the internet is abuzz about discussions about vintage clothing these past few months; with the popularity of mad men, the increasing accessibility of buying vintage with websites like etsy and ebay, topped off with more and more fashion bloggers wearing and sharing their vintage duds, it was only a matter of time before interesting theoretical questions about the intersectionality of feminism and vintage clothing were posited.
threadbared seems to have struck a nerve in the feminist community by posting some excerpts from other like-minded blogs in a post entitled "On the Politics of Vintage, Starting with a Series of Thoughtful Epigraphs Before I Begin My Own Ruminations on the Topic." shared on the popular jezebel blog, people have been pondering the questions blogger Gertie Lang raises, namely her question: "Is wearing a fashion from an oppressive time period indeed a symbol of that oppression?"
when reading the comments on the jezebel post and in the fatshionista community, i have been quite surprised by the number of dismissive responses in regards to the political potential of feminists wearing vintage clothing. the overwhelming response seems to be summed by by a comment made here by cruelladivine: "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." to my surprise, no one has expressed any sort of disagreement with this commentor, but in fact it really bothers me. i'm not denying that a lot of people who wear vintage clothing do so for many different reasons, but this does not speak to my experience with vintage whatsoever. so i thought i'd talk a bit about that, about how a dress has never really just been a dress to me.
part of my empowerment through fashion and clothing has been largely due to my discovery of vintage clothing. i'd never felt at home in new clothing, never felt like it truly expressed what i wanted to and like most young teenage girls, spent a lot of time and wasted a lot of money trying to figure out what i liked to wear and what i wanted to look like. when i started foraging through the local thrift stores with friends at around fifteen, i finally felt at home in my clothes. i started living in old man's pants, ratty wool cardigans and little kids t-shirts, much to my mother's dismay.
in trenton, ontario at age 16. the patches on my jeans were how i first learned to sew.
the class dynamics operating here are interesting; my friend zach would borrow his parent's van, we'd all chip in for gas money and head down the 401 to belleville to go to a few thrift stores there, since there were slim pickings in our small towns. when most of the other kids our age were going to the mall, the only reason we ever stopped there was to use the photobooth. we would end up across the street, at the goodwill, and forage through the racks to find the most hilarious things possible; obscure 1970s union t-shirts, old vaccuum cleaners, 1960s mod coats, and of course, ridiculous books. living in small towns, it was mostly what we did for fun. instead of dropping 10 bucks on a movie, we'd spend hours in a thrift store, laughing our asses off at things that didn't fit right, things that didn't seem like they should even exist, books with titles like "real men don't each quiche" and buttons of 1970s rock stars. inside jokes would emerge around the clothes we'd come home with, the books we'd never actually read from cover to cover, the argyle socks and ill-fitting plaid pants.
trying on absurd things in the now defunct goodwill store in belleville, ontario
please note that the book in my friend's hand is entitled "real women don't pump gas." i gave it to a women's studies professor a few years later.
it was a truly empowering experience for someone like me whose fashion choices had always been limited by how much money i had in the bank. now, i was finding amazing dresses you couldn't find anywhere else for a mere 5 dollars, as opposed to the beautiful new dresses in the stores in the mall across the street i wanted which cost nearly a hundred. (this is not even addressing on the fact that most of my vintage clothes are either handmade or have union labels on them, as opposed to the questionable "made in thailand" labels on the new clothing in the mall.) i could play dressup. i could buy something for a dollar, and if i didn't wear it, i had only wasted one dollar as opposed to 20, or 30, or 40. one must note that vintage clothing was not nearly as mainstream at the beginning of this decade as it is today; there were much fewer fashion blogs, and most vintage clothing was relegated to being tucked away treasures in thrift stores or expensive in vintage and antique stores, as Footpath Zeitgeist points out. i didn't really have a lot of access to compare myself with others, aside from a few zines which rarely had pictures of what other people wore. i wore vintage because it was used, cheap, and made me feel at home.
okay, so maybe calling too-small kids shirts from the 80s as vintage is not everyone's idea of "vintage," but it was my reality and my introduction. today i feel more at home in dresses and vintage coats, and can tell you how to tell apart a reproduction from a vintage piece, how you can tell which era the garment is from, etc. i still don't like to pay very much for clothing. actually, it's not a matter of "liking" to, it's a matter of not being able to. and it's also something i really love about vintage; i can fool people into thinking i'm someone i'm not, and shock them in certain ways. more on this later...
in my parent's backyard, summer 2004.
the classic value village changeroom photo that has been taken a million times, belleville 2004
so when it comes down to it, i wear vintage because it found me. since it found me eight or so years ago, i've thought about it a lot. which is potentially why i feel the need to chime into the conversation here...
in response to the question of the "oppressive" nature of these clothes, i am interested in why so many people are reacting in a defensive way, saying that a dress is just a dress, not a thesis. if you take a look in my closet or on my flickr when i did wardrobe_remix, you'll see that i own about 70% vintage, 30% new, with a good chunk of the new clothing being second-hand. part of the reason i was drawn to vintage was because it WASN'T something that was shoved down my throat, and felt like a different kind of consumption. because it felt like i wasn't just buying a dress, i was buying the history behind it. the more i learned about vintage clothing (largely through lj communities like thritfwhore, vintagelook and vintagehair, as well as through the sweet old women who would stop me in the street and tell me stories) the more intrigued i was by the political potential that could be unlocked in these garments. fooling people into thinking i went to school for fashion, or could afford to buy the latest magazine and change my closet with the trends and the seasons was fun for a while, and still is sometimes. accumulating my own knowledge with the aid of the internet and of strangers in thrift shops was very empowering and continues to fill me with passion today.
but that's just a small part of my own relationship to vintage; everyone has their own reasons and ways of wearing vintage, and i wouldn't call myself a purist by any means, but i am surprised at the tone a lot of these comments in these online discussions. 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." i usually just laugh and tell them they're completely missing the point, but it is not surprising.
self-portrait in ste. marie de beauce, québec in july 2007. note clara bow above my bed.
especially among my femme friends, high-femme 50s fashion can be incredible fun to engage with and make our own. it is empowering to share new dresses we found with one another, talk about what an amazing deal we got on them, and how badass we feel pairing a pair of doc marten boots with a frilly crinoline 1950s dress. while other people might feel like a vintage dress is worth less because of stains or tears, i love wondering what kind of wine was spilled, in what circumstances that button fell off (or was torn off?), and being a part of that garment's history myself. part of the reasons i am raising these questions is because this was NOT why i started wearing vintage clothes in the first place, but it is something i have come to love about it through the years.
as i mentioned above, clothing, vintage or otherwise, is wrapped up in a whole number of questions that many of the people discussing these issues are raising: where was it made, who made it, who is it marketed to, how much is it sold for, where is it sold, and the cultural implications of that particular style of garment. there are so many questions we could unpack about clothes, which is namely why i started this blog, and it is really exciting to see them being taken up in such a variety of ways. i'm excited that this post's title ends with "...before i begin my own ruminations on the topic." i'm really looking forward to more discussions on this topic and hope we can move away from a personal defensiveness to a more collective sharing of knowledge, instead. the original threadbared post ends with the question, "how do we make clothing our own?" and i think that this very important question has unfortunately been overshadowed. let's talk about that next!