Most people have in their wardrobe a prized item of vintage clothing, of which they are deeply fond. This item was probably found in some second-hand ’boutique’ hidden between ugly jumpers and lumpy suits, a specific piece that touched a nerve with its unique charm and bargain price tag.
But beyond finding that one-off at a good price, how much would you be willing to pay?
The term vintage has become a loaded term and though it has no timescale, what can be classified as vintage and what left resolutely to the undesirable tag of second hand?
Some people think the term applies to pre 1940’s, others till the end of the 60‘s and after that, most agree it all started to go a bit wrong. It became cheaper and easier to mass- produce clothing via machinery and wage saving labour, clothing became cheaper and no longer seen as an investment and meant to last a life time, because you’re already being told it only had to last till next season.
People who look for vintage all agree on one thing, vintage clothing is better made and finished to a high standard. Which is true, higher quality fabrics and trimmings were used, more personal methods of production and service were used because that was all that was available and what people wanted. The clothing was made to last, in some cases because it had to but others wanted the cache of design and quality with their branding as a stamp of excellence, with the view anything that would fall apart would be bad for business as it had their name on it.
In the late 1950’s Levis removed the phrase “EVERY GARMENT GUARANTEED” from it’s label, which was already being produced out of paper as opposed to leather, for me this is a good indicator of how the quality of production was changing, and the consumers’ views towards it.
In 1954 American Industrial designer Brooks Stevens delivered an interesting lecture about ‘planned obsolescence’ this was the idea that you would make something that would relatively quickly become outmoded, obsolete or just simply break. This is blatantly obvious today in technology and fashion. The need to be current out weighed the rationality for quality.
I headed to Spitalfields Market to speak to Dave who runs Ragtop Vintage which specialises in classic Americana, for him it has been a life long passion, he grew up ‘immersed in American culture’ his parents, children of the Second World War, saw the U.S as having the best future that could be offered, be it culture, clothing and consumables, an escape from the exhausted, austere world of post war Britain which surrounded them. Growing up, he couldn’t find what he wanted to wear on the high street, but certainly could in ‘vintage’ as do his customers today, and all have the same passion or as Dave described it ” It’s a bug, you’ve either got it or you haven’t ’’.
For those who do, vintage clothing transcends merely being something to wear, simply a jacket, or pair of shoes. The item will have a story to tell; not so much about you at first, but about itself: through wear and construction, where it came from, the possibilities of it’s history and the intricacies of it’s detail, because it is individual. By purchasing it you will add to and continue it’s unique history.
Paul, who owns the Urban Gentry stall at Spitalfields market and deals in ‘Clothing For The Gentry’ he has the view; ‘‘ I don’t go for, “let me see if I can find this” and then find 20 of them, that’s not the point, I’m happy to find the one, something that’s not maybe a one off, but is certainly unusual’ which makes sense, if he did have 20 of the same jacket or suit, then they lose their individuality which probably charmed you in the first place.
Paul subscribes to the ideology that older is usually better, ‘Fabric quality and old high-street for example; lets take Dunn & co, or Burtons, their standard off the peg is still better quality than a very high end designer now’’. If you did want the same quality you would be looking towards bespoke for that level of fabric quality, which is out of the question for the majority of customers.
Paul only buys items he likes and passes them on, his customers, like many vintage enthusiasts, are savvy, headstrong and know what they like, with a understanding that quality is timeless.
This idea does seem to be making a comeback with brands such as Levis running labels such as Levis Vintage Clothing (LVC) alongside it’s main brand producing reproductions of it’s own vintage back catalogue, made in the same way as it would have been back in the day, (with leather tag and guarantee) but with a heftier price. Buzz Ricksons, and Real MCcoy’s are two brands that operate heavily in the Japanese market specialising in reproducing vintage work wear and militaria to an incredibly high standard, again made as it would have been, on old shuttle looms, and reproducing fabrics and even rubbers, which have been lost or defunct over the years. And closer to home younger companies like Albam, Heritage Research and Universal Works emphasising the quality of their chosen fabric, and are trying to bring manufacturing back to England.
All of these companies owe a lot if not everything to vintage, I asked Dave what he thought of these companies and their attention to detail and care in sourcing the materials and fabrics for their high end reproductions, and the more home grown companies offering in the same vein and what effect they all have on the vintage market?
‘‘I would like to think that people will become more ethical consumers, and could see the point of spending £400 on a good winter coat, and rather than think it’s out of fashion the next winter they will just keep wearing it, but most people won’t spend 25 quid on a bloody t-shirt’’ and as for repro heritage brands? ‘’I’ve come to the conclusion that to just reproduce is pointless, all they’re doing is creating fake vintage, and why spend £600 on a copy when you can get a perfectly good original for half the price. The whole Heritage work-wear is kind of a double edge thing really, ‘cause now you can go to pretty much anywhere, from Gap or All Saints and buy stuff inspired by vintage work-wear and in a way it sort of kills the market, you could only get that stuff second hand at one point, and now you can get a version of it new, and a lot of people would prefer to have it new… but vintage is still authentic, it’s real’’.
Vintage runs the gauntlet between modern fashion, reproductions and being seen as old and ugly, now it is easier to find vintage inspired at reasonable prices, so you don’t have to buy used. But with true vintage there is still magic in the quest – the hunt and surprise discovery, unlimited uniqueness of what it can offer but probably most importantly it’s history, it speaks of times we see as being easier, full of more worth and higher values, of an age where evolution technology in industry was tangible and changed the way the world worked, becoming more and more the world of relative luxury we have today, where the majority of jobs where physical and office work in the minority. I asked Dave if people would look back on our recent history and call that vintage (which inevitable they will) his response was, “They might do, but I doubt they’ll find much inspiring there”
The market for vintage will remain, trickling through the mainstream, relying on nostalgia and as a partial antidote to the somewhat fickle, short attention spans of the modern day consumers. ‘True vintage’ has started to take on the quality of a rare commodity, slowly depleting and rising in value, and price at some point it will be left to collectors and cultural historians. Will we the interested buyer who looking for quality in their style, for sake of ease and personal finance start to change our habits and look less far into our past? But will we, or indeed our grandchildren look at a Topman jumper with the same adoration and think, ‘I love vintage stuff!’
Paul’s view on his stance as a vintage vendor is, ‘We’re not here to necessarily invent something, but we are here to add our twist on it, not stuck anywhere in the past, we are living in this day, why not draw from everything’’.
Both Paul and Dave can be found at Spitafields market every Thursday, if you’re not familiar with it already, pop along and shop around, see if ‘the bug’ bites.