Friday, October 15, 2010

on vintage clothing

Vintage clothing and accessories have been a part of my life since I was in grade school when my grandmother began giving me her old costume jewelry. To my great joy, it was possible to begin collecting and enjoying some fabulous vintage pieces even when my only source of money was babysitting at fifty cents an hour.

Once I was an adult and could get around in the outside world more easily, it would be a rare afternoon of flea marketing or thrift-shopping when I wouldn't come home, happy and excited, with bags stuffed full of vintage pieces for my fledgling collection.

Yes, vintage clothing has always beckoned me, and I didn't hesitate to wear interesting pieces in high school and beyond. But now that I'm not in my twenties, model-skinny, or still working in a hip and busy nail salon (my job for many years), my approach to wearing it is necessarily different.

Although vintage items are a bit harder to dig up in increasingly knowledgable thrift stores these days, thrifting is still a great way of turning time, taste, and expertise into a growing collection that affords great pleasure and (usually) increasing monetary value. I never grow tired of it.

I'm emphasizing the thrift angle because of its affordability, but when you're looking for something specific, or if your free time is at a premium, it makes sense to pay a bit more and acquire vintage pieces from reputable vendors instead of scrounging on your own. The thrift shop adventure isn't for everyone.

If you have an eye for beauty and a feel for history, collecting vintage can be a joy, even if many of your pieces, for whatever reason, might end up being worn only rarely. Vintage items can be displayed, taken out and played with, and used in photographs; they're inspiring and great conversation pieces. I have boxes of black vintage cocktail hats that I never intend to wear, but they make compelling display pieces in my rotating exhibits. Some vintage pieces feature amazing trims, finishes, and techniques that I've shared with others in classroom settings.

But what about really wearing these unique treasures? Wearing head-to-toe obviously vintage pieces is usually a mistake; instead of giving a hip and arty appearance, it makes you seem like a walking anachronism, a crazy lady stepping out of a time machine. This is even more true when you're Of A Certain Age ("Yikes. Doesn't she realize it's not [insert year here] anymore?")

Fashionistas can add a depth to their personal style by the judicious use of vintage pieces, but frankly, wearing anything more than a few accessories requires a decent eye and truly knowing what you're doing. Working vintage into your look takes a certain confidence to pull off, and it's not an effortless way to dress.

Young people can get away with more in this regard. They generally look fresher, and the old-ness of the pieces looks deliberate; they can pull off the cherry red lips and the crazy hats. In general, if you appear old enough to have worn a given period's style in your youth, you should be extremely careful about strongly referencing that time period... or anything predating it, for that matter, but especially the look of one's heyday.

My approach to wearing vintage pieces is to make sure that the basics of my ensemble indicate an awareness of current trends, sufficient to not put me in the highly eccentric Madame Bijoux or Miss Haversham category. For every piece of conspicuous vintage, a person would do well to sport three or four current-looking pieces. If I'm dying to wear a pair of Fifties shoes or waterfall necklace, I make sure my pants and shoes are ultra-current. Wearing contemporary hair and makeup is a very important element. The idea is to look as though you are referencing a period, not stuck there or reliving it. A twenty year-old can look amazing in swinging Sixties makeup, but someone my age probably shouldn't go there.

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Overall I've had rather poor luck involving myself in the large demi-monde of commerce and commentary that's evolved around vintage clothing, so I generally go it alone. There are hundreds of blogs and sites and stores dedicated to vintage clothing, and some of them are truly marvelous. Part of me wishes I could make friends in that world and take some ongoing enjoyment in all that. But beyond reading an article here and there, I generally don't involve myself with vintage clothing people, and it's a conscious choice.

Vintage clothing is a very contentious and argumentative field because, frankly, so many people don't know what they're doing. This translates into trouble I could do without. It's hard not to become upset when vendors assert that a piece is "definitely 1940s" when I know for a fact that it's from 1956 and have ample documentation to prove it. This may sound boastful, for which I apologize, but I have a near-photographic memory for fashion across my own lifetime, often down to the exact year, and I'm a pretty careful student of fashion periods predating my first-hand experience. Fighting such battles in the name of historical accuracy is a temptation, something that could easily eat up my life, so I force myself to walk away.

Most mistakes in the dating and provenance of vintage pieces are honest ones, but there's some fudging going on too. When a vendor wants as much of their merchandise as possible to seem from the Forties because of current demand for that period... well, you can imagine how that makes a history of fashion person absolutely bristle.

When the venue is something like Etsy I can understand that those sellers don't necessarily have true expertise, and I take such selling efforts with a grain or two of salt. If ever there was a "buyer beware" situation, that's it. The positives of this venue are numerous; in light of this, most people intuitively accept the overall wobbly reliability. But when large and well-known vintage clothing vendors are careless in their dating, turn a deaf ear and blind eye... well, I'd love to go on a campaign, but it's really best that I save my time, energy, and sanity and let it go.

Vintage clothing is somewhat on my mind lately, and is topic I'll enjoy revisiting here.

Admittedly this was a broad and rambling discourse, but a harmless introduction to the subject. Next I'll probably talk about the kinds of pieces I collect, and why.

In the meantime, in the rich world of vintage clothing: Be a careful seeker and purveyor of information; assert only what you genuinely believe to be true, and; buy only what you love.

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