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Ambiguous Vintage

‘Vintage’ can mean different things to different people and clever marketing has given it a rise in popularity in the last twenty years.

Nowadays, you can find ‘second-hand’ clothes for 99p while a ‘vintage’ tag can push it towards £99. Did we trade in value for cool points when ‘vintage’ became a desirable look?

When I first moved to London a few years ago, I was excited to discover events called Vintage Kilo Sales. The idea behind these events was quite simple – a local hall is filled with pre-loved items and the price of the clothes is determined by their weight. A kilo of clothes thus has a set price which is relatively low. I am always in the mood for rummaging through piles of clothes, so I was happy to attend. The event was in Camden and I decided to drag my flatmate along with me.

Although we are close friends and bond over things like veganism and television shows, we have completely opposite styles. Bethany wouldn’t be caught dead in jeans, whereas I live in them all day. She prefers bright flowery dresses that have a very 1950s silhouette, whereas I rarely wear dresses. She was excited by the upcoming event because of her love of the mid-century style that she considers ‘vintage.’

However, Bethany’s vision of ‘vintage’ didn’t quite correspond to what we found at the kilo sale. There weren’t really any ‘old’ clothes at all. At best, there were some items from the 90s but everything else was pretty much straight out of the 2000s. Most of the clothes were splattered in logos such as Nike and Adidas along with some Wrangler jeans. Although the event was free, some people had paid for early entrance and bagged the best buys. Needless to say, we both left empty-handed.

Mine and Bethany’s experience at the kilo sale is the perfect anecdote for how ambiguous the term ‘vintage’ has become over the years. Like ‘sustainability,’ it is an easy term to stick in front of items simply so brands can sell more. If we as consumers don’t make it clear what we mean by ‘vintage’ garments, it will become too easy for these brands to sell ‘vintage’ clothes at a ridiculously high price point. We shouldn’t forget that some people rely on secondhand shops for the clothes they need.

There are several criteria for what ‘vintage’ means and I want to explore them here, so you can decide how you want to define it.

Like Bethany, you may think that what is ‘vintage’ depends on the age of the clothes. If items are only ten or twenty years old, they still belong to the younger generation and are therefore not ‘antiques’ or items that need to be taken care of. Surely, it would be wrong to say that a well-preserved 1930s dress is vintage in the same way that a 1995 Nike jacket is. Perhaps it is not only about the age of the garment, but what mystery that age brings to the dress. For me, ‘vintage’ evokes preciousness and uniqueness. A vintage dress might belong to a generation that lived differently from my own and so it’s a piece of history, ultimately, to be discovered and also preserved.

Maybe I am over-analyzing people’s thought processes behind buying ‘vintage.’ But it is important to question why we are willing to pay more for that label – there must be a reason. One theory focuses on the quite strange separation in the UK between ‘vintage’ shops and charity shops. Charity shops used to be looked down upon whereas vintage shops only stocked the best of the best. Nowadays, there is huge overlap between the two and yet they still have very different price points.

It is possible that this may be connected to the idea of wearing someone else’s ‘old’ clothes and how that makes you feel. For example, in small towns in the UK it is quite possible to buy a shirt from a charity shop, only to run into the person who used to own it. How many people have become uncomfortable with that idea? Is it worth it as long as your peers are doing the same? It would be sad to assume we are foolish enough to fall for these new ‘vintage’ shops where the same thing is true, simply because there is cool music and flashing lights in the background.

What do people think when they enter these shops? ‘Vintage’ nowadays seems to rely heavily on certain brands and street-style remaining on trend. But for me this means losing the power of the word ‘vintage.’ ‘Vintage’ should mean timeless, but heavy branding is not timeless.

It is clear that the current secondhand shopping situation in the UK is a curious one. Perhaps the solution is to adopt the universal American word ‘thrift’ to avoid so many connotations. For now, I will steer clear of ‘vintage’ shops, and as long as the charity shops survive, I am happy.


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