There’s been something of a recent pattern in my charity shop visits – an interesting, retro-looking fabric glimpsed, a hand reached out to disentangle the item from the surrounding coat-hangers, and then the moment of disappointment. It’s the moment of realizing that this is no hidden vintage gem, but an irritatingly good high street reproduction. The pattern or shape may resemble anything from a 60s baby-doll dress to a fifties fitted skirt, yet hold it up to light and the differences in fabric and construction quality become visible.
Maybe this is snobby of me. In fact, I know it probably is. I am a clothes snob (although only in relation to what I choose to wear myself, rather than in judging others). If I’m going for vintage, I don’t want pale imitations, but the real deal – proper seams, darts and all. Good fabrics. Possible backstories and previous lives. That’s not to say I’m overly selective with the labels sewn into the necks of the clothes I buy in charity shops. I can and do purchase plenty of second hand high street garments – although they don’t exactly dominate my wardrobe.
Yet the high street’s rather creeping embrace of vintage designs is something I find as fascinating as it is frustrating. It's been inevitable. Whatever appears on the catwalk eventually filters down to chain stores. The last few years have been a hotbed of references to each previous decade. About once every year and a half the sixties is trumpeted as “being back”, the nineties has been doing its damn best to infiltrate all areas of life with crop tops, mini-backpacks and pastel colours a-plenty, while the seventies seem to have returned in full suede-y, denim-y force.
It’s natural to raid the past for inspiration. I have no problem with referencing 30s high glamour or 70s louche layers – the 20th Century (in particular) is awash with all sorts of silhouettes, colour palettes and textiles ripe to use for inspiration. It would be incredibly sad if no-one plundered the archives or used pictures from the past to influence their designs – especially because at various points, it seems, designers actually knew how to cut clothes for a range of different figures and body types. Lots of modern day brands could learn from that. Plus, looking backwards is something creatives (across a range of industries) have always done, and will always do.
So I still can’t quite put my finger on why the high street’s facsimiles of vintage designs occasionally rankle. I think it’s maybe because the end result is that ‘vintage style’ becomes just another trend – another search term on eBay, another possible look among the pick’n’mix selection of other keywords like grunge, hipster, normcore, boyfriend, girly or festival-chic (am sure you can easily think of other even more nauseating terms). It often seems to be a market response to the resurgence of vintage, rather than genuine celebration of a particular decade – which in turn means you have to be extra-careful when perusing the labels in vintage shops, for occasionally the odd thing from Topshop slips through.
There are other strands to this, many linking back to my self-acknowledged snobbery. Do I react more strongly if the label is high street rather than high end? Does my response change if I genuinely like the garment - especially if it seems like an inventive update of or homage to something classic? Am I merely perpetuating an attitude of exclusivism or style elitism? Am I being a hypocrite, as I definitely own a number of high street twists on vintage designs? Am I basically a tad irritated by something that doesn’t really matter at all? Probably 'yes' to every question.
I do wonder though if it’s partly to do with that first fleeting instance of being disappointed that something which felt special to me – a particular style of a vintage top, shirt, or tea dress – has then become ubiquitous when one brand or another decided to make it their ‘look’ of the season, before discarding again. Suddenly certain sartorial decisions fit a trend, rather than looking like they were actively selected. But maybe my attitude should be ‘the more, the merrier’, rather than a whole lot of muttering and wittering here. And even in writing this, I'm aware of all the shades and nuances and alternative arguments I haven't even touched on... More consideration needed.
These photos were taken by the lovely Monica several months back when we were in Bologna. I'm wearing a bona-fide fifties dress (and eighties belt), but accompanied by modern ASOS shoes.