With 300,000 tons of clothing entering landfill each year in the UK alone, it is clear that the fashion industry has a problem. New clothes are mass produced to meet demands for the latest trends, then discarded just as quickly. Wearing second-hand or vintage does not use any new resources and is far more environmentally friendly. But clothes aren’t created for eternity and they will inevitably decay when exposed to sunlight, dust or parasites. It is a funny little irony that conservators and vintage dealers are struggling to preserve a few pieces while we are desperately looking for a solution to free ourselves of the insane amounts of contemporary fashion that is thrown out every year.
According to industry standard, a piece has to be at least 20 years old to
be ‘vintage’. If it is over 50 years old, it may proudly call itself ‘antique’. This concept alone is interesting. For furniture to be considered antique it has to be either pre-1885 or over 100 years old. But in the case of fashion, time runs a tight schedule and the delicacy of many vintage garments hinders them from being a full alternative to the fast fashion industry.
With trends changing almost as quickly in the past as they do today,
vintage clothing encompasses a huge range. The racks of vintage clothing
stores boast sturdy 90’s denim beside a fluffy 50’s party-dress or a 70’s
polyester blouse of nightmares. What connects them all though, is that they
will require a lot of your attention: sewing on buttons, mending rips and
tears, treating spots and hand-washing. Most vintage clothes will keep you
on your toes to keep them presentable.
But do not despair. There are many ways to get the earlier 20th century
look you want for way less work and money. If you love the strong-shouldered power silhouette of the 40s, look for 80s dresses and jackets. They will give you the same look but the clothes will be in a much better condition, and in my experience often only a third of the price while being just as glamorous. If you have fallen for the sleek 1930s bias-cut gowns that hug your curves like nothing else, did you know that the exact same style was popular in the 90s? There are many evening dresses from that decade that still have plenty of parties and dancing left in them without you having to worry about rips or stains.
So, use vintage clothing as inspiration to dream, create or put looks together, but more importantly, use it to adopt an attitude of true appreciation and care for your clothes. What is available from a decade varies drastically. Some dresses were worn until they became rags. Others were altered to the point of being unrecognisable, a men’s coat becomes a children’s jacket, a sundress is turned into an apron. The ones that survived are rare cultural artefacts. Whilst these may be far too much of a rarity to displace fast fashion, the very existence of vintage fashion is enough to counter wasteful buying and disposing tendencies. Vintage fashion’s biggest promise may be in its capacity to teach us how to value today’s clothes.