Wednesday, December 16, 2009

the politics of vintage: part one

Photobucket belleville, 2002

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.

Photobucket
trying on absurd things in the now defunct goodwill store in belleville, ontario

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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!

17 comments:

AFitz said...

Well as somebody who doesn't wear that much vintage (with the exception of some thrift - oh, and my prom dress was from the 50s, for what it's worth) I don't have a ton to say or add to this post, but it was an enriching read. There was something a little off topic that stuck out with me, with that Jezebel comment:
"I think we wear what we think is flattering on ourselves."
All I can say is: no. Not at all. At least not for me, and not for my friends.
I work for an independent fashion magazine (http://wornjournal.com pluggity plug plug) and we actually had this conversation today. All too often flattering = being as thin as possible (and while that may not be what the jezebel commenter was getting at, all you have to do is open up Elle magazine or watch What Not To Wear to see them recommend "flattering, slimming, boot cut jeans").
At the very least, "flattering" tends to imply "looking conventionally attractive" or "looking good to others." And I hate the idea of getting dressed up in order to be pretty. For me, personal style is about self expression, exploring different ideas (like when you were talking about contextualizing vintage clothing), pushing myself to take creative risks, and at the very least being practical (so sue me if I want to wear baggy jeans and a sweatshirt during finals week!)
I wish more magazines/publications/blogs/whatever would take to ascribing wearing clothes for the inherent joy of wearing clothes, and not to wear something just because it will make you look good to others. Worn is pretty good about that. Again, not trying to plug. Just saying.

julia aka garconniere said...

i love worn! i have a few issues i picked up in montreal this summer. really good. thanks for your comment.

i completely agree with your points; the main problem with the jezebel comment is that we all wear different things for different reasons, just as many of us could wear the same t-shirt and each of us could have a different reason for wearing it, liking it, buying it, etc. i don't think people really want to acknowledge how many ideas we can unpack here, it's kind of mind-boggling.

in regards to the "flattering" conundrum; when shopping with my sisters, they will often make blunt comments like "that makes your ass look big" to which i respond, "my ass IS big." the response is often, "well, it doesn't flatter you" but people don't realize how subjective that is!

when asked for opinions or giving compliments, i tend to lean towards compliments more like, "it suits you" as opposed to "it flatters you." the fact of the matter is some colours look better on some people, and is more "flattering" but that word is so tied up in body politics that i don't necessarily want to engage in...

and i think you're really onto something with the inherent joy of wearing clothes. when thinking about these questions of my own relationship to vintage, it almost always comes down to how i feel in them, or how they made me feel. there is a lot to be said about that simple yet super complex feeling.

Andi B. Goode said...

See, for me, it IS about wearing what is 'flattering'. At least, in part. Not necessarily to look thin or pretty to others but so that when I look in the mirror I can see that everything I like best about my body is accentuated. (for the record that includes not being able to see my knees, that my waist is accentuated and I especially like my hips looking quite round.) And only vintage, or vintage styled, clothes do that for me. Well, 1940s and 1950s. The 1920s and some 1960s clothes just make me look terrible and ridiculous.


But it's also about being different. I don't think too much about the politics because I'm just not a politically minded person, in general, but since I was a teenager I've definitely tried to be 'different' than the 'norm'. I, too, had my baggy pants and little kids t-shirts phase, I had my 'emo' phase before it was popular...then there was vintage. Maybe I'm a fuddy duddy or what have you but I like to wear the clothes in the style that they were originally intended to be worn - that is, I like to accessorise with things that are also of that era (as you well know). There's just a lot of fun in recreating that entire look for me. I suppose, in some ways, you could say I'm limiting myself but I don't feel limited. I may not have created the style entirely but I've chosen it for myself. I didn't pick up a current issue of whatever fashion magazine is trendy to have on hand - I watched a whole bunch of old movies, looked at vintage communities on LJ, google searched images, etc. and put together looks from that.
But I have come to accept that people wear vintage (as all clothes) differently. I do get a little bit sad when I see someone take up 1950s dresses and make them into mini-dresses, though...I can be very precious about that sort of thing but that's not entirely on topic.

I did a little bit of thinking about this sort of thing when I was taking my photos, this year, but most of the time it's just fun to dress the way I do and I don't feel comfortable any other way.

-Andi x

Bianca and Isabella said...

this looks like soooo much fun;)

Eli said...

you should read the article on Fashionista where they interview Cameron Silver the owner of the Decades vintage boutique

Hannah Mudge said...

This was a really great post!

I see what you're saying about wearing vintage but mixing it up with little makeup and not shaving etc. I sometimes feel like it's expected you'll do the whole retro hair/makeup/accessories thing as well and i don't think that's the point.

I only own a couple of bits of 'vintage', partly because i live somewhere where second hand shops have nothing but low-end high street workwear from ten years ago and plain t-shirts, but i'd love to explore it more.

julia aka garconniere said...

eli: oooo great suggestion. i really, really enjoyed the question of value. but some of his stuff is very elitist and classist, and could be interesting to unpack... like the comments about the "worthless clothing" people think of as important that they try to sell to him. food for thought! and on the note of food, at the end of the interview, you can tell he has serious food issues. anyway. thanks for the suggestion!

hannah: yeah, i completely agree re: expectations. my fashion sense is generally fuck the rules, and all about contradictions and i like that it throws people off. i used to be a bit averse to vintage culture because at times it feels as though you don't have the perfect hair and makeup to go with the dress, you don't belong. but every subculture has that tendency, i find. everyone finds their fit in one way or another!

if you're interested in digging up more vintage, i highly recommend a zine by amelia, doublespeak.etsy.com. i think it's in issue 3, but there is a lot of great advice about how to build and maintain a good vintage warddrobe.

Sarah said...

Wow, very interesting stuff !
OK I’ll take a shot at not being dismissive then… I used to wear a lot more vintage than I do now, partly due to I guess normal style evolution over time, partly because I find it harder to identify with it.

Is wearing fashion from an oppressive time period a symbol of that oppression ? is a tricky one, I think it’s both yes and no. But it’s not so much the ‘oppression from back then’ that I’m concerned about, it’s more to do with some parts of the modern take on vintage. There are many reasons why we like vintage, and depending on people the personal stories about how we ‘got into it’, the uniqueness, originality, cheapness, lifestyle, more-fun-than-the-mall, ancient vibes, style-expertise-display factors, etc, can all play a part. Also, ideas about the female gender are central to some vintage lovers – and that’s the part that puzzles me.

One tendency that I find suspect is the body shape bias coupled with a discourse on the “naturalness” of certain bodies versus others. I left a comment regarding this issue on (www.queensofvintage.com/the-shape-of-things-to-come) this post, about gender/body constructions .

Next to “naturalness”, I’ve noticed references to “genuine” or “authentic” or being a “real woman” (as opposed to… not being one? lol). It’s not just silly, it’s also strongly questionable.

And to me it gets off-limits when that “real woman” bit gets articulated with a nostalgic discourse on lost glamour and beauty and posture and elegance and baking and being a domestic goddess and what not… That’s the “women looked after themselves a lot more and this is so inspiring…” argument. Yes they did, because they had a much stronger social obligation to do so. They had less of a say in what they could do and be. And there was nothing glamorous about that.

Plus it’s hard to separate that from social class. Those “beautiful women of the 1950s” who are “so inspiring” are by no means the median women next door of their era. And they are usually not the women who fought on our behalf on the road to equality either.

I think one major difference today is that we have a more playful approach to fashion, to the point where even those who enjoy going for demanding purist vintage looks actually consider it a fun thing. Women back then were on a completely different track and I find it hard to revel in that, even if its aesthetics happens to be pleasing. The movie Coco avant Chanel is interesting in that sense.

Long post… and I’ve not reached any kind of conclusion… sorry for my rambling & I’m looking forward to reading your part 2

KittyMeow said...

Hmm....Interesting stuff indeed. I wear vintage because I prefere the craftsmanship and the particular cuts and fabrics over what is new today.
With that in mind, I am not averse to repro clothing because for me it is mostly about the aesthetic. For the same reasons Andi wears vintage - I like knee length dresses with full skirts and nipped in waists.

I think it's a positive thing that these fashions are so popular (in some circles) today and wearing them brings to light these questions. We recognise that the 50's weren't ideal times for women and even this current decade isn't. Being aware of the past allows awareness of the present. In some way I would say wearing vintage reinforces the feminist stance and the fact we have CHOICE in the way we dress every day.

I don't think by wearing a 50's dress we are doing a disservice to feminism.

:-D

Heather said...

To me, feminism should be more focused on choice. In other words, women should be able to CHOOSE what they want to wear, who they want to be and what they want to do. If that involves wearing vintage clothing, then what's the big deal?
I often feel that we are paying homage to the women of yesteryear by wearing their clothing, & providing a contrast. "Look girls, you wore this because it was conventional, & now I can wear it too, & it isn't."

Serena said...

Beautifully put. I couldn't agree more.

threadbared said...

This is a wonderful post responding to some of the comments that distressed, annoyed, etc., me as well (as the original poster of those selections on Threadbared). My relationship to vintage is filtered through my punk rock past, so I completely understand the "hairy armpits and '40s day dress" aesthetic! I can't wait to hear more from you on your politics of vintage; meanwhile, I've been lazy about following up (or overworked, whatever), but here's a back-and-forth conversation I had with my collaborator Minh-Ha about shopping, a big chunk of which has to do with vintage.

P.S. If I may, I'd like to excerpt some of your response in a post.

meg said...

I'm happy to see this, and all of the backlash/commentary from so many other smart fashion-y ladies in the blogosphere...

while not about vintage specifically, it astounds me how many folks who consider themselves "feminist" or "into sociology" etc are so effing dismissive of fashion -- like Threadbared also complained, there's something incredibly marginalizing, obstuse, and straight-out inobservant about it. I'm so tired of hearing that 'it's just a dress,' it's just makeup, it's just self expression, there's nothing more to it, it's just CLOTHES, people -- which we all know is for stupid little girls playing with dolls, and even worse than that, stupid little rich white girls. the horror! I'm glad to see so many people talking about these more complex issues and thinking about how it goes beyond that & has wider social significance.

meg // morningmidnight.com

Glove Slap said...

I think it'd be great if I were wearing a vintage '50's dress and someone asked me how it felt to be wearing something from an oppressive time period. Cause then we could have a conversation about how the present is an oppressive time period. We could talk about who is oppressed (and what is exploited) in order to produce, advertise, purvey, and consume clothes that were made just yesterday.

fashionforwriters said...

Hi hi, I'm so so so happy to have find your blog via my pals over at Threadbared and The Renegade Bean. This was such a thoughtful, eloquent essay on wearing vintage and the politics of vintage. I like the idea of moving away from defensiveness and moving away from, 'who cares, get over yourself' attitude that irks me so much, and moving into the realm of community and sharing and exploring and being unafraid to be critical about something whilst loving it to pieces.

Jenny

julia aka garconniere said...

you could not possibly understand the joy at coming back to this entry to see all of these new comments. thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! you guys are awesome.

sarah: you may not have come to a conclusion but you certainly stirred up a lot of thoughts. thanks for reading and contributing.

heather: 100%! choice choice choice. that sums up a lot of my feelings about feminism.

threadbared: i'm incredibly flattered. i absolutely adore what you guys do with your blog! my jaw dropped when a friend of mine forwarded it along to me. thanks for adding me to your blog roll (i'll add you to mine once i have this whole new layout figured out)

meg: i know! i also hate how much time is wasted in discussions about feminism and fashion when we have to defend, defend, defend. it's really refreshing to see all of these conversations popping up on the internet, since unfortunately i haven't been hearing too many in the real world.

glove slap: AMEN SISTER. you are so dead on.

jenny: ah! i am so glad you found me too! i just spent a good half our reading your blog, it's really wonderful.

Isabel said...

So I found your blog through Anna (If the Sok Fitz) and... ARE YOU FROM BELLEVILLE??? Because I am from there too and it would just be exciting to find another smart/cool/fashionable person who is from Belleville since it's such a shit town.

PS - I'm actually from Ameliasburgh in Prince Edward County, but I went to high school and Belleville. And I live in Waterloo now.

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