Lamb dressed as mutton: the cult of vintage clothes

The Granny might just be the most unlikely style icon. Yet, if recent trends are anything to go by, Holly Williams explains, it is indeed your aging relative’s wardrobe which will get you most outfit envy from rival fashionistas.

So just how do you pull off the vintage look? Well, anything that’s old, is good. It’s an eclectic sort of fashion trend – you can choose your era, or mix them up. Anything goes, as long as you’ve got the confidence to wear it – from 20s flapper beads, to 40s tea dresses, to 70s flares – you can pick ‘n’ choose your favourite retro look, or just choose an accessory to make that H&M outfit (which is probably copying a retro look anyway) seem a little more interesting.

Back in the day, getting your clothes from charity shops was considered seriously embarrassing but, in recent years, the trend for clothing that’s second hand (read vintage or retro) has become far more popular.

< ?php article_quote("There’s undeniable satisfaction in telling admirers of your bag: no, they won’t find one like it, it’s genuine 70s", "", "left"); ?>One of the best shops is Oxfam, which is successfully mining the lucrative cross-over between second hand and vintage with its Oxfam ‘originals’ section, where they specifically collect clothes that might appeal to the retro-trend seeker. With an overflowing vintage salebox, a new ‘Eastern’ section and a jeans corner, Oxfam has an impressively large stock. The walls are adorned with retro photos and prints, as well as their proud little declaimer about Oxfam Originals – ‘Many of the items are originals from the 50s, 60s and beyond. They are not highstreet reproductions. You will not find anything like them elsewhere – they are truly unique!’.

Of course, the other brilliant thing about charity shops is the, er, charity bit. Not only are you getting choice garments for at least half their original price, but all the money is going to a good cause, leaving you with a warm-and-fuzzy feeling that’s far preferable to the instant guilt of spending textbook money on an overpriced dress in Miss Selfridge. If you’re going to fritter away your overdraft on clothes, then it may as well go to help someone who really needs it.
If you’re too lazy to trawl round the charity shops, you might have been pleased to find the monthly vintage stall on campus. The friendly folk from retro clothes shop Expressions had a regular stall in Goodricke, offering a 10% discount for students on their specially sourced stock. Shop owners Bob and Jonty Davies are keen to establish a relationship with York students, recently providing the fabulous costumes for Fame and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Sadly, the campus stall is no more, but check out their treasure trove of a shop on Walmgate. Sourcing clothes from America and Europe as well as hunting out the best in second-hand gear in Britain, Expressions has a wide selection of clothes for men and women and still offer that bank-balance friendly student discount. The stock is mostly one-offs, and the Davies also do some in-house designs. If you fancy something that is truly unique, check out their ‘quite wacky’ skirts, made from cut up tea-towels – truly fulfilling their aim to bring ‘creativity to the people’!

So what is the appeal of vintage clothing? For a lot of people, it’s the unique nature of vintage clothes. It’s nice to know that no-one else in Toffs will be wearing the same top as you. We all like to think our fashion taste is a little bit unique, and rare retro finds can become a signature item that makes your look that bit more original. (Having said that, my friend does have the exact same, supposedly unique, vintage belt as me – mine raided from my mum’s wardrobe, hers an e-bay purchase – what can you do?) Bob Davies, from Expressions, suggests that ‘people like to be individual – to create their own identity instead of a corporate identity’, and retro clothing can offer something a little bit different from your average high street purchase.

There’s also the thrill of the chase. While there are some brilliant pieces in second-hand shops, there’s usually plenty of truly hideous things to sift through first (most vile item spotted recently: high-waisted, tapered, neon pink and orange paisley sateen pantaloons. Nice). But this is all part of the appeal. It increases the sense of satisfaction when you discover a bargainous item hidden away. The whole shopping experience becomes an enjoyable rummage in a dressing up box, rather than just grabbing a jumper off a shelf like a tin of beans.

This hunting attitude can be taken further and, for some, vintage clothing is all about labels. By being second-hand, but last millennium rather than last season, designer clothes can finally be within the student budget – a Valentino ball dress for £40 anyone? You never know what you might find, tucked away in the back of Help the Aged!

Retro clothing is also the antithesis of quick, disposable fashion, where clothes are seen on the catwalk or a celebrity and cheap copies are in the major high street stores by the next week. Buy a cheap, currently fashionable outfit and you’ll probably have to throw it away next week because it will have fallen to pieces. By contrast, vintage clothing has stood the test of time. That I can still wear a pair of my grandmothers 1940s satin wedges, that my mother also wore when she was a student, says something about the enduring quality of really well made clothes that have been cared for.

Of course, there is a danger that you can find yourself becoming a bit of a vintage snob. There is a level of pride that comes with a really good find, and the knowledge that it’s unique can lead to dangerously inflated levels of smugness. There is an undeniable satisfaction in being able tell admirers of your handbag that no, they won’t be able to get another one like it – it’s genuine seventies.

However, the unique nature of vintage clothing and that whole personally put-together, second-hand style is increasingly becoming a very familiar look. ‘Vintage’ has become a fashion buzzword and a plethora of style icons have embraced the look. Suddenly, a style that was individual, almost anti-fashion, is the norm and, unsurprisingly, fashion giant Topshop is all over it. Upstairs in the York branch, there is a vintage section, with an array of handbags and a few rails of sourced vintage items, as well as customised tees and dresses.

Somehow, this is just very wrong. The second-hand snob in me rears its ugly head – you just don’t go to Topshop for this stuff! It’s about finding your own look, not having it handed to you in a branded Topshop bag; plus, their selection of retro clothing is as prescribed as the stuff on the regular racks. You can do the retro look, but only if you want the following – 80’s polka dot skirts, cut off denim minis and oversized granny jumpers. They do have a pretty good selection of dresses – but at £40 a go I can’t help but feel they have missed the point. Topshop takes the fun and originality out of retro clothes shopping, and they’re seriously over-charging you for it.

So, if you can get the eclectic look without actually having to have any of your own style or creativity, by just going to a high street store and whacking it on the plastic rather than mooching round back street shops, market stalls or the back of your mum’s wardrobe, what do you have to do to look original? Even if you know your top is a fantastic one off that you also customised, chances are it’ll still look like it could have been mass-produced. Maybe the quest for originality is hopeless. Or maybe you just need to get more extreme – now, what happened to those pantaloons . . .

4 comments

  1. I personally love retro anything including retro fashion. Thanks for the post.

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  2. All the old stuff I wore as a child is coming back. Kinda scary and makes you feel old, but it looks great most of the time.

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  3. Careful, not everything old is necessarily good taste! Even vintage clothing had some bad ideas :) Looking for great quality will help you decide what vintage item to buy.

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  4. 29 Jul ’10 at 7:28 pm

    Michael Tighe

    me and the other members of our band are always looking around vintage and charity shops every time we go shopping in a town/city. I’m rather obsessed with hunting for something special and then being able to strut around in it on stage, so id encourage people to rummage around some shops and see what they find… but only buy crap. leave the good stuff for us. please?

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