In a recent interview for a local paper I was asked, “so, what makes something vintage exactly?” It’s an innocent enough question for the vintage non-initiate, but for those of us who work in the industry it can be a complicated, even existential one. So I thought it was worth digging into!
The generally-accepted industry standard is that anything made at least 100 years ago is “antique”, anything made at least 20 years ago (nearly 2000!) is “vintage”. That’s an 80 year window which encompasses huge changes in the global fashion-scape.
So is *every* garment made within that 80 year span “vintage”? And everything made after 1999 just “used”? Are older things more “vintage” than newer things? If age is the only metric you’re using, then technically yes.
But is age the only metric we should be using? Maybe not. What about a poorly-made, low-quality polyester dress made by a Home Ec. student in the 60s? Is that vintage? What about a couture gown from 2005? Is that just “used”? Is a quality, wearable silk top from the 90s less vintage than a shredding 20s silk gown that can’t be worn?
And then there are the decade hoppers:
Something made last year using 1930s fabric? Something made in the 50s and reworked or visibly mended in the 90s? What if it’s hard to tell if it was made in 1998 or 2002?
I sometimes wonder why some sellers and shoppers can get so caught up in the decade of manufacture.
When considering adding vintage to your wardrobe, there are great things to tap from every era and decade of the 20th century. There are drawbacks too.
Earlier eras tend to have distinctive design elements (think beaded silks and dropped waists of the 20s, defined shoulders and draping of the 40s, nipped waists and big skirts of the 50s), quality craftsmanship, a singularity that makes them unique and collectible. They can be harder to find, and more time consuming to clean and repair, and therefore more expensive. They can also be more delicate or difficult to clean, and therefore less wearable and versatile.
Garments from the last quarter of the 20th century (1975-2000) are in abundance, they are often sturdier, machine washable, and stylistically often less era-specific (think high waist jeans, boxy linen tops, floral rayon dresses.) Many pieces even borrow from earlier decades. This era was still pre fast-fashion, but the use of sweat-shop labor was on the rise. Quality could be compromised in order to make things more cheaply.
As always, there are exceptions to every rule. Great craftsmanship (and bad!) can be found in every era, bad labor practices (and good!) can be found in every era.
So what elevates a “used” garment to a “vintage” garment, if not necessarily it’s decade of manufacture? I would suggest it is the quality of the retail experience:
quality of product: is the collection of good quality? Well-made, wearable, lasting in style and construction?
quality of curation: is it a thoughtfully pulled-together collection with a unique & unified aesthetic?
quality of presentation: is it pleasant to browse, either online or in person? If online, does the shop represent the garments -in terms of age, material, condition- accurately? Are the photos and descriptions clear and concise?
quality of care: are the pieces stored well, clean (within reason), mended, and in wearable condition?
quality of expertise: is the owner/operator able to answer pertinent questions about each garment? Is the owner/operator honest and up-front about condition, origin, fit, and when they don’t know the answer to something?
quality of service: is the owner/operator willing to provide excellent service to you? To treat you and your future investment with care and respect? To be transparent about costs and policies? To provide personalized service?
The perfect vintage buying experience brings all these elements together. There should be style, and substance, and soul. It’s what I admire about my favorite shops & shop owners (they are often one in the same), and it’s what I aspire to in my own shop. It’s a vibe, not a decade.
As consumers, there’s no better time to be shopping vintage. Social media platforms make it possible to discover small, quality shops and vendors from all over the world specializing in specific eras -from 20s glam, to 90s minimalism- as well as shops curating their own brand of style by mixing eras, concepts, and aesthetics. There’s so much variety to celebrate and so much to be inspired by; and if you find a shop owner whose style you connect with, it’s pure magic!
As shop owners, we should be excited about any and all interest from consumers about buying any and all vintage. A broader definition means a broader fan base. A conventional shopper willing to dip a toe into vintage with an 80s concert tee today might find herself shopping for a 40s dress for her next big event tomorrow.
Almost always, no matter the decade, a vintage purchase is a purchase from a small business owner -often a woman- who is putting that money directly back into her own local community. In all instances, whether a garment was made in 1909 or 2009, buying something used is better for the environment than buying something new. No matter the decade, everybody wins.
To take it a step further, I think it’s important for the vintage-loving community to consider the impact our purchases today will have on the vintage of tomorrow. When we buy contemporary pieces (as many of us do from time to time), maybe we should be asking ourselves: would I be excited to find this at an estate sale in 20 or 30 years? Would I be proud to resell it? Will this even last 20 or 30 years? Chances are, if it’s an impulse buy from a fast fashion retailer, the answer is no. If the answer is no, maybe we leave it behind. With so many independent makers out there creating legacy pieces, paying fair wages, and using sustainable materials and practices from seed to stem, our access to quality contemporary wear has never been better. Their pieces are usually investments, but perhaps it helps to think of it as an investment not just in our own wardrobes, but in the wardrobes of tomorrow. We can be both the guardians of past vintage and the curators of future vintage!
In general, I like to think of the vintage space is an important (perhaps even founding!) part of the slow fashion movement, which has gained momentum as a reaction to the frenzy and waste of today’s contemporary fashion culture. We should see ourselves as partners with the designers and craftsmen making new & few products in old ways, the people reworking and restyling thrifted goods, and the folks curating quality secondhand for resale. We can’t be a productive part of the bigger conversation about the future of the fashion industry if we aren’t having productive, supportive conversations within our own community. Perhaps keeping a broad, quality-based understanding of what makes vintage, “vintage,” will help us do that.