Slow Fashion October: Why I Shop Vintage

This month, I’ve been inspired and challenged by Karen Templer’s #SlowFashionOctober campaign. I’ve loved seeing everyone’s contributions on social media, and hearing the stories behind some beloved, well-cared-for garments. It’s motivated me to spend a little more time on this blog talking about what I do when I don’t knit my clothes, and how I try to shop ethically and conscientiously. Today’s entry topic is vintage: what it is, what’s great about it, and how I wear it.

Besides making them, the best way to get clothes, in my opinion, is to find them secondhand. In many ways, buying used is more earth-friendly than making your own. Today I want to talk specifically about vintage (25 years old or older) clothes, and the benefits of shopping vintage.

Vintage clothes are usually better quality than new.

There are a couple reasons for this. The first is that, if a garment has already survived a few decades and still looks great, it will usually be high-quality. A vintage piece has already been tested. The other reason is that, in general, clothes were simply made better in the past.

Fast fashion has dragged down quality across all price points. Consumers don’t know how to judge factors like stitching, material, care needs, finishing, really anything. This means that all clothing makers, from cheap to expensive, have little incentive to uphold quality standards. All clothing makers are also under pressure to lower their prices, and quality is the first thing to go. Even consumers at the higher end are taught to shop for labels and trends, instead of durability and timelessness.

As recently as just twenty years ago, people shopped less and expected more from the pieces they owned. Today, the early 90’s is considered vintage, and we’re starting to see some good pieces from that era. But the downward trend in quality started long before, somewhere in the 70’s when the USA textile industry really started dying. This means that vintage is in danger. There’s only a finite supply of these items and they’re getting older and older. The new clothes on sale today will be in tatters, choking sea creatures and leaching plastic into landfills everywhere, in a matter of five years, let alone twenty. So buy vintage while you can, and when you do buy (or make) new, think about the life it will have once you’re finished with it.

Vintage shopping helps you cultivate your own style with unique pieces.

A few years ago, in a hostel in Sofia, I had a conversation with a young woman from somewhere in northern Europe (Sweden? Holland? I honestly can’t remember). What I do remember about the exchange was, she lamented that fast fashion had flattened street style, erasing the differences in trends that used to be more evident from one city or country to another. Today, she said, street fashion in Odessa, Sofia, Lisbon, and Glasgow could all look the same.

It’s true, fast fashion outlets produce a staggering variety of garments, and create a very convincing illusion of choice. But that shirt that looks so you at Zara also looks that way to 10,000 other people, otherwise Zara wouldn’t be selling it. 

Not everyone wants, or needs, to have “unique” style. And if it’s not something that’s important to you, you’re under no obligation to think about it. But people who like shopping, or making their clothes, tend to be motivated by a desire to create a style that’s their own: something that looks and feels right for them that will transcend trends. If that sounds like you, vintage is a great option even if you’re more drawn to “modern” trends and silhouettes.

When I say “vintage,” I mean something that’s at least 25 years old. That’s it. Vintage doesn’t have to look vintage, if that’s not your thing. Some vintage shoppers embrace the styles and shapes of another era, and gravitate towards some more than others (for me, loud 80’s sweaters and nipped-in 50’s waists are always intriguing). But as long as you’re looking to cultivate a timeless style, something that will look like you no matter what year it is, you can probably find vintage/secondhand pieces that will work. Often, they’ll be much better quality for the price than something you could buy new.

Example: My New-to-Me Jacket

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This fall, I decided I wanted a new jacket. Often, when I’m looking for the perfect new wardrobe piece, I’ll look back on what I wore in the past and think about items that really made me feel great, and that I wore all the time.

When I was 12, someone (my dad?) bought me a classic Levi’s jacket for Christmas. It didn’t make that big of an impression on me when I opened it. But even my style-challenged-middle-school-self was instinctively drawn to it. I ended up wearing it almost every day for two years. It went with everything, it wasn’t “trendy” (I fancied myself an alternative kid and wanted nothing to do with the Abercrombie shirts and Doc Marten sandals that all the preppy girls were wearing), and I could wear it over sweaters or tank tops, depending on the weather.

The more I thought about, another denim jacket like that one I had in 7th and 8th grade was exactly what I wanted. I already have a heavy winter coat. I needed something lighter that would work for more seasons and climates. It wouldn’t be exactly the same as my old one; I wanted a slightly oversized fit for more layering potential, and a lighter, brighter wash. I wanted extremely heavyweight denim that would last a long time, and I’d like to know the person who made it got a fair wage and ya know, a day off every now and then. Ideally, I didn’t want to spend more than $50-70.

For those quality specs at that price, secondhand was the natural choice. I poked through the Sofia secondhand shops, but couldn’t find exactly the right item. The jacket I ended up buying was in Spain, and happens to also qualify as “vintage.” It’s a classic Lee denim jacket, complete with the “Union Made” tag, from the 1980’s.

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Lee denim jackets have a history. They come from the 20th century’s golden age of USA textile manufacturing, a time when clothes were made domestically, for working people who expected a lot out from their clothes and knew how to recognize quality. From the 1920’s all the way until around when my jacket was made, the Lee “Union Made” logo became iconic. Not only were the jackets made by union workers in the USA, they were sold to many people who were union workers themselves.

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heavy duty

According to their website, Lee still sells these jackets. They are cut a bit slimmer, some are made with stretch denim (eww), and their website makes no mention of where they are made or by whom. I’m going to assume that means they’re made overseas, since “made in the USA” is now almost strictly a marketing signal for luxury items, and I can’t imagine Lee would still have American union workers making their clothes without mentioning it all over their site. A new denim jacket would be not only be cheaply-made of lower-quality materials, it would also be costlier (to my wallet, the environment, and workers).

For about the half the price of a new jacket, I got one that’s much better quality, and had consumed the water and labor it needed to be manufactured around 30 years ago. Even though it’s as old as I am, it looks and feels brand new. It’s stiff, heavy denim. Most new denim made today feels flimsy in comparison.

Now, it’s from the 80’s and it looks it, which I happen to love about it. The wash is very light and the armscyes are ginormous. Depending on what I was going for, I could style this super 80’s, or I could tone it down with quieter pieces to bring it into the twenty-teens and beyond.

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playing it cool in black jeans and a secondhand gray t-shirt

Do you wear vintage? Do you have any vintage items you love?

 

Fashion Revolution Part 2: My Summer İpek Dress Is Ready!

darling little pleats on my custom Fashion Revolution dress
darling little pleats on my custom Fashion Revolution dress

A couple weeks ago (okay, a month ago), I posted about my Fashion Revolution project: a custom dress, in collaboration with Mila Ateva, a local designer. Last week I went in for my first fitting, and yesterday, the dress was ready.

This isn’t my first item that Mila’s custom-made. She also made my wedding veil:

photo by Vesselina Nikolaeva
photo by Vesselina Nikolaeva

Since I wasn’t the one who made the dress, its creation seems a bit magic to me. In my head, I pictured the mandarin collar, the fitted shoulders, and the pleats above the bust. Mila suggested finishing the pleats with dainty little seams, adding a shirttail hem, and gentle slits along the side of the skirt. And then, there it was, just like I had imagined.

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dream dress!

This was a big contrast from my usual shopping experiences at large retailers, where I set out with a specific idea of what I want, which usually isn’t on the racks. Often, I’m tempted to buy something that only mostly meets my needs, since I can’t find anything that’s 100% perfect.

Don’t get me wrong. I have some fantastic clothes that aren’t custom-made, and that I didn’t even shop carefully for. I recently scored a hand-me-down buttercream silk blouse, from my friend Vesi, that’s turned out to be the piece I never realized I had to have in my closet. One of my all-time favorite shirts was a flannel button-down that I found on the ground in Portland, and wore into shreds (which, in turn, was a replacement for the hand-me-down flannel from my mom, which she was wearing when she delivered me).

My summer dress is neither mass-market, or an accident of fate. It is 100% perfect, because I chose every detail, and because it was made to fit me, and me only, exactly the way I specified. The sensation of wearing it is hard to describe without sounding melodramatic. From the beginning, I wanted this project to be accessible, and to show bespoke clothing as something other than elitist and fussy. So I was careful to pick a durable fabric, and design something practical. Still, the feeling of luxury when I first put on the dress was inescapable. It fit. Not just in the sense that I could get it over my head and button it. It fit the way my most successful sweaters have fit, like little singing Disney birds had flown through the window and dressed me in it.

perfect back pleats. Slightly wrinkled after a day of wear; I hung it up and the wrinkles faded overnight.
perfect back pleats. Slightly wrinkled after a day of wear; I hung it up and the wrinkles faded overnight.

Experiencing the miracle of a perfectly fitted garment had another, unexpected consequence. My body looked great in it, which made me like my body better. Usually, a ready-made shift dress that fits in the shoulders will be tight and squirmy around my hips. Consequently, a dress that fits my hips will droop gloomily off my shoulders. When this happens, it’s easy to blame my body for being “wrong” or “weird.” “If my butt were just smaller, or my legs were longer, or my bust were bustier…” I’d wager that almost everyone’s had similar thoughts when shopping.

But seeing myself in my new dress, I wasn’t just “okay” with how I looked in it. I felt awesome. The front placket hugged my shoulders perfectly, while the body of the dress draped in all the right places.

Taking charge of our relationship with clothes, instead of being passive consumers, isn’t just smart or moral. It’s also an act of feminist rebellion. No really! Stick with me. Renouncing fast fashion, and demanding a transparent supply chain, is a crucial step towards ensuring that garment workers get the pay and treatment that honors their humanity, and their skills. Most of those garment workers are women. On the other side of the chain, women in the industrialized world can revolt against consumerism, which, by design, poisons people against themselves by enforcing rigid and unattainable definitions of beauty.

Whether it means making your own clothes, ordering a custom piece, or just taking your current wardrobe to a local tailor for alterations, I hope I’ve shown that there are alternatives to just meekly accepting what’s on the rack. I feel very lucky that I had the time and resources to commission this dress, rather than settling for something shoddy. Unfortunately, most people aren’t so lucky, and quality clothing has become a luxury, the same way healthy food has.

On an individual level, I felt it was important to show what I can do to challenge consumerism. Any effort helps, whether it’s replacing a button, or even washing your clothes less frequently (check out the fantastic #10WEARS1WASH project for more information).

Ultimately, I don’t think we can find a solution to the current crisis without dismantling the entire capitalist, neo-liberal framework that exists worldwide, and, increasingly, in our minds. For me, this project was one step towards creating the world I want to live in, but only a step. The real question remains, how can we shift the paradigm that is alienating us from the things we need to survive, and devalues human beings?

In the meantime, I don’t plan on buying another dress anytime soon. I have all that I need.

Fashion Revolution Day: Who Made My Clothes?

Spring is typically when New Year’s resolutions go down the drain. Unsurprisingly, the first one to be ignored was my resolution to blog regularly. But the great thing about life is, it isn’t all or nothing, so there’s no reason I can’t recommit to blogging after a two month hiatus.

It isn’t that there wasn’t anything to blog about. I went to Turkey, and Spain, finished a pile of projects and started a pile more. I also got involved with an awesome group of textile artists, and generally conscious, creative people who are leading the campaign for Fashion Revolution Day in Bulgaria.

Who made your clothes?
Who made your clothes?

If you want to know what Fashion Revolution Day is, and why it’s so important, there are already some fantastic resources for you to peruse. For me, it was imperative to use my blog as platform for this movement. Many people in this part of the world are employed as garment workers. As it has everywhere, capitalism has devalued the skills of these crafters and left them subject to exploitation, poverty wages and unsafe working conditions.

Being a knitter, for me, can’t be separated from my role as a community member and a citizen, or as some would say “a consumer.” As I’ve written before, having gone through the process of making garments has changed my entire perspective on all textiles and garment-making. I’m a classic only child; preferring to work on my own rather than in a team. Knitting satisfies all my weird solitary daydreaming needs. However, every knitting project is still a collaboration, between farmers, yarn makers, designers; everyone who contributes to a long and winding supply chain.

For Fashion Revolution Day, I wanted to branch away from knitting and focus on the collaborative aspect of making clothes, by shopping for, co-designing, and commissioning a custom garment. Having something custom-made takes more time and money than buying whatever’s hanging from the rack. However, it doesn’t have to be frivolous or elitist. It can also be an excellent opportunity to connect with crafters and designers in your community.

What I wanted was a summer dress, something I can throw over a bathing suit, but still nice enough to wear to a restaurant. The first thing I noticed is that, when planning the dress, my tastes changed in correspondence to the amount of effort I put into it. I’m not interested in buying two or three cheap dresses, so I need one dress to serve lots of functions. Immediately, my eye went away from trendy prints and fussy details, towards something simple with maximum versatility.

The first step was choosing fabric. I’m pretty picky about the materials I choose. I read somewhere, I think in the Merchant & Mills book, a great piece of advice. To paraphrase: a project is just as much work no matter what you make it out of, so it’s better not to waste your work on something that won’t stand the test of time. Use high-quality materials, and all that work goes into something that will be satisfying to wear forever. I also wanted the fabric to be part of the collaborative process, so I wanted something that I could trace back to its origins, and that was made by people who aren’t exploited.

Öz, camera-shy but super-helpful, at Refik İpekçilik in Beyoğlu
Öz, camera-shy but super-helpful, at Refik İpekçilik in Beyoğlu

In Istanbul I found a rugged, woven silk that was still easy enough to care for. It came from Refik İpekçilik, a textile store that is supplied exclusively by weavers in the far southeastern corner of Turkey.  I originally planned on cotton or linen, but then I saw the grey silk and thought about my materials mantra. It will be the same amount of work regardless of the fabric, so I picked the one I really wanted.

a street kitty snuggles up to the window display
a street kitty snuggles up to the window display

Sourcing the fabric from Turkey also meant that I could keep this project somewhat local, since I’m in Sofia. The next step was to take my fabric to my friend Mila to design my dress.

future sundress...
future sundress…

We sat down and Mila sketched out a design. She understood perfectly when I said I wanted something versatile and simply constructed, and added her own ideas for details that would make the piece really special.

Since I’m all about transparency on this blog, I don’t mind sharing the cost of this project. For two and a half meters of handwoven silk I paid about US$75. For a custom design and pattern, made to my exact measurements, and finished dress, I’m paying Mila another US$115. $190 is a lot more than I’d pay for a knee-length sleeveless dress at H&M. But, it’s a bargain when I consider that I’m getting a unique couture item, one that will fit me perfectly, and that will be an indispensable, all-seasons wardrobe piece for years and years to come. In that time, I could buy nine or ten flimsy dresses that will fall apart or look dated within a few months. More importantly, my dress was made by passionate craftspeople who are being compensated for their hard work. Those people, weavers, dyers, sewists and designers, are sharing their talent and skill set with me.

I’ll post again when the dress is finished, and include more reflections on Fashion Revolution Day and what this little project has done for me. The second installment probably won’t be ready by Friday, so it’ll be posted after April 24th has come and gone. But, to make a real impact on the clothing supply chain, and to change our relationship to what we wear (and most importantly, the people who make what we wear), Fashion Revolution shouldn’t just be one day a year.

There are lots of ways you, too, can be part of the Fashion Revolution. The first step is to ask, #WhoMadeMyClothes? Turn your clothes inside out, and post photos on social media, tagging clothing manufacturers and asking where your clothes came from. If you want to know more about how to get involved, check the site for events in your country.