Tag 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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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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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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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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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, ON BEAUTY, VINTAGE POLITICS