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?