French culture or couture on the Champs-Elysées amongst the international brands that have taken over the grand boulevard such as The Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, H & M, Tiffany & Co., Nike, Abercrombie & Fitch.  

Sociologist George Ritzer uses the phrase the Mcdonaldization of Society to describe how the production and consumption “efficiencies” of the fast food industry have spread throughout other types of industries (apparel being one of them). One of the key downsides of globalized McDonaldization is cultural homogenization, something the French have fought in other areas of culture such as food and language.  But the Champs-Elysées is apparently a casualty, taking on some of the homogenized characteristics of what James Howard Kunstler referred to as a “Geography of Nowhere;” urban spaces where the same brand-name stores occupy the main commercial districts, giving what could be distinctive places a look of sameness.

Of course, Paris’s architecture saves the Champs-Elysées from the banal soul-lessness of Kunstler’s suburban geography of nowhere.  According to a Franco-American joint research project, “What Makes Paris Look Like Paris?” the look of Paris is unique, its urban planning grammar recognizable to almost anyone, even when simply viewing random images from Paris streets that do not contain its iconic landmarks.

While we should all rejoice that Paris still looks like Paris, I do regret that the interiors – the shop floors – no longer look like Paris, but, as the headline said, like the Mall of America.  French-made apparel still exists. Mephisto still produces shoes in France, and there are small boutiques that feature French designers whose garments are custom-made (though such boutiques are not on the Champs-Elysées). Unfortunately, I can only look, not buy, since a purchase would be a major investment.

My interest in vintage clothing was also cultivated during that 1984 tour of Europe. I remember an Amsterdam outdoor clothing market that had a mix of old and new clothing (possibly the Waterlooplein Market). I bought a secondhand short wool Dutch Army jacket that I thought looked quite smart.

The flea markets and the secondhand shops have been my shopping destinations abroad for years now, although unfortunately, even open-air flea markets now hawk more new, cheap, China-made garments than secondhand.

Nonetheless, the secondhand spaces are the only places where I feel like I have a chance of finding apparel that is local, and where I can possibly come across something unique that I possibly could not find at home.

It is telling –  today I not only travel to a different country, but I must time travel in order to bring back a souvenir that is made in France.

– Nancy L. Fischer

Photos by author

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Filed under Fashion and the City, Vintage Clothing

Making Mends

It’s Labor Day weekend, and for many of us, a new school year is about to begin. When I was a kid, the month of August meant shopping for a few new outfits and a new pair of shoes for school. We lived in a rural area and so back-to-school shopping was an all-day affair – getting up early in the morning, driving two hours to Fargo, spending the entire day in West Acres Mall, and then driving back at night. It was both fun and tedious as the day wore on.

I don’t do much back-to-school shopping now even though I still work in education. Without the problem of growing out of pair of shoes or facing the prospect of going to class wearing “high-water pants,” there is less incentive to shop in late August.

This Labor Day weekend, I’m trying to start a new back-to-school tradition by going through my closet and identifying which pieces I’ve been ignoring because they are currently in need of a little attention. I was inspired by an article on Ecouterre about a chic little sewing machine designed to encourage consumers to “Make Do and Mend” their clothes.

Make Do and Mend Poster WWII

“Make Do and Mend” has a history. It was the motto of a British 1940s war rationing campaign that encouraged women to conserve their family’s clothing and ultimately to purchase less fabric, which was gravely needed to make military uniforms. Women were encouraged to reinforce seams, patch holes and make new garments out of men’s old trousers or ill-fitting suit jackets, as seen in this helpful video of the time.

As the Ecouterre article indicated, the idea of mending clothes is making a comeback as a matter of ethical fashion. Clothes that receive repairs have longer lives in our closets and are less likely to wind up in a landfill. While we might assume that the pants missing the button are perfectly fine for a Goodwill donation and that someone else will repair them, the truth is Goodwill customers are also likely to pass on it in favor of clothes that are literally ready to wear. Mending clothing means they have longer lives for us and the future wearers of our donated clothes. And, as during war rationing, mending encourages us to consume less (and save money) by getting more value from our existing wardrobe.

My own Make Do and Mend project that I’m tackling this Labor Day weekend involves reinforcing the seams of a vintage dress. The seams have become badly frayed over the years. The dress is made from a soft, coarse basket-weave cotton with a print that for some reason reminds me of the graphics of  The Partridge Family theme song. There’s no label in the dress, so I assume it was originally home-sewn.

The Partridge Family theme song graphic

the print of my vintage dress

Here’s the problem. The seams in some places have frayed right down to the thread-line. If I continue to wear it this way, the unraveling will soon break through the seams, and the dress will be difficult to save without making it significantly smaller.

Badly frayed seams

I am a novice seamstress, so I sought help. I went to a local sewing store near my house and asked for advice on how to fix the problem. It turns out that I need to encase the seams in bias tape. This make the seams subject to less of the friction that causes them to fray. I left the store with several packets of black bias tape in different widths for the project.

First I clipped away the frayed edges so that I could get the bias tape close enough to encase the part of the seam that was still intact. I used a thin bias tape where the seams had almost disappeared, and a wide one for where they were mostly intact.

I have to admit that this wasn’t exactly the quick little project I had hoped it would be; it took me an entire afternoon. It was, however, worth it to me to save a loved 40-year old dress that is one of my favorite summer frocks.

Finished seams w/bias tape

The mended dress

I thought to myself (after sticking my finger during the pinning process) that I wouldn’t do this for just any dress.

And then I paused to think about why that is the case. Why wouldn’t I go to this effort for any dress in my closet?  This realization reminded me of a point that Elizabeth Cline makes in her excellent book Overdressed, and in her blog The Good Closet: that if we find ourselves easily willing to discard articles of clothing in our closet, then maybe we’re not investing enough in clothes that are of high-quality and that we truly love in the first place.

For now, as fall gets closer, I’ll make do and mend the clothes that I have and build on my sewing skills. And maybe I’ll get some of those rubber thimbles.

–          Nancy L. Fischer

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Filed under Ethical Fashion, Sewing, Vintage Clothing

Everything Old is New Again

Why do we wear the past? Or rather, why do some of us wear the past in the form of vintage clothing? I find myself asking this question frequently – what is the attraction to decades-old clothing?

One of the many possible answers to the question is that the past is very much alive and with us, everyday, in our visual culture.

The new fall fashion magazines are beginning to appear in my mailbox, thick as phone books. I page through to see what is new, employing the word “new” loosely. As in previous seasons, there is very little that seems truly novel in the realm of designer fashion.  While fashion is supposedly about now, it is quite common to spot the Ghost of Seasons Past amongst the latest looks. After all, fashion designers regularly look to old photos, patterns, vintage garments and the like for their inspiration – just Google almost any interview of Marc Jacobs and there’s sure to be mention of the vintage looks pinned to his “inspiration board.”

I know of vintage enthusiasists who specifically enjoy the challenge of finding today’s new old looks in their closets. In her autobiography, Alligators, Old Mink and New Money Alison Houtte notes that fashionistas regularly visit her Brooklyn vintage boutique Hooti Couture after window shopping in Manhattan.  Here in Minneapolis, my favorite fashion event last year was Blacklist Vintage’s “Vintage Did It First” Show. The show featured projected images of Fall 2011 designer looks on a screen while a similar vintage ensemble was modeled on the store runway. You can see the slideshow here.

Just for fun on a cloudy Sunday, I decided to take my own “Vintage Did It First” challenge with the old clothes that now look new in my closet.

Fall 2012 Ralph Lauren Ad

Ralph Lauren’s Fall 2012 collection recalls menswear from the 1920s – 1930s, with brown tweed short jackets, vests and pants, and cloche hats.

It’s not the first time this tweedy pageboy look has been recycled – I have a vintage 1970s brown tweed jacket and vest that look quite similar.

Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton also has an early 1900s vibe with the double-breasted overcoats and oversized hats that reflect 1920s fashion; his Fall 2012 silhouettes suggest that perhaps he’s a fan of the BBC television series Downton Abbey. But it’s Downton Abbey meets That Seventies Show – the prints suggest the psychedelic 70s and the hats wouldn’t be out of place at a Grateful Dead concert.

Louis Vuitton Fall 2012 Advertisement

The Louis Vuitton ad helped me recall that I have a similar fabric from the 1970s in my stash. I also retrieved my 1920s cloche from its hatbox. The round suitcase doesn’t quite match Vuitton quality, but the bar is low considering it was a $1.00 garage sale find.

Prada’s fall collection has an early 1970s feel as well with the diamond print and the long knee-length vests and coats worn over pants (in the 1970s, they would have paired the vests and coats with long flared pants rather than capris).

Photo of Prada Fall 2012 Ad

My maroon, navy and tan double-knit topper from the 1970s has a similar look and it’s warm for a Minnesota winter.

In the book Retromania, critic Simon Reynolds discusses how the past – in the realm of popular music – has come to dominate music industry catalogs. Technology has made songs from the 1950s to the 2000s instantly accessible, and there is simply more of past pop to chose from when DJs are looking to fill the airwaves.

Fashion has followed a similar dynamic since the 1970s. Images of the fashion past are available to us like never before. Does Mad Men make you curious about the 1960s? Start Googling and you’ll come up with more groovy looks. And with an industry characterized by “fast fashion,” designers have to come up with new looks on a constant basis that is often quicker than the traditional two-season cycles that might have sufficed in the past. And so drawing from the vintage looks is a quick, accessible and easy way to mine design ideas.  Which is one of the reasons why we wear the past – because the looks of the past occupy a good deal of our present.

–          Nancy L. Fischer

Photos taken by the author

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

Femme Feminism: Is Wearing the Past a Step Back for Women?

What does the revival of a trend that was once associated with thinking of women as passive, decorative beings mean when it is revisited by women today?

This is the question that was on my mind when I came across two articles while I was gathering this week’s household recycling.

The first was a July 17 article in The Star Tribune (my local newspaper) titled “This isn’t your grandma’s girdle” about how women are (once again) embracing figure-changing undergarments with  the new moniker (and new elastics) of “shapewear” titled “This isn’t your grandma’s girdle.”

I’ll admit I gave a disappointed sigh when I read it. Shapewear is apparently now made to wear at the gym, while pregnant, under pants, under dresses. What would a baby-boomer – when she was in her prime – say? The 1960s A-line dress (particularly the trapeze style) with its structured fit that hung away from the body, and denim jeans of the 1970s were experienced as liberating for young women because they didn’t have to wear girdles under them. It’s worth noting, however, that the 1960s good girl was still supposed to don a girdle because jiggling flesh potentially meant a loose woman. Nonetheless, the new styles raised the possibility of not needing one. Kevyn Burger reports that the idea that a body shouldn’t jiggle –  now in the name of displaying weight-trained firmness rather than hiding loose morals – has revived along with the Spanx trend.

I’m reminded of a quotation by early 20th century editorialist Edgar Watson Howe (probably not a self-identified feminist): “A man has his clothes made to fit him; a woman makes herself fit her clothes.” Yes, the new “shapewear” is lighter and less binding, but it’s still tight unbreathing synthetic fabric right next to the skin that compresses the torso. The idea that women should wear sweat-inducing, acid-reflux producing foundation garments for everyday wear does feel like a step back to me. I’m not saying that all women should eschew shapewear (and yes, men are increasingly wearing it too), but I do wish all the excitement was about a trend for wearing well-fitting clothing rather than synthetic body-constricting undergarments.

Then, I was re-visiting the March 2012 Elle magazine and read an editorial by Daphne Merkin called “Portrait of a Lady,” about her unease with Spring 2012’s retro feminine looks that recall 1950s demureness. Merkin associates Spring 2012 designers’ looks featuring peplums and floral prints as “the kind of clothes that convey unadulterated, unsubversive femininity.”

She goes on to say:

“Then again, I can’t help feeling some unease about all this reclaimed femininity and where it might lead. Does dressing like Doris Day in an A-line or pleated skirt mean that we have to go around batting our eyelashes and acting all helpless? Is it possible, that is, to go back in time without feeling railroaded into an older, discarded style of being? [Prabal] Gurung, who insists that “there’s got to be something that cuts the sweetness, a bit of grit,” sounds a cautionary note: “Femininity is good, but conflict and confrontation are not a bad thing. Are women really going to dress up in clothes that look like a rehash of vintage? It feels a little regressive.” Merkin goes on in “Portrait of a Lady” to speculate that maybe the “New Prettiness” look reflects a larger cultural sense of nostalgia, a longing for more traditional values, and a less complicated template of femininity.

Advertisement for Louis Vuitton spring 2012 collection

And unlike my reaction to the shapewear, I find myself answering Merkin’s question, “Is it possible, that is, to go back in time without feeling railroaded into an older, discarded style of being? with the answer “Yes, definitely. And it’s not about nostalgia or going back to a simpler idea of femininity, but I would say moving to a more complex, multi-faceted femininity.”

I live in a city where it’s very common to see vintage 1950s looks worn by women as everyday wear (as well as the new revivals of 50s looks). As a convenient example, the barista in the coffee shop right now has arched eyebrows recalling old-Hollywood, high-waisted floral shorts and a gray linen blouse tied at the waist. Feminine and 50s for sure. Many of these 50s-look-loving women also sport tattoos (and not tiny little butterflies), have crew-cuts, dreadlocks or more feminine Bettie-Page bangs – in blue. They have all sorts of bodies – broad shouldered, buxom or boyish. They speak confidently, are witty and fun. I imagine that in the right mood they swear like sailors and can drink their boyfriends and girlfriends under the table. Their 1950s dressing is not about longing for a simpler template of femininity, though they may engage in “traditional” feminine hobbies like knitting and sewing. They’re the yarn-graffiti-bombing DIY crafters of Bust;  they’re the readers and writers of Jezebel.com. What does dressing feminine mean to them?

I suspect that apparel which recalls the 1950s feminine past has a couple of meanings. One is that it’s a sort of camouflage, or rather a mediator, that softens and eases social relations. I know that I have personally used vintage-y feminine dress this way – I am far too direct and blunt for Minnesota Nice sensibilities, and I sometimes put on a delicate embroidered 1950s  cardigan or a flowery print to soften the messenger, since I can’t seem to master softening the message.

Another interpretation is that we’re wearing the 1950s looks with a sense of irony and that our ways of performing femininity today — coupled with the older feminine looks — create new meanings for femininity….and feminism. Back in 1986 [in Studies of Entertainment edited by Tania Modleski] when the 1950s trend was having its first go-round, Kaja Silverman wrote “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse,” an essay that defends (what was then the new) retro style as a way for women to draw upon the historical images of female subjectivity and give them new meaning, while acknowledging women’s past roles.

“[Retro] inserts its wearer into a complex network of cultural and historical references. At the same time, it avoids the pitfalls of naive referentiality….By recontextualizing objects from earlier periods within the frame of the present, retro is able to ‘re-read’ them in ways that maximize their radical and transformative potential — to chart the affinities, for instance, between fashions in the forties and feminism in the eighties…”

feminine and feminist? from Drops of Jupiter blog

As I sit here, writing, a woman in her late 20s just came in. She has on a (new) long black cotton halter dress in a 1950s style. She is also wearing an adorable straw cloche hat with upturned brim in the front, and a black grosgrain ribbon hatband. She looks feminine. When she turns around to face me, she wears no make-up, her short thick bangs are green, and her bare arms are covered in large tattoos. It’s vintage-y 1950s (with a touch of 1920s) dressing for sure, but submissive? No. Feminine? Sure. Feminist? Definitely. And way cool.

– Nancy L. Fischer

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Filed under Feminism and Fashion, Why We Wear the Past

Is There More Vintage Dressing Today?

“Are more people wearing vintage, or is it simply getting more press?” asks Brenna in “The Original Upcycling” on Worn Through.

I’m a sociologist, which means my mind starts with data.  It is difficult to say whether more people wear vintage clothing today, simply because we do not know how many people were wearing vintage clothing in the past – we have no baseline against which to compare. The tendency to purchase vintage is not a Census question or part of other large national polls like the General Social Survey that provide easy comparisons.

Before going further, it’s useful to think about the difference between “vintage” and “secondhand” clothing. “Vintage,” a term applied to clothes only in the last few decades, is a subset of secondhand garments that are usually 20 years old or more. Secondhand clothing includes newer clothing and it is usually difficult to discern whether it was purchased used or as new ready-to-wear. Vintage clothing, by contrast, is usually acquired and worn precisely for its anachronistic look.

That said, secondhand clothing purchases are up. In fact, they almost always rise when there is an economic recession. Secondhand clothing purchases rose in the 1930s and 40s (Great Depression followed by war), in the 1970s (during the oil crisis) and again in the 2000s with the world economic recession. In fact, my interest in researching secondhand clothes was piqued when I read a 2008 Observer article on how charity shops in Britain were presented with the problem of not enough supply of quality secondhand clothing to meet the demands their customers.

Is vintage clothing following the same trend of rising sales? While it makes sense that when household budgets are stretched shoppers would seek secondhand shops, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they are looking for clothes from decades past.  Vintage is often priced much higher than clothes at the local Savers or Goodwill.  On the other hand, vintage dresses are often priced lower than a new designer garment of comparable quality.

At this point, I don’t know for certain whether vintage retail sales are up. Yet, where I live, in the Twin Cities, there are more vintage stores today than in the 1980s. And bricks-and-mortar stores are not the only game in town now anymore. On-line retail sites like E-bay, Etsy and even Modcloth also sell vintage clothes. Also, the population of  15-25-year olds, the primary market for vintage clothing stores, is larger. Thus it is highly likely that, in absolute numbers, there are more people wearing vintage clothes today than in the past.  What we don’t know is whether the proportion of people who wear vintage has changed.

Brenna also raised a publicity question – is there more publicity given to wearing vintage clothing than in the past?  I have been researching when wearing vintage clothes became a mainstream fashion trend (Tove Hermanson gives a great account the history of vintage as a countercultural trend).

What I found was that mainstream magazines started discussing wearing old clothing in the 1970s.  It was first referred to as “antique dressing”  in 1978 by Seventeen magazine. In April 1979, the label “vintage” appeared in Vogue (though it is unlikely that Vogue first coined the term)While Vogue writer Anne Hollander mentioned the new “boom in vintage clothes,” her initial assessment of the trend was not very favorable. It took slightly longer for fashion magazines such as Vogue to give positive publicity to vintage dressing, in the early 1980s. But once vintage broke that barrier, I found that fashion magazines, newspapers and other publications (like Time or Newsweek) have annually had a constant flow of articles, photos and vintage guides ever since. Judging from the fashion press, dressing vintage has been “trendy” for 35 years.

This persistence of vintage as a “trend” begs two more questions:

Why did dressing in clothes from decades past become popular when it did?

And, more importantly, why has dressing vintage remained popular for so long?

What do you think?

Nancy L. Fischer

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Label Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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