Category Archives: VINTAGE POLITICS

VINTAGE POLITICS: Appadurai, Fashion and Nostalgia

The “French Explorer” Jacket from “vintage style” retailer J. Peterman (recently discussed here), described thusly: “Remember Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, considered by many to be France’s greatest explorer? Some think it was his unique brand of Colonialism…. But I think the secret to his empire-building was this jacket, which he often wore to meetings with tribal chieftans. Historians agree with me.”

The problem of patina, which McCracken has recently proposed as a general term to deal with that property of goods in which their age becomes a key index of their high status, disguises a deeper dilemma, the dilemma of distinguishing wear from tear. That is, while is many cases, wear is a sign of the right sort of duration in the social life of things, sheer disrepair or decrepitude is not….

Objects with patina are perpetual reminders of the passage of time as a double-edged sword, which credentials the “right” people, just as it threatens the way they lived. Whenever aristocratic lifestyles are threatened, patina acquires a double meaning, indexing both the special status of its owner and the owner’s special relationship to a way of life that is no longer available. The latter is what makes patina a truly scarce resource, for it always indicates the fact that a way of living is now gone forever. Yet, this very fact is a guarantee against the newly arrived, for they can acquire objects with patina, but never the subtly embodied anguish of those who can legitimately bemoan the loss of a way of life. Naturally, good imposters may seek to mimic this nostalgic posture as well. but here both performances and reviews are a more tightly regulated affair. It is harder to pretend to have lost something than it is to actually do so, or to claim to have found it. Here material wear cannot disguise social rupture.

– Arjun Appadurai, 1993, “Consumption, Duration, and History,” in Streams of Cultural Capital, D. Palumbo-Liu and H. U. Gumbrecht (eds.), Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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Filed under THEORY TO THINK WITH, VINTAGE POLITICS

VINTAGE POLITICS: The Awl’s “White People Clothing and ‘Old Money Green'”


Awl writer Cord Jefferson just penned an incredibly thoughtful piece on the phenomenon of “nu prep” or what passes for “classic Americana” in men’s style. In “White People Clothing and ‘Old Money Green,'” Jefferson wonders what to make of garments whose appeal is narrated through unsubtle references to histories of racial degradation and economic privilege — Ralph Lauren Polo’s “old money green” chinos, J. Crew’s “plantation madras” button-down, and J. Peterman’s “owner’s hat” (the copy for which reads, “Some of us work on the plantation. Some of us own the plantation”).* Jefferson ends his piece:

I like Barbour jackets a lot, and Tod’s driving moccasins. I even like “Nantucket red” pants with a crisp white shirt and a blue blazer. But, as a person of color with no family crest of which to speak, I wonder if I should. It would be one thing if the current fashion trends were merely sentimental for grandpa’s favorite pair of shoes. But here, amidst the money greens and plantation nostalgia, it seems as if they’re also rooted in grandpa’s stunted cultural outlooks as well. I now see a sick irony in myself and kids in East New York wearing bow ties and sweater vests. Not new money kids, not old money kids, but no money kids who, apart from the slacks, look nothing like the Take Ivy boys everyone’s heralding, copying, designing for and listening to. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, “I would go out tonight, but my ancestors were crushed under racial oppression for centuries.”

The piece is hilariously tagged with: “PLANTATIONS?, SOLID EUROPEAN STOCK, THE NEW NICE RACISM, WHITE PEOPLE THINGS.”

Referentiality –or knowing what cluster of ideas we refer to when we say “old money,” for instance– is an unstable thing. Does aestheticization deracinate a plantation history, or merely insist that such a history does not matter? For what might an “owner’s hat” be nostalgic, if nostalgia is the modern phenomenon of borrowing a “lost” sentiment or sensibility from the past for present usage? What does it mean to apprehend or be attached to something understood as lost, when the spatial or temproal dimensions of that loss cannot help but include chattel slavery or colonial racial rule? The dead do not stay down while their clothes come forward.

That said, how do we track their ghostly traces across living bodies which may or may not match their original wearers? One commentator suggests that despite the advertising copy, the circuitous routes some blue-blood dress styles take interrupt their straightforward claims to colonial privilege: “Also: can’t we say that nu-prep–at least in part–is a possibly unconscious appropriation of a ‘black’ style, which itself was an appropriation of a ‘white’ style, which was sorta kinda a different kind of appropriation of a ‘white’ style, which was originally an appropriation of many many different styles from around the world?”

As black style becomes global style, does the appropriation and revision of fancy clothes produce another historical consciousness, another origin story, for these dress styles? Consider the sartorial performances of the immaculately attired Andre 3000, the calculated precision of the self-fashioning Fonzworth Bentley. We might also recall Monica Miller’s Slaves to Fashion, in which she argues black dandyism “makes both subtle and overt challenges and capitulations to authoritative aesthetics.” Miller suggests, “Dandies are not always the wealthiest, but they aspire to other things and show that existing hierarchies can be broken. It’s about making something out of nothing.”

So does the meaning of a garment emerge from consumers’ usage, or from its conditions of manufacture, both ideological and material? In response to a commentator’s smart observation that “I would pause before associating Japanese fandom of this look to a deep dream of giving off Landed Class vibes,” Jefferson clarifies:

Not to dive even deeper into the rabbit hole, but I suppose what I find problematic about the trad blogs is how whimsical they are about longing for the days of yore. It’s very easy for middle aged white guys to romanticize the 50s and 60s (http://www.acontinuouslean.com/2010/02/15/las-vegas/), because then they would have been even freer than they are now. For me to think of the ’50s is to consider times of terror, heartbreak and violence.

While these garments’ manufacture is new, some of the questions I asked earlier of vintage politics seem relevant here.

What are the vocabularies of vintage clothes and how do these vocabularies produce value for the vintage-clad self? What feelings do vintage clothes and their histories inspire, in whom? What do these feelings do — to our understanding of the past, other bodies? As I consider these and further possible queries, it would appear that vintage can be about the evaluation and preservation of an item or an ideal –a beautiful dress, a beautiful woman– against the ruin of time, or vintage can be marshaled to mark ruin as important, as a significant event in the social life of that thing or ideal.

As Jefferson points out, the evaluation and preservation of a beautiful item from another time and place might easily slide into the evaluation and preservation of an associated (terrible, no-good) ideal. Nostalgia for a particular era or its sensibility can become dangerous, especially when such a sensibility might include qualifiers such as “dignity” or “freedom,” “classiness” or “old-school glamour,” which are also shifting measures of human value. (Consider some of the nostalgic remarks about “respectability” here.) But the adaptation of these dress styles can also fashion defiance, marking the ruin of these eras in these styles’ unruly revisions by those once denied their wearing.

Perhaps we must distinguish between the meanings that self-fashioning persons assign their clothes, and the meanings that lend a bloody social life to things like an “owner’s hat.” They may overlap; they may not. I think that there’s no coming down on one side or the other here: it’s a “both”/”and more” situation.

* Okay, J. Peterman is crazy nuts. So many of the “men’s things” are accompanied by nostalgic remembrances of multiple imperial moments. The “19th-Century British Dhobi Kit” is described thusly: “The British called them ‘dhobi’ after the ‘wash boys’ that they hired by the hundreds in Burma, Madras and the Punjab. They became such a necessity that viceroys, governors-general and trade ministers had them handmade in London before heading off to postings in the far reaches of the British Empire…. The perfectly civilized way to start your day – no matter where you find yourself. Imported.”

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, VINTAGE POLITICS

Fashion Projects #3 Out Now!

I’m super thrilled about the newest issue of Fashion Projects: On Fashion, Art, and Visual Culture, themed “On Fashion and Memory.” From the editorial letter:

In thinking of clothes as passing fashions, we repeat less than half-truth. Bodies come and go; the clothes which have received those bodies survive. They circulate though secondhand shops, through rummage sales, through the Salvation Army; or they are transmitted from parent to child, from sister to sister, from brother to brother, from sister to brother, from lover to lover, from friend to friend. (Peter Stallybrass, “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things” The Yale Review 1993 vol. 81. no. 2, pp. 35-50)

The idea of dedicating an issue of Fashion Projects to the topic of fashion and memory started while reading Peter Stallybrass’s “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things,” an engaging and lyrical essay on the author’s remembrance of his late colleague Allon White through the garments White wore.

Stallybrass’s piece elucidates people’s intimate relations with clothes—i.e. their materiality, their smell and creases—and the inextricable relations between clothes and memory. It traces the way in which clothes retain “the history of our bodies.” Wearing White’s jacket at a conference, the author describes the way clothes are able to trigger strong and vivid memories: “He was there in the wrinkles of the elbows, wrinkles that in the technical jargon of sewing are called ‘memory’; he was there in the stains at the very bottom of the jacket; he was there in the smell of the armpits.”

This issue’s focus on clothes and memory dovetails with attempts to promote sustainability within the fashion industry. It invokes a counter-tendency in contemporary fashion which reinstates the importance of materiality and emotional connections to our garments in the hope to slow down the accelerated cycles of consumption and discard promoted by current fashion models. As Stallybrass points out, moments of emotional connections with clothes and cloth become, in fact, rare in the accelerated rhythm of contemporary societies: “I think this is because, for all our talk of the ‘materialism’ of modern life, attention to material is precisely what is absent. Surrounded by an extraordinary abundance of materials, their value is to be endlessly devalued and replaced.”

Check here for more information about this third issue, including its table of contents. You can order your copy online from Fashion Projects (with PayPal). I already did!

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Vintage Politics, Interrupted

I do mean to return to questions of vintage in the future –beyond that one great conversation I had with Minh-Ha– but I find right now I’m unable to devote much time or thought to its multidimensional, multifunctional phenomena. (More on my overstuffed schedule later.) However, I do want to address the aftermath to those first posts on the “color” of the vintage imaginary, as well as its feminist potential. These were republished on Racialicious and picked up by Jezebel, and a good portion of the reactions suggestively point to the continued refusal to take fashion seriously — whether as a political or a feminist matter. Here’s one:

I think vintage clothing is just that – vintage clothing. I don’t feel that wearing it idealizes a certain time period, I think we wear what we think is flattering on ourselves. I most definitely consider myself a feminist but sometimes it is possible to overthink stuff. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

This is a constant refrain, still: “It’s just clothes,” “Fashion is supposed to be frivolous,” “Fashion is art, it’s not political,” “Fashion is commerce, it’s not meaningful.” I teach a semester-long course addressed to these cursory dismissals –and of course, this blog’s reason for being is to argue otherwise– and it can be difficult to dismantle these easy denunciations. I start the first day of class with the guest editors’ introduction to a special issue of the journal positions: east asia cultures critique, in which Tina Mai Chen and Paola Zamperini write: “Why, how, and why people wear clothing is a daily matter, a constant concern that affects and determines every aspect of one’s life. But it is also a matter of concern, control, and anxiety for the individual, society, and government. The body, its apparel, and the identity it conveys or disguises are the stuff of which fashion is made.”

Clothing matters because it is through clothing that persons are understood to matter, or not. Consider the Sartorialist’s captions for the presumably homeless man, or his driver, which attribute to these anonymous figures qualities of human dignity and pride because of what they are wearing. Consider the hijab, and all the histories and conflicts that hinge upon the presence of absence of the veil as a sign of civilization and modernity or its opposite. Consider legislation throughout the centuries to regulate what might be worn by whom: European medieval sumptuary laws forbidding the conspicuous consumption of the bourgeoisie; Dutch colonial missionaries insisting that African “converts” abandon their “heathen” clothes in order to reform their bodies and souls; World War II-era rationing bans on the material extravagance of the “zoot suit,” the informal uniform of black and Chicano youth, as “unpatriotic;” and contemporary legislation across cities in the United States criminalizing black male youth in sagging jeans.

And these are a scant few examples — there is so much more evidence that taking clothes seriously is no silly intellectual exercise. (And what’s wrong with intellectual exercise? Who wants a weakling brain?)

The strange, changing category of vintage is no exception. Vintage is a commercial designation (what signals the distinctions between vintage, thrift, secondhand, and plain ol’ used as qualifiers?) and an aesthetic and industrial evaluation (which fashions pass muster as aesthetically salvageable? how much do a garment’s conditions of manufacture contribute to its aesthetic or commercial value?). For instance, what new hierarchies between used clothes does vintage create? What marks an item of clothing as “vintage” or as simply “outdated”? Is it the body that activates its meaning as either positive or negative? On whose bodies does vintage appear “authentic,” or “period-appropriate,” or alternately unfamiliar and unknown? How did the market for vintage emerge? What are the differing retail and commercial forms (from expos to eBay) for vintage markets? What clothes, whose clothes, are dealers and buyers looking for? As Footpath Zeitgeist notes in her new investigation of vintage sizing and clothing fit, “What did fat chicks used to wear?” What are the vocabularies of vintage clothes (e.g., “individual style,” “uniqueness,” “quirky,” “original,” “one of a kind”) and how do these vocabularies produce value for the vintage-clad self? What feelings do vintage clothes and their histories inspire, in whom? What do these feelings do — to our understanding of the past, other bodies? As I consider these and further possible queries, it would appear that vintage can be about the evaluation and preservation of an item or an ideal –a beautiful dress, a beautiful woman– against the ruin of time, or vintage can be marshaled to mark ruin as important, as a significant event in the social life of that thing or ideal.

So yes, I do mean to return to questions of vintage, but for right now I want to offer some other responses to the recent kerfuffle, including Renegade Bean’s latest installment of “vintage” Taiwanese photographs:

I was surprised by some of the comments on Racialicious (which I am a fan of) and Jezebel — many were dismissive of the issues that the other bloggers and I raised. Many commenters basically said, “what’s the big deal?” or “I like vintage because it’s pretty and I don’t think it’s worth politicizing.”

I feel those responses missed the point of our posts…. The main reason I enjoy vintage clothing is because it is pretty and different from what I can find in mainstream stores. It’s not like race and identity politics are foremost on my mind when I go vintage shopping. But being able to take pleasure in the lush folds of a 1950s dress or a shimmery 1960s evening sheath doesn’t mean I can’t also devote brain space to thinking about the more difficult issues vintage collecting brings up. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. In my case, I’m taking advantage of the opportunity to be mindful about the injustices dealt to Asian Americans and other minorities in the US during the last century, as well the more difficult aspects of Taiwan’s social and political history.

I am absolutely not saying vintage enthusiasts who don’t think about those issues are shallow; my passion for vintage fashion and design just happens to intersect with my interest in social history. I’m grateful for that because it makes the past come alive in a very immediate way.

And Julie from the fabulous (new!) feminist fashion blog a ‘allure garconniere jumps into the fray with a brilliant and thoughtful response that recounts her own discovery of thrift and vintage as a working-class teenager.

i think what we need to remember at the heart of this debate is the fact that every person has a different relationship to clothing and fashion (not just vintage), depending on their gender, sex, size, culture, race, ability, sexuality and age, but more often than not that relationship is one that is filled with conundrums and contradictions. one of my favourite things to do is shock people by wearing vintage dresses, but never fussing with my hair, rarely wearing makeup, and flaunting my hairy armpits. fucking up these ideas that i am wearing something that imposes such a specific, rigid, and reductive idea of femininity and challenging that in my own little way. you would not believe how many people have made comments to me like, “you just shouldn’t wear a dress like that if you aren’t going to shave.”

_______________________

The lovely Tricia of Bits and Bobbins brings to our attention Derick Melander’s secondhand-clothing sculptures, and asks us, “i love to ponder where my clothing has been, where it came from, who made it, who wore it, what they did in that clothing, why they decided to part with it….what about you? do you ponder where your things have been? is that aspect of wearing secondhand clothing attractive to you? why or why not?”

From Melander’s statement:

I create large geometric configurations from carefully folded and stacked second-hand clothing. These structures take the form of wedges, columns, walls and enclosures, typically weighing between five hundred pounds and two tons. Smaller pieces directly interact with the surrounding architecture. Larger works create discrete environments.

As clothing wears, fades, stains and stretches it becomes an intimate record of our physical presence. It traces the edge of the body, defining the boundary between the individual and the outside world.


(The above photograph features Anna May Wong in her awesome bathing suit.)

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Shopping with Threadbared: A Conversation


The “shiny things” rack in the office that is Mimi’s closet. There is a ’60s gold brocade dress, a vintage Missoni mini dress with sequins and cascading shades of gold mesh, a ’70s black disco dress with gold thread, a wintry silver and white ’60s minishift, a black metallic crop top, two sequined butterfly tops, the gold pseudo-brocade 3.1 Philip Lim I bought for Minh-Ha’s wedding, and several ’70s and ’80s sweaters.

Inspired by Meggy and Jenny at Fashion for Writers, Minh-Ha and I decided to hold a “conversation” about how we shop differently, which turned into a long and somewhat theory-heavy discussion about capital, time, moralism, and our different reactions to patterns! It was loads of fun to explicitly compare our consumption habits and clothing aesthetics, and sparked a lot of self-reflection for the both of us.

THIS MAY BE OUR LONGEST POST YET.

Strategies for Thrifting with Non-thrifters”

More from the other end of the rack in Mimi’s closet, including an elastic harness from Norwegian Wood, purses galore, a white seersucker ’80s blazer and a Ben Sherman striped blazer.


Mimi:
So Minh-Ha, the other day you generously drove me to some (I have many more…) of my regular thrifting scores in the East Bay. You’ve never been with me during my favored mode of shopping before, though we’ve done the retail rounds together at H&M to Philip Lim during my visits with you in New York City. (Within a very small radius!) How was that for you?

Minh-Ha: It was fine! I was once told (by you!) that I may not have thrifting stamina – and admittedly, I’ve been worn out before by Brian – but actually it was fine this time. You didn’t spend more than 30 minutes or so at any one place – were you rushing for me?

Mimi: Yes, I have developed strategies for thrifting with non-thrifters! These include looking at the clothes as they hang on the rack with a sort of focusing filter for patterns or visible details (solids are easier for me to pass up if pressed for time); also running my hands quickly across the clothes to check their fabric quality (I try to avoid polyester, although today I bought an entirely flammable nurse’s uniform from the 1960s!); skipping the more time-consuming sections (I will skip pants, since these are the hardest for me to gauge what they’ll look like without trying them on); and so on. Although I did buy some amazing Levi’s Sta-Prest pants once without testing the fit!

I enjoy the chaos, though much of what remains in actual thrift stores now are the “faster fashions” of H&M, Forever 21, Target (which actually donates much of its unsold merchandise to thrift stores), et cetera. I’m not sure to what degree these clothes are qualitatively distinct from earlier eras of mass clothing –though I do suspect that the disco-petro polyester of the past will outlast the flimsy screenprinted cotton blends of the present– but I think it’s safe to say that the rate of production is much, much more sped up (patterns being pre-cut and sent to manufacturing sites via computers and interwebs, the wave of the future!), as is the passing of each garment’s “moment” (consider how quickly the clothes are cycled on and off the racks at F21). These accelerated conditions are rapidly transforming the secondhand clothing industry (un-resellable, textiles are the fastest-growing waste product in the UK, and probably in the US) as well as the categories through which we understand it.

The Politics of Thrift

Minh-Ha: Your observation about the increasing occurrence of so-called fast fashion in thrift stores raises an important point about the difficulty of drawing discrete boundaries around different spheres of fashion. The meanings of sartorial categories like vintage, retro, luxury, couture, mass, sustainable, and fast fashion signify less and less, I think, the actual fashion commodity (the content of its textiles, its modes of production, or its sites of consumption) and reveal more about the particular consumer politics of its wearer.

For example, people who make conscious choices to buy sustainable fashions are saying something about their concerns for the environment. Consumers who reject so-called fast fashion often do so based on their political-ethical distaste for clothes made in poor labor conditions, disposable clothes that are bad for environment, or legally suspect clothes that are sometimes “knocked off” designs from luxury labels. One of the most fervent defenses of vintage or thrifted clothes (overlapping but not, as you point out, synonymous sartorial categories) is made by Kaja Silverman. She argues that “thrift-shop dressing” is a postmodern gesture that disavows “the binary logic through which fashion distinguishes ‘this year’s look’ from ‘last year’s look,’ a logic that turns upon the opposition between ‘the new’ and ‘the old’ and works to transform one season’s treasures in to the next season’s trash.” She goes on to celebrate “vintage clothing [as] a mechanism for crossing vestimentary, sexual, and historical boundaries.” There’s a lot that goes unsaid in each of these sartorial-ideological positions. For example, eco-conscious consumers forget that oftentimes the processes for producing sustainable fabrics like bamboo require heavily toxic chemicals that are decidedly environmentally un-friendly or that thrift stores are full of mass or fast fashions from past sartorial eras.


Smooth, crepe-y, nubby, sparkly blacks and grays,
Minh-Ha’s very focused color palette is full of differences

I’m not saying that fashion consumers are “fashion victims” (a sexist and anti-feminist description that implies irrational consumerism); I’m just suggesting that fashion consumers are not only political-sartorial actors but are also market actors whose range of consumer choices are embedded in a larger ethical-economic system that has long produced and managed consumer citizens by moralizing consumption. To celebrate sustainable fashion or inversely to denigrate fast fashion (the term itself inherits all the negative classist associations of fast food) is to forget that these sartorial spheres are stratified across class differences. Eco-fashion is expensive! So are the most coveted “vintage” fashions. Moralizing consumption often has the effect of reproducing and securing what Lauren Berlant describes in a different context as “the dominant order of feeling, virtue, and ideology.” The moralization of consumption tends to reserve moral values such as good, responsible (in relation to eco-fashion or vegan dress), honest (especially with regard to so-called counterfeit fashions), and even creative for the elite. This is one reason why fast fashion manufacturers are accused of “counterfeiting” designs (a legal and moral condemnation) while luxury designers are celebrated for their worldly “inspirations.”


Witness the chaos in Mimi’s closet: multiple eras, multiple textures, multiple patterns, multiple styles.


Mimi:
I guess in approaching these issues I would want to start with how clothes are distinguished by fabric or cut or manufacture because this has very much to do with how these clothes circulate through categories of value (like secondhand or vintage) over time. For instance, I doubt that H&M or Forever 21 garments will pass into the realm of vintage, though these clothes may well hold temporary resale value for secondhand sellers; not only did mass production not “democratize” fashion, it did in fact create new hierarchies of value and meaning along lines of class distinctions (e.g., shoddier construction, flimsier fabrics) that I do believe haunt these clothes past their initial purchase.

I understand what Kaja Silverman meant with her defense of thrifting (as excerpted briefly in your comments), because Fashion (with a capital F) is understood as a realm of Change and the Modern (also in capital letters) and as such Fashion is also inextricable from how we understand time and its distribution. Furthermore, the temporal register of categories of clothes –traditional costume or classic investment or modern trend– is necessarily circumscribed by capital. In fact, Fashion is an exemplary site for realizing the disciplinary forms of time –ranging from the notion of seasons and the sort of temporal distancing at work in the utterance, “That’s so last season!” to the highly disciplinary regimentation of labor’s time in the sweatshop or factory– that are also capital’s doing.

At the same time, it is because Fashion is distinctly modernist that it is not just about the new — it is also incredibly nostalgic and obsessively periodizing. (Here “modernity” refers to a substantive range of sociohistorical phenomena –capitalism, bureaucracy, technological development, the rise of the social sciences and categorization, and so on—but also to particular though often contradictory experiences of temporality and historical consciousness.) So perhaps thrift and vintage do challenge the fashion industry’s rule of seasonal lines, but these categories are not necessarily apart from that industry’s own nostalgic tendencies (which are also a part of its capital production, not entirely unlike Hollywood’s love for the remake and certain properties’ assumed built-in audiences).

I absolutely agree with you that clothes and their differentiated consumption –“fast fashion,” eco-fashion, counterfeit, vintage– are often the objects of moralizing discourses. But I would further parse a distinction between discourses of consumption and consumers themselves, since the former can be understood to “recruit” and “transform” individuals into particular kinds or classes of people –as consumers, in this instance– but cannot describe the latter absolutely. Certainly these discourses produce and reproduce the meanings and values which represent the relationships we imagine we have to our real conditions of existence, and which might take the form of the moral decision-making you note above. But moralism (which Wendy Brown actually distinguishes from morality and dubs anti-politics) is not the same as ethical or political inquiry. And I would further caution against conflating moral and aesthetic judgments with political and psychological ones — and against blurring consumption practices and their consequences for the logic of capital or homogeneous time with the feelings or politics of individuals who engage in these practices. This is to say that it is not necessarily false to make this connection, but not necessarily true either.

Minh-Ha: I get that the temporal trajectory and logics of thrift/vintage aren’t the same as Fashion but I’m not convinced that thrift/vintage is the feminist answer to fashion consumption and adornment that Silverman makes it out to be. That view presumes that Fashion is inherently anti-feminist; it also demands that we have a nostalgic relation to the past. Here, I’m thinking about her assertion that retro “provides a means of salvaging the images that have traditionally sustained female subjectivity, images that have been consigned to the wastebasket not only by fashion but by ‘orthodox’ feminism.” But for which female subjects are these past images and past fashions sustaining? And which thrifted fashions enable this? Certainly not the H&M, F21, or Old Navy cast-offs! This idealized past is a distinctly whitewashed past as you so aptly point out in In Vintage Color. And while I love your idea that women of color in vintage styles can enable us to correct this historical absence and “imagine otherwise,” we can only correct “the past” by establishing a different relation to it from “the present.” This isn’t historical-temporal borderlessness; it’s a position that’s firmly situated within (even if or rather because it’s in dialectic opposition to) the dominant logic of linear progressive time. The valorization of vintage as postmodern historical borderlessness doesn’t take into account that borderlessness is a privilege only white bodies enjoy – even in vintage and thrifted fashions.


Even the light dresses in Minh-Ha’s closet (and this is pretty much
all of them) are full of pleats, draping, fans, and shiny detail goodness
.
The first dress looks as guileless as a shift dress but it’s the infamous “geisha.”

Mimi: I haven’t read Silverman’s “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse” in several years, but I want to point out that it was published in 1986, and was one of the first essays to attempt to craft a feminist fashion studies, so I would approach its theoretical project on its own speculative terms. Furthermore, secondhand clothing as a whole circulated at a much more subterranean level of the market at that time (as Angela McRobbie documents, secondhand clothed the poor but also the weirdos), so I can’t fault Silverman for failing to predict the incorporation of one aspect of secondhand clothing as vintage into Fashion’s industrial self-replication.

As such, I read her more generously as encouraging the critical recognition that we need not adhere to linear progressive time and consign the past to the wastebasket as useless or worse, which is a form of historical consciousness that both Fashion and some of our critical discourses often demand. This recognition need not be nostalgic –and I don’t believe that nostalgia is necessarily a conservative impulse– let alone idealizing, for either Silverman in particular (at least in the above excerpts) or secondhand clothing in general. Again, the backwards glance can be conservative in some instances –witness some of the comments at the Sartorialist’s photograph of his besuited black driver– but it can also be something else. So it seems to me that the vintage-loving women of color at Fashion for Writers, b. vikki, and Renegade Bean are not just salvaging the past as historical object, but also creating alternate and possibly antichronological images about that past that allow it cohabit with us in the present. I’m thinking also of Lipstickeater Joon Oluchi Lee’s “maternamorphosis,” in which he considers how he might honor his mother’s complex personhood through a reconsideration of her personal style with his.

There is no reason to assume that there is a singular temporal sensibility to thrifting, or to vintage — let alone one set of practices, values or feelings attached to them. (And here I want to reemphasize that while thrift and vintage are not discrete categories, they are definitely not the same.) Silverman’s secondhand salvaging is one possible approach that might allow us to revisit the past for its pleasures, or to transform that past into something other than waste or debris. For instance, when I read about those “images that have traditionally sustained female subjectivity,” I think of queer femmes revisioning the past’s femininities. But the essay does not claim (it acknowledges that it is a series of “fragments”) that this is all there is.

Fashion and style bloggers featuring young women who triumphantly thrift, sometimes pairing their finds with Chloe shoes and Alexander Wang tanks, are a tiny, eensy-weensy minority of thrift shoppers. Thrifting is also a rational form of consumption as reproductive labor –clothing families, for instance– or as class performance. Secondhand Ann Taylor can still project a “professional” look, or H&M a trendy one. But it’s important to note that thrift also still does bear economic and social stigma because it is used, or otherwise perceived as trash, even in the age of Goodwill on-line auctions and the occasional recession news piece on “smart shopping.” Furthermore, its social and economic significance extends to the geopolitical — our so-called trash is conceived as good enough for global Others. Thrift is the backbone of an enormous secondhand clothing export industry that clothes the Global South in the throwaways of the Global North, and furthers the decline of local textile and clothing manufacturing; but it can also fuel local practices of creative reuse in those same places. In any case, we shouldn’t limit an analysis of thrifting or vintage to its radical potential or lack thereof. Of course we cannot escape capital (or its disciplinary time) through thrift — thrift is possible because of capital and the production of surplus. (It even produces new forms of labor, from professional sellers to exporters and so on!) But not all relations to capital are the same.

Minh-Ha: I totally agree that there’s no singular temporal sensibility to thrifting, or to vintage – and that’s actually my point. I have no problem with thrifting or vintage as such (obviously!) – my problem is with the easy and sometimes automatic celebrations of thrifting as a superior, more innovative, and more progressive mode of consumerism. I’d feel the same way about any form of moralizing when it comes to consumerism! And we’ve certainly talked about this before – only some thrifting bodies and styles are read as creative, hip, modern, innovative. Others are perceived as “tacky,” “ghetto,” and “cheap.” These designations don’t always cut across race and class differences but neither do they transcend them.

Mimi: Yes, absolutely thrift does not cohere as a set of practices and discourses! As one of my students –Roseanne O.– demonstrated in her thrift store ethnography this last semester, even in the same town, at the same chain there are clear distinctions between the different locations that imagine distinct consumers and needs. At the Salvation Army closest to campus, there is an “ugly sweater” rack for all the students purchasing these as novelties for themed parties. Similar sweaters are not separated at the store that serves the non-students, and that is located in the same building that provides other services to low-income or homeless persons. And because bodies and clothes interact and activate certain ideas about each the other, the same sweater on a college student going to a themed party is funny because it is outdated, and on a young fashion blogger pairing it with leggings is innovative because it is renewed, and on an older woman imagined as its appropriate owner the sweater will be “just” unfashionable because (supposedly) so is its wearer.

Sorting Out Our Wardrobes

Mimi: Okay, I want to segue into talking about your shopping for a bit here. When we hung out with the amazingly lovely Joony Schecter, you mentioned that you love the frenzy of the sample sale (in contrast to the frenzy of a thrift store). To me it sounds like a nightmare! All the yelling from Thuy Linh! And I feel like I would be the hapless fit model slash load-bearing boyfriend for you both in this scenario. (Don’t deny it, Minh-Ha!) I’m too thrifty to want to spend even that much at a discount, or maybe because I think about how I could buy ten different dresses for the price of one. As a general rule, spending more than a hundred dollars on one garment still freaks me out. Though I gladly did it for the puffy coat I’m now forced to wear in Midwestern winters, and I’m learning that warm winter boots are going to cost me.

But this is also about how I get dressed in the morning, because sometimes I want to become a 1958 Girl Scout summer camp arts and crafts teacher, or a 1976 Lower East Side dissolute rock n’ roller, or a 1983 Midwestern professional lady newscaster. And sometimes my sartorial moods are cinematic or televisual, and I want to capture a particular character or production’s sensibility: Nicki in Time Square, Diana Prince in second or third season Wonder Woman, Billie Jean in The Legend of Billie Jean. The more options I have for putting these personas and their accompanying narratives together the better! This potential is just one part of the appeal of secondhand clothes for me. Another related part is my punk past, populated with awesome and creative persons who were unafraid to play with their clothes to create a mood or a confrontation. And on a purely sensual level I love certain patterns and textures that I can’t otherwise find (like ’50s abstract expressionism on a full skirt) or couldn’t otherwise afford (what with all the so-called legit designers liberally plundering those archives themselves). Therefore, my grass-green scratchy burlap shift dress with the kelly-green piping and rolled neckline, which seems so genius to me.

The dress I love (with pockets at the lower upside down “v”), clashing with a thrifted print in my office-closet — which is painted the green in the print.

So how do you understand your own preferences — shopping-wise, and in terms of how you get dressed in the morning? Is there a politics to the sample sale, the sample as both limited supply but also surplus?

Minh-Ha: Yes! Thrift stores often, but not always, feel like a labyrinth of hyper and multi-sensory hodgepodge to me. You mentioned once that you thought my unease in thrift stores had to do with the various prints and textures — and I think you’re probably right. Whether I’m shopping online (more and more these days) or in a brick-and-mortar shop, my eye is always drawn to solid blacks, grays, and what I’d describe as steel blue or bluish gray. Just thinking about that color – such a perfect color! I mostly wear dresses because they’re all-in-one — this is the same reason I’ve grown to love jumpsuits and rompers. And dresses with some architectural detail are my soft spot. I have a black Alexander Wang dress that I got at a sample sale with Thuy (who else?) that has futuristic shoulders and has a “poof” between the shoulder blades. Interesting and complicated pleats are also a favorite for me. While I don’t dress in “personas,” like you do, my style isn’t quite utilitarian either. There’s a 3.1 Phillip Lim dress I bought from LaGarconne.com that’s only good for standing (the website makes me feel as warm and fuzzy as the Phillip Lim store on Mercer in NYC). The tulip-shaped skirt on this dress is so narrow that when I walk, I’m “doing the geisha” — so NOT my stylo! That’s not to say I don’t wear the dress – but when I do, I’m pre-scheduling the pace of my life that day. So rather than channeling any persona, I’m making decisions about how I want to move through my day and what kind of attitude I want to project. Harder or not so hard. (I don’t do “soft” — which I associate with pastels.) And it’s all probably too subtle for anyone to notice — I mean, my color palette is really focused at this point. But it’s all in the details, baby!

I want to just say a little something about price tolerance – and I think this connects to a couple of different points we’ve already raised about the overlapping spheres of fashion and the politics of sample sales. I don’t know anyone who is completely faithful to any single mode of shopping. I love the rush and sociality of sample sales (strangers being each other’s eyes when there’s only one full-length mirror; snagging the only dress in your size, having a dress that may never see the light of retail, etc.) so if I HAD to choose only one mode of consumption, it would probably be sample sale shopping. Still, there are things that I’d prefer to buy at mass market/cheap chic sites (the classist dimension of “fast fashion” puts me off that term). Tops and jeans, for example! Why I’m psychologically incapable of spending more than $40 on a top is something I’m still working out. And who needs to spend $150 on denim when Uniqlo carries great denim for $30 ($19 on sale!).

On the politics of sample sales – god, this should be it’s own post! To start, though, the term is becoming an increasingly elastic one for retailers. “Sample sale” can mean a pop-up sale that a designer has to gauge the interest in particular designs before they’re released to mass retailers. For instance, I remember going to the Nieves Lavi sample sale a couple of years ago. It was held for one night in the designer’s girlfriend’s apartment in Chelsea. The designer and his partner were there too. These are the kinds of sample sales I prefer. The stock is limited – sometimes only 1 or 2 items in any size are available – but it’s edited, intimate, and manageable unlike corporate multi-designer sample sales like Billion Dollar Babes or the Barney’s Warehouse Sale which seems to be more about discarding excess product, is scheduled a couple of times every year, is open to industry insiders (or those willing to pay a cover charge) for the first 1 or 2 days, and is something like a mosh pit of frantic shoppers and anxious sales staff. The pop-up ephemeral scheduling (and online sample sales like Gilt use this model too) certainly capitalize on consumers’ desire for distinction — but I would argue that this form of distinction isn’t only about class pretensions but also about the social capital of insider knowledge, informed consumption, and sometimes just the luck of being in the right place at the right time. That said, sample sales also commodify ephemerality. And this connects up to our earlier conversation about the politics and disciplinary function of fashion’s temporalities. There’s so much more to say than this! Your question’s inspired me though – I think this could be another chapter in my book!

Mimi: Lady, don’t front! I know about your exception for florals! And I see now that you hate separates, and it’s absolutely true that when I think of your well-edited wardrobe, I remember best your dresses and one-pieces and no tops (except for that one sweater you also bought at Forever 21 after you saw me in it). Also, I just want you to know that the 3.1 Philip Lim dress I bought for your wedding hobbles me too! (And I confess that it deeply freaked me out to drop several hundred dollars on that dress; I kept thinking about all the things I could buy with that cash.)

My shopping has changed since I moved to my isolated college town, which has terrible thrift so I could not be faithful even if I wanted to. Previously, I was almost entirely wardrobed for the Midwest –and for professorial labor– by thrift stores in Western Michigan. But since living here I started shopping on-line, which fueled a brief frenzy for buying denim — specifically, high-waisted and wide-legged denim from Dittos and 18th Amendment. I attribute this to our screening of the 2001 refugee camp melodrama Green Dragon, Minh-Ha, and my sudden seizure with the sartorial sensibility of what we dubbed “teenage refugee mom.” I thought of it as a semi-playful pursuit of a different stance toward my personal history. Our personal histories! So perhaps we could end this installment with some thoughts about how refugeeness might inform our sartorial sensibilities.


Two floor-length dresses and a button-down top:
literally all the florals in Minh-Ha’s closet.

The black dress is from the Nieves Lavi sample sale.

Refugee Sensibilities

Minh-Ha: I have a lot of your tops or tops that I got after seeing you in them because I’m no good at shopping for them! I can’t “see” tops. I can’t imagine how they look on me. Pants, I get. Dresses, I get. Tops, not so much . . . But I can’t believe you outed me on the florals!! Is NOTHING sacred? Ok, so the thing about florals (and by the way, we’re talking about big splashy hi-res almost graphic florals, not calico) is that I really do love them but it’s a complex and nuanced love! I don’t actually wear them (much) . . . they mostly make my closet (and bed) happy . . .

As for the role of our refugee past on our sartorial and consumption practices . . . some context: Mimi and I were both born in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, during the war. We left Viet Nam after Sai Gon’s collapse in 1975 and we both lived the first part of our American lives in Camp Pendleton, a refugee camp near San Diego, California. We were there at the same time! We like to think that we crossed paths but in Mimi’s version of events, I’m always stealing her broken but cherished toy or something because I’m a year older and I was a big refugee baby. So, really, our friendship was destined!

It’s interesting to me that our experience as refugees has produced different effects with regard to our consumer practices. We obviously had very little disposable money growing up – it’s the reason a lot of my clothes were homemade – shopping trips to the flea market (what we called the” swap meet”), buying furniture by collecting green stamps (this was a fun game to me), and window-shopping comprised the bulk of my consumption history. I also remember having to endure a lot of delayed or more often denied sartorial gratification. My mom loved clothes, shoes, and handbags. She still does today but her intensity was even greater back then. And she always took me on shopping trips with her – not so much my sister but always me. But my mom could be satisfied with just looking and appreciating. This was an intolerable and infuriating character quality to me – even as a young child.

One of my favorite books growing up was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There’s a scene in that book when the young Francie Nolan, who comes from a working class Irish family, pours her coffee down the sink. She said it made her feel extravagant to be able to waste. This is a wonderful example of Sau-ling Wong‘s observation that Extravagance and Necessity are “contrasting positions on a continuum rather than mutually exclusive categories” — I also never finish a meal or a drink, always leaving something on my plate or in my cup. This was entirely an unconscious act for me until my dad pointed it out. He thinks I inherited that desire for lavishness from my northern Vietnamese side (my mom’s side). Anyway, I don’t remember when, but I’m sure there was a moment maybe after college that I made a conscious decision that I would not deny myself clothes that I really loved – that I permitted myself to embrace extravagance. But this extravagance is circumscribed for me too – like I said, I’m thrifty about a lot of things. Tops, jeans, personal technology, car accessories – and a lot of my big purchases (big for me): Phillip Lim dresses, Alexander McQueen tuxedo jumpsuit, Frye boots, and my Fiorentini and Baker oxfords were all bought at sample sales or at sample sale prices.

Mimi: As a refugee, secondhand clothing has been a part of my life since arrival! So perhaps I have a perverse attachment to it. From the donations distributed at the refugee camps and through the religious charities that later sponsored my family to our first home in cold, cold Minnesota, and still later from local church sales, almost everything I wore as a child was used, discarded or, alternately, made by my mother. Some of my most vivid childhood sense-memories are defined by this secondhand: burying my arms up to my elbows in a giant pile of clothes in the basement of a church, for instance. And I remember deciding (in an inarticulate fashion) that being poor and being different would not be sources of shame. If my clothes were odd –because they were ill-fitting, outdated, used– I would become more odd to match these clothes. This wasn’t that hard, frankly. I was a weird kid! I clashed colors and patterns, I dressed “like a boy.” So I drifted toward clothes as a form of confrontation early. I loved punks before I ever thought that I could become one too — that they were always the “bad guys” on television (CHiPS, Quincy, Hunter, all had episodes with punks as the villains of the week) was part of the attraction for me.

We seem to have covered the bases, and it’s clear we’re very different shoppers with very different aesthetics –the photos tell all– and still great friends! And that’s quite enough from the both of us!


Some of the gladiators, military boots, oxfords, stacked heels, wedges,
peep-toe ankle boots, and mid-top sneakers that is Minh-Ha’s shoe
collection


At Minh-Ha’s wedding, in Double (Phillip Lim) Happiness!

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LINKAGE/VINTAGE: Thunderhorse Vintage

I’m leaving town in a couple days, so the series of posts on politics of vintage continues here with an excerpt from an interview with Sacramento’s Thunderhorse Vintage co-owners and twin sisters Marilyn and Jen Ayres, published in the UC Davis Women’s Resources and Research Center newsletter in May 2009 (read the full interview here). Jen began her graduate work in Textiles at Cornell University this fall with an eye toward theorizing thrifting via feminist cultural studies. Awesome!

Kohgadai (UC Davis Women’s Resources and Research Center): What were your majors and minors?
Jen: We transferred as design majors, before we really knew that we were feminists or into critical cultural studies, and attempted to take design classes and it was a shock. There was complete aesthetics divorced from theory, from accountability, any kind of critical analysis. That’s when we got out the registrar of classes and decided to do Women/Feminist Cultural studies 103, not realizing that at UC Davis you really have to take Women’s Studies 50 before getting into 103. So, it was very challenging. It was very challenging, very stressful but very mentally stimulating. It was this crazy, rigorous world that we hadn’t been exposed to.

Kohgadai:
How has your experience with your education influenced your shop and what you stand for?
Mar: The disconnection between ideology and the production of images of art and design were completely antithetical to what we were about. So we went completely a different route. We decided to make ethical decisions, to know where things come from, and understand the meaning and, importantly: acknowledge where things came from — something so basic and simple. Being disingenuous, appropriating, and making a buck off of other people’s artwork, that’s what we didn’t want to do. That’s just the easy way out, that’s not critical thinking, that’s not special.
Jen: The Women and Gender Studies Program really helped us become who we are, and helped us open and run the shop because it has those ties to intersectional feminist ethical principles that let us remain true to who we are and do business— without compromising, without exploiting. And it’s crazy because shopping today is all about what maquilladora your handbag came from in accordance with what’s in fashion at this very instant. And I think what we’re doing is complete in the opposite direction of that.

Kohgadai:
I noticed someone brought over clothes, do you do trade-ins?
Jen: We emphasize to our friends: Please, we really want to circulate goods, to trade and swap things between us. If you want something that’s in here, please bring us some of your cute clothes because we like seeing goods go, and go to our friends. The thing about a good transaction is that it’s fair on both sides.
Mar:
Because there’s a lot of places you could go, and you won’t be paid a fair amount.

Kohgadai:
How did you first get interested in vintage clothing?
Mar: We just love thrift shopping. When we were little, the first thing we would do when our parents would take us to a new town, was look up the thrift stores and just go there. We love seeing unique art, unique design from previous periods of time. Cultural oddities that were no longer valued because they were no longer “in vogue,” or whatever. Having the discarded stuff, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Suspenders, the stuff that no body else thought was awesome, and kind of reclaiming that. Now, its just coincidence that vintage is very much at the height of being in fashionable.

Kohgadai:
Did you always want to become clothing shop owners?
Jen: To us this wasn’t a business decision. Getting to share our clothes with people that we love and cherish and having them wear it is the most enjoyable art.
Mar:
The whole idea of idea of collecting and accumulating crap, this whole American notion of getting as much material goods and just hoarding it, what happens with that is it just sits there unappreciated and unloved. It’s just something you go to once a couple months when you go through your attic.
Jen:
We want to have amazing stuff that the right person will come in and pick up. We want to be accessible. We don’t want a museum that you can’t touch, and engage with and love. (Like high priced vintage stores). We want to be able to display it, and have that right person come in and have something click for them. To us, clothing is a huge part of how you express your personality and its kind of an unrecognized art form.

Kohgadai:
Where did you two accumulate your clothing?
Mar: We’ve been collecting since we were 14 (laugh). Jen was always very good at getting things from thrift stores, but what did she do with them? There wasn’t anything you could with it.
Jen: It started out as a tie to my friends. I’m like “Oh, so and so will love it, and I’ll just hold on to it for her. Because I know she won’t be here at this thrift store, on this day to pick it up. And it’d be perfect for her.” I’m a giver. That’s how I express my love, I burden people with lots of crap (laugh). That’s how it started out. Having an eye with other people in mind.

Kohgadai:
Do you two share a wardrobe?
Jen: NO. We’re identical twins so we have insane identity issues. For the longest time we had big hurdles to overcome about clothing because the way we perform our identity is through clothing. The way we perform a lot of things is through clothing: Gender, identity, sexuality, class, all these things. For our personal identity, when we are already genetic clones of each other, hell no we’re not going to be okay with sharing, because those are our individual signifiers. Then people might confuse one of us for the other, which would be crazy because we are *SO different (*sarcasm). I have been the one most afflicted with these insecurities, however. Mar has always been confident in her identity-in-relation-to-me.

Kohgadai:
Did you always want to be clothing shop owners?
Mar: It sounds cliché to say we were inspired by Buffalo Exchange, but, we were really inspired by Buffalo Exchange on Height Street. When we went there as teenagers, it was like this crazy, eccentric collection of one-of-a-kind stuff. Vintage stuff, new stuff, but it was all crazy and unique. There was weird old stuff old punk and metal shirts from the 80’s and it was all very affordable. And we thought this is exactly what we want to do: to have a shop of weird stuff you can’t get anywhere else.

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On The Politics of Vintage, Starting With a Series of Thoughtful Epigraphs Before I Begin My Own Ruminations on The Topic

The following paragraphs are excerpts, authored by others, which might offer us (a collective us) an initial entry point into weighing the politics of vintage. The first comes to us from Catherine and her blog Renegade Bean, from a post called “Surrogate Memories From A Time Long Ago:”

I recently discovered a couple shops here in Taipei that sell vintage found photos. This topic really deserves a longer blog entry (and hopefully I’ll have time to write one soon), but I find it very moving to see people who look like me doing normal things in time periods that I enjoy from a historical and aesthetic standpoint.

It’s a rare thing. For example, I only recall Asian Americans being featured three times on as many seasons of “Mad Men”: the “Oriental family” in Pete’s office when he returned from his honeymoon, the waitress in a tight qipao and the (off-screen) Chinese driver that made Sally giggle. The series is one of my favorite TV shows, but it also reminds me that Asian Americans were marginalized (or worse) during the era it depicts. And, of course, depictions of Asians and Asian Americans in actual vintage US films are also problematic, to say the least.

I often find myself feeling very conflicted about my interest in vintage style. How can I enjoy things from an era when Asian Americans were repressed, socially and legally (as with the Japanese internment camps and the Chinese Exclusion Act), and when many Asian countries suffered sociopolitical violence that traumatized millions of people, including members of my family? But secondhand and vintage items have had an emotional resonance for me since I was very young and, though it’s hard to explain, I can’t imagine my life without them. This is more than a hobby for me — it’s part of my identity.

____________________
These questions and comments come from Gertie’s New Blog For Better Vintage Sewing, on “Vintage Sewing and Gender Politics:”
I am a modern feminist gal who likes fashions from the fifties, a time period which [...] is not exactly known for being woman-friendly. How do I reconcile these contradictions?

Well, thinking this over brought up more questions than answers for me. For example:

  • Is wearing a fashion from an oppressive time period indeed a symbol of that oppression?
  • Is there such a thing as “reclaiming” these fashions so that they are symbols of power rather than domination?
  • Should we only make patterns from the eras that were the least oppressive to women?
  • If wiggle skirts and the like are offensive to those with feminist sensibilities, what is the alternative? I mean, what could we possibly wear that would establish us as feminists to those who view us?
  • Are 50’s wiggle skirts really that different from modern pencil skirts?
  • What about current fashions that are restrictive? Stilettos, Spanx, etc? Skinny jeans? Are these symbols of oppression towards women?

So, to try to answer these questions, I thought about my relationship with vintage patterns. First of all, I like to sew 50’s fashions so that I can make them wearable for me, in 2009. I shorten hemlines so they’re more practical and modern. I make the waists wider so that they don’t have to be worn with a girdle. I lower the bust darts so an unpadded bra can be worn. I mix current ready-to-wear blouses and shoes with vintage-style skirts. In other words, I don’t dress as though I’m wearing a happy housewife costume. I think to most people, I look like a woman who is inspired by vintage fashion, but does not feel the need to look like Dita Von Teese or Betty Draper every day.

But why do I like these looks? I hope it’s not some sort of self-loathing that makes me want to wear a symbol of women’s oppression. I simply prefer the silhouette of vintage fashions as opposed to the current styles offered by pattern companies. I think the design is better and the lines are more flattering. If you want to oppress me, try to make me wear a pair of skinny jeans!

I should also note that I like vintage patterns because I’m interested in the historical and archival aspect of it. I think that sewing my way through Vogue’s New Book for Better Sewing is connecting me to women of the past. Doing this project, and researching the evolution of home sewing (women’s work, no doubt), is a way for me to honor the lives of women past (however painful) rather than pretending they didn’t exist.

____________________

Footpath Zeitgeist is a rigorously critical fashion blog with a particular focus on hipsters and the phenomenon of what Mel calls stylism, “the belief that having a coherent and identifiable ‘personal style’ is the yardstick of chic.” Mel doesn’t hold back here as she deconstructs vintage as a practice of individuation and as a category of specialized consumption:

But within mainstream fashion systems, “vintage” styles are re-worked and brought back in a way that highlights their retro-styling and general ‘old-schoolness'; according to this logic, there’s no point wearing second-hand clothing if it could pass for something you bought new. (There are “designer recycle boutiques” that do specialise in second-hand clothing that looks new, but they tend to privilege ‘designer labels’ and ‘pristine condition’ rather than an overtly anachronistic look.) And ‘vintage’ transmutes the rituals and skills of personalisation that surround clothing in the second-hand fashion system into a hazier idea of “personal creativity.” This happens both in the retail environment and in fashion journalism.

We all know that “vintage” is a much-abused term because it enables shops to ask large amounts of money for garments that are simply pre-worn – or even merely retro-styled. Owners of “vintage stores” openly buy up bulk clothing from flea markets, op-shops, garage sales and estate sales, carefully curating them and then marking the prices up vastly. These are the people who rock up at your Camberwell Market stall at 7am and go through your car boot with a torch before you’ve even unpacked. You’ll also see them at Savers with shopping trolleys piled high.

This is starting to happen in high-street retailers too as they realise the market for ‘vintage’. For instance, Sportsgirl is currently selling second-hand cowboy boots for something like $150, but rather than the motley collection of items you fossick through at a second-hand store, they’ve been carefully picked to look similar. What’s more, they’re displayed alongside a rack of dresses that are marked “vintage” but, similarly, have a look of extreme curatorship in order to make them ‘match’ both each other and the new goods elsewhere in the store.

It’s easy to scorn people as dumb bunnies for buying their clothes this way, but while it’s definitely a move away from the skill set that’s required to fossick through heaps of old clothes and choose the right garments (the vintage clothing dealer has done all the hard sifting for you), there is still a certain feeling of pride and creativity that comes from saying, “It’s vintage” when someone asks you where you got something. Here, “vintage” means, “I’m too individual to settle for mass-produced new clothes”, even though the ‘vintage’ garment was almost certainly worn on a mass scale whenever it was new. More subtly, it also means, “I’m sophisticated enough to redeploy the styles of the past, not just wear whatever’s new” and of course, “No, you cannot buy this item yourself, it’s all mine.”

I guess for me the question right now is: “How do we make clothing our own?”

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In Vintage Color

There is a lot to appreciate about Fashion for Writers‘s Meggy Wang, like her recent conversation with her new collaborator Jenny Z on “overdressing.” But one of the things I appreciate the most is how her outfit posts might be alternately imagined as a series of “found” photographs of some glamorous mid-century Asian American starlet, scholar, or secretary — figures of both ordinary and extraordinary womanhood. Elegantly coiffed and impeccably dressed, Meggy poses most often in the familiar fashions of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, but with a significant difference.

As an archival imaginary, the sartorial or style category of vintage is often whitewashed in the more accessible forms of visual culture that comprise so much of its popular inspiration, e.g., fashion illustrations, film stars, advertising photographs. Of these we might ask, What are the conditions of possibility that render a subject fashionable, or an object (like a photograph of that fashionable subject) collect-able? What material exchanges structures the economies of image making and image archiving, that allow some images to first become visible through what social powers, and second accumulate value or worth as a fragment that stands in for a history –of a dress, of an aesthetic– and permits others to fade from view? Whose stories are told, whose memories preserved?

Meggy’s photographs permit us to see what we have not been allowed to see. To me, it feels like Meggy renders visible the historical absence of Asians and Asian Americans in American popular culture as fashionable bodies –and through fashion as contemporaneous bodies– and also “corrects” this absence in referencing those bodies we know also lived then and there, and in doing so creating another archive through which we might imagine otherwise.

That’s also why I can’t stop looking at the new style blog b. vikki vintage by Rebecca Victoria O’Neal, “a 22-year-old, African-American young woman from Chicago with gigantic curly hair, and an affinity for books, knitting, and antique malls.” (Thanks, Black Nerds Network!) Featuring a librarian’s thorough excavation of the sights and sounds of black style, b. vikki is a wonderful archive for reimagining mid-century fashion design in color:

This blog features advertising campaigns and fashion editorials from Black/African-American publications, video clips and found photographs featuring people of color from the 1950s-1960s….

I’ve loved vintage fashion for some time (and traditional jazz and pop standards, old movies, Doris Day, et al), and did lots of research before deciding to open a vintage etsy shop and start this blog, because I wanted to do it right. Something I noticed during my research, something that helped me to cement my decision, was the lack of women of color in the online vintage community.

She’s right about this absence and, like Meggy (if differently), hopes to fill in the blanks.




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