July 17, 2011

Silent Muses in Closets & Collections

Though this article was first published at vintagevixen.com in 2005, it's still relevant to the vintage clothing world today. We're posting it on our blog as we sweep clean our old site design, and gear up for a total facelift to appear in the next few days. Stay tuned! :)

Magazines continue to proclaim wearing vintage is stylish, unique and shows no sign of letting up. The trend has become so mainstream that recent articles are beyond introducing vintage to readers; now they explain how to select vintage that meshes well with contemporary closets. Rummaging for vintage gems has become a conventional shopping trip. Lara Zamiatin, an Australian reporter, states "vintage is the trend du jour of the early noughties". Yet fashionistas sometimes point to vintage clothing as a passing fad, usually because of the perennial revamp designers seem to put on runways season after season. So is vintage clothing still a fresh idea, or is it old hat?

Judging by our business, the popularity of vintage clothing with consumers is strong as ever. Why? It's difficult to replace the panache of a one-of-a-kind vintage design with the mass production available from designers, however "vintage" these mass-produced ideas may look. The level of quality attainable for a low price is also impossible to repeat when contemporaries remake vintage designs. The price point for a 1950s vintage cocktail dress is often half as much as a comparable remake from moderately-priced lines like Ann Taylor or Anthropologie. While it's possible to buy high-end remade vintage looks (think longstanding retro houses like Missoni and Pucci), prices are sky-high compared to vintage counterparts.

Designers too have a long relationship with vintage clothing, which in turn has spurred the demand for authentic vintage. Many design houses have been "sampling" prior generations of clothing for inspiration for years, refuting the idea that vintage clothing was ever
just a fad.

One intriguing example is in the movie Fashions of 1934, produced the same year as its title. The plot shows style pirates traveling to Paris for the latest modes, where amusingly they discover that Parisian couturiers of the day are digging in local street markets for inspiration from illustrated Victorian books. This seventy-year-old film bolsters the notion that vintage inspiration is anything but old news. It's been more like a design tool for those in the know, and once was a chic secret... at least until the last decade or so.

So vintage clothing is still hot, and was (in some capacity) even in 1934. Today everyone from American Eagle to Marc Jacobs uses vintage clothing as a jumping-off point for their latest lines. While we know that this process is not new, a second question arises - is such "borrowing" a sign of creativity or plagiarism?

Despite fervent debate over this question, general consensus says that interpretation is legit, but line-for-line copies are not. A case in point: Yves Saint Laurent's legal victory over Ralph Lauren for a dress Lauren exactly copied in 1994. The original was from a YSL collection in the 1970s. So skirmishes over vintage-inspired designs have occurred, and at least some boundaries have been established.

But what about vintage clothing sold as part of a modern clothing line? Vintage clothing is tagged and sold in contemporary boutiques like Ralph Lauren's Double RL, DKNY, Jill Stuart and Barney's. Vintage decor is displayed for sale at Anthropologie, whose own descriptor is "fashion : home : found". That last word found blurs the line between vintage and new. So when someone like Jill Stuart graces a vintage garment with her seal of approval, does its je ne sai quois double? Or is it bad form for a designer to pluck a vintage piece and openly claim it as a tangible muse?

It could go both ways. For example, the value of designer-chosen vintage designs increase if buyers value the designer's judgment and selection. Buying the designer's own vintage choice is like having the designer shop for you... and they've pulled that one high-style score out of the vintage clothing jungle. In this case, the customer adores the vintage piece and appreciates its careful placement in the designer's shop. We could say it's savvy marketing on the part of the designer. One could also say that these designers have become vintage dealers.

However, the display of vintage clothing alongside a designer's new creations turns the design house inside-out. It shows the buyer that the designer used someone else's ideas, and the true "original" comes not from the designer's hand but from some unknown source (probably a vintage clothing dealer with a good eye). Charlie Porter of The Guardian commiserates about Balenciaga: "The clothes sold by labels... are so good, you want them to be completely original. Often, it seems, they are not."

And the vintage piece itself could've been found for less through the dealer himself, but no longer. And the customer might buy the vintage item but leave with the feeling that the designer's a copycat; or at least less creative than originally thought. Is this really good for a fashion house? Perhaps not, but Pandora's box is wide open at this point. Vintage garments parade the runways in contemporary collections and the clandestine sourcing of retro ideas is no longer really anyone's secret.

This isn't necessarily bad, or the end of mainstream popularity for vintage clothing. Media attention shows it's just the beginning, although designers are now competing with the public for the best vintage available. They may someday regret the loss of formerly little-known vintage clothing contacts. Perhaps the advent of the Internet helped create this shift in vintage clothing sources, but designers have embraced showing their vintage roots for years now. And while we have a vested interest in seeing vintage clothing as enjoyable and wearable, decades of designers have also shown us old clothes are the foundation for new. And vintage designs will always sought-after for their irreplaceable chic.

---April Ainsworth


Eden, Diana and Lintermans, Gloria (2001). Retro Chic: A Guide To Fabulous Vintage and Designer Resale Shopping in North America & Online. Toronto: Really Great Books.





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