on vintage

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N°2 Winter 10 , Anja Cronberg

The word "vintage" is so much used daily by the fashion industry that it is hard to believe that it refers to the past. Here is a ten-point look back at the word and the thing.

1 According to historian Raphael Samuel, revivalism can be traced back to fifteenth century Italy, a mere two centuries after fashion as we know it is said to have begun, when classical antiquity was rediscovered and subsequently came to inspire culture in all its forms.

2 Vintage clothing has always been popular with those who consider themselves to be on the margins of society. The Bloomsbury Group in London wore antique clothing in the early 20th Century in order to signal their otherness, and subcultural groups like the mods, punks, New Romantics and grungers have since the 1960’s worn second-hand clothes to, much in the same way, set themselves apart from the mainstream.

3 In 1966 the San Francisco collective the Diggers opened Trip Without a Ticket, the first of their Free Stores. These stores dealt in second-hand goods that had been donated by the public, and everything was absolutely free for the taking. The Free Stores were funded by local traders who donated one percent of their revenue to the Free City Bank, and they operated as a strictly non-profit venture. Although the Diggers disintegrated already in 1968 their legacy still resonates with us today through some of the legendary phrases that they coined; amongst them ‘Do Your Own Thing’ and ‘Today Is The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life’.

4 British Vogue was one of the first magazines to feature “antique” clothing on their pages. In 1968 a young Anjelica Huston appeared in a reportage with her mother, wearing, according to the caption, a “thirties dress from the Antique Supermarket”, but it was to be another two years before the magazine included second-hand garments in their fashion shoots.

5 In our contemporary culture where everyone is a rebel, no-one is ordinary, and nobody wants to be a face in the crowd vintage clothes can arguably act as a materialised cultural ‘shortcut’ to shared values, a shorthand for individuality and authenticity, making the authentic archetype we strive for today mirrored in the authenticity available for consumption through vintage clothing.

6 Around 2005 second-hand clothing had become so mainstream that it started popping up even in high street stores, and all from H&M to TopShop put up designated corners where selected garments, labeled “vintage”, were displayed in an appealing manner.

7 In the same way prêt-a-porter designers have cottoned on to the fact that consumers are weak for nostalgia, even if it is for something they never partook in, in the first place. Maison Martin Margiela produce “Replica” garments since 2005, labeled with their origin and period, and Balenciaga have since a few years back been reproducing old favourites as “new vintage”.

8 Perhaps it’s fair to say that through the consumption of vintage or new vintage clothing the consumer seeks to distance himself from a present that seems just too alienating. Through the consumption of the past we create an illusion of a slower paced, more understandable world. This is why buying a pair of pre-faded jeans can be seen as a rebellion of sorts, a rebellion against the idea of constant progress, against temporal irreversibility. Vintage, as well as new vintage, clothing reminds us of a time when life was uncomplicated, of a past free from modern-day worries.

9 As dress historian Barbara Burman Baines has noted, in fashion, revivals are a constant theme. A case in point might be the Grecian style of dress which has enjoyed countless revivals, in all from robes worn by the women attending Naploleon’s 1804 coronation to Fortuny’s classically based designs in the early 20th Century, a designer who himself enjoyed a revival in the 1980s. This would mean that even as we long for a sartorial past steeped in nostalgia, we will be looking back at past already saturated by that very same emotion.

10 The term nostalgia, derives from Greek roots, but was coined, not in ancient Greece, but by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss doctor, in 1688. This new disease was diagnosed as what Swiss expatriates suffered from when forced to leave their homeland to study, work or fight for their country on foreign shores. The longing for home could be aroused by anything from a smell to the sound of familiar music, much like memories are awakened for (post)modern nostalgics today, and the only way to completely cure this ruinous disease was a return home.