I discovered the appeal of vintage clothes as soon as I was allowed out on my own with a monthly clothing allowance (supplemented with my meagre wages from scrubbing pots in the local pub). I went to school in Brighton and would meet up with friends to shop there on Saturdays; there were probably more vintage shops in the North Lanes than there were high street stores in the Churchill Square shopping centre before its redevelopment in the late 90s. Vintage clothes were similar in price to what was on offer on the high street and enough of my schoolfriends had a similar eye for a bargain so I wasn't afraid of taking a few fashion risks and standing out a bit. For my 18th birthday, I wore a 50s cocktail dress made from red organza with a flocked pattern of white flowers. I had the requisite LBD with spaghetti straps too, for clubbing, but my vintage clothes felt special and precious in a way that high street clothes never did. As other friends got into labels, my love of vintage persisted, even when one of my uni flatmates described a favourite pair of fleece-lined 80s pixie boots as my "dead person shoes". I found I was more attached to these clothes; they existed outside whatever the current micro-trends were and they reminded me of good times, or the fun I'd had searching for and finding them.
Until recently, I hadn't thought about vintage as anything other than a reasonably priced way to stand out from the crowd, until I realised that people joking that I "wished I'd been born in another era" really bothered me, because I really, really don't. I am a big fan of 21st Century technology and medicine, and of all the (albeit imperfect) advances we’ve made towards gender equality. I realise that feeling nostalgic about an idealised past is a privilege; for many people, it's impossible to separate the past from some form of oppression. If I had been born in a different era I wouldn't enjoy many of the rights and freedoms I take for granted, and even mid-20th century vintage clothes tell this story. I have several 50s dresses that I really love because they are beautifully cut, but I can only really wear them at formal events; they were designed to be decorative but not practical, so if I want to preserve them as they are it's all but impossible to change their function. It's no coincidence that the more liberated 'Swinging Sixties' youth uniform of choice, the tunic dress worn with tights and boots, is my preference for everyday workwear. It's easy to be nostalgic about the beauty and elegance of trends past when viewing them in the microcosm of a well-curated vintage shop; the dresses I have bought to wear 'for best' probably had other owners who were similarly blessed with well-stocked wardrobes and didn't have to wear their clothes until they wore out. For every lightly-worn fancy frock, there would have been plenty of 'ordinary' clothes that were repurposed into newer trends, childrenswear, patchwork pieces, and finally ended their useful lives as household rags.
In an ideal world, of course, we'd take what I (and, I suspect, many other vintage fashion fans) admire most about our treasured finds from yesteryear- the good quality, long-lasting fabrics, flattering design and durable craftsmanship, and improve on them for the 21st century. Now that we have the technology to create high performance fabrics that won’t irreparably damage the environment, and to design innovative clothes that don’t have to conform to outdated ideals of ‘acceptable’ bodies, shouldn’t we be working on creating the clothes of the future? Each decade has evolved bold new trends in response to the political climate and technological innovations, it feels like we’ve dropped the ball on both fronts.
As a cis woman, dressing in a stereotypically feminine way to attend a function is the opposite of a radical act, but I can’t help feeling that seeing the beauty in, and proudly wearing, something old and pre-loved in a world that insists on the constant acquisition of new stuff is subverting this a little bit. Recycling should be our way of life, not something we only do occasionally when it’s convenient for us, but every time I get complimented on a vintage or second hand outfit, I like to think that I might be changing people’s perceptions and encourage them to think about the way they shop. At least, that’s my adult justification for the way my inner teenager shows off about what a bargain it invariably was. Some things never change.