Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Vintage Fits Like A Fine Wine

Threadbared posted an awesome article the other day about the political ramifications or at least insinuation of what we wear - especially in reference to vintage. I was super into this since I think vintage stuff shaped who I am before I was even old enough to pick out my own clothes. My maternal grandmother has the most amazing attic and basement full of everything anyone in the family ever wore. Her house itself is totally crisp and modern in that Mad Men meets 1980s mirrors and fake plants way - but the attic and basement are so packed that only one narrow path leads through each. You might find her sister's prom dress from the 1930s or the boxes of 1960s floor length cocktail party dresses.
Or if you take another turn it'll be amazing shirts from the trips to Hawaii in the 70s or cruises in the 80s. And it isn't just my grandma's clothes...its all three of her children's from infancy until they left the house in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. I've worn these clothes since I was a baby. I grew up not really thinking it was weird to wear pinafores over all my dresses at a time when everyone else was wearing neon. This probably was helped along by the fact that the only barbies I owned were from my paternal grandmother who'd discovered a box of 1960s and 70s Barbies and Skippers in her own attic. In Jr. High and early High School I was totally a snob about what was really "hippie clothes" since all of mine came from the actual era of hippie. I felt bad for girls who had to buy their paisley shirts at the mall. Next was the era of the hipster t-shirt when I found a stockpile of 1980 Summer Olymics shirts. Then I discovered the furthest section of the attic with my aunt's 1980s aerobics clothes and a new era was ushered in. Of course the elastic was shot in almost everything but it was a phase when I didn't mind replacing elastic or sewing things to be tighter or just layering them to work out. I think all my galpals in art school had an embarrassing 80s bathing suit -probably the one thing you shouldn't wear due to the disappearing elastic problem.
Above is me and Gram in the 80s. And me on my first day of first grade. Below is Gram and Pop in the 50s, and Mom and Dad in the 80s-dressed for a costume party. We still have at least one of the dresses I'm wearing, Gram's dress below, Dad's pants, and the shirt mom is wearing which was my great Aunt Gia's from the 30s.

In their post on vintage Threadbared mentions Gertie Lang's Blog and her post Vintage Sewing and Gender Politics. Gertie, who is really into 1950s fashion, received a comment that was concerned about the celebration of Fifties fashion being an un-feminist move. Gertie, who does consider herself a feminist, wrote the following questions as a way of thinking about this.
  • Is wearing a fashion from an oppressive time period indeed a symbol of that oppression?
  • Is there such a thing as "reclaiming" these fashions so that they are symbols of power rather than domination?
  • Should we only make patterns from the eras that were the least oppressive to women?
  • If wiggle skirts and the like are offensive to those with feminist sensibilities, what is the alternative? I mean, what could we possibly wear that would establish us as feminists to those who view us?
  • Are 50’s wiggle skirts really that different from modern pencil skirts?
  • What about current fashions that are restrictive? Stilettos, Spanx, etc? Skinny jeans? Are these symbols of oppression towards women?

Gertie responds by saying that she usually changes the patterns a little bit to be more contemporary and girdle free - and that she sees it as a way of honoring the lives of the women who came before her. On the blog Renegade Bean, they discuss how although they love this era of fashion it is at times hard to overlook the fact that as Asian Americans this would have been a doubly difficult time with the repercussions of the Japanese Internment Camps and Chinese Exclusion Act. However both Blog's writers admit that they will go on loving vintage -with all the good and bad baggage it entails.

I've also thought about this era of vintage a lot. I think its why I tend to like a mix of eras. I find that my generation tends to be a motley crew of appropriation, at this point we've run out of eras and we're back in the 90's - in a decade we're old enough to actually remember.

I guess I've had some phases of being skeptical of 1950s fashion - there were a few girls I remember who did a really uptight version of it and were strictly into gardening, cleaning, and baking pie's for their crushes. I think that's why as in and out and in again as the riot grrl vintage look is, I never really loose my love of it. In any city with a good music scene and a high unemployment rate you will always be able to find these girls. I think I love it because the look is more post modern and self aware. Its like if you took Betty Draper out for a burger and a Bikini Kill show and then threw her in the mosh pit. Its a look that's all tongue in cheek with the concept of femininity. I mean maybe its a little bit too much like those magnets with the sassy 50s housewives on them.

Nah, riot girls had more sass.

Babes in Toyland

Then when I think about it there was also a lot of 50s and 60s nostalgia in the 80s. Just look at the B-52s. Cindy Wilson and Katie Pierson rocked those beehives. It wasn't quite as roughed up but it was certainly self aware. They don't look too uncomfortable in those outfits either.

This is my favorite B-52's video Theme For a Future Generation. Does that mean they made it for us?

Its interesting though to think about what the eras that were great for women were. Like if you're gonna wear vintage....are the 30s really so progressive? Even the 70s were pretty rough. Wearing your hair long isn't really a sign of emancipation any more.

Well unless you're black. It seems that going natural with your hair is still fairly unusual. I bet people in the 70s thought it would be old hat by now.

People really went crazy when Solange Knowles cut her hair short and natural recently.

As far as the 70s go there are plenty of girls who tried to look punk and rebellious in a more dude rocker sense. Take this video where L7 looks like a mix between the Ramones and Nivana.

But then again all the boys probably wanted to be Patti Smith.

It seems that everyone was always looking to some other era. Kim Gordon had her ode to Karen Carpenter. John Waters helped us remember all the naughty bits of the 1950s. And Grace Jones was doing Don Draper way before GQ started declaring it the new look.

I think that in a lot of ways embracing vintage fashion has always been a feminist move. First of all one of the most powerful modes of oppression that we still deal with is economically. Women are expected to constantly be upping their wardrobe to stay more current and therefore appear relevant and worthy. By being creative with vintage (or your own patterns like Gertie) you can stay outside of the massive expense of trends that have been developed to keep you in a hamster wheel of desperation. Its also a good way of keeping your head clear to make your own decisions. While I totally recommend making your own better fitted vintage patterns or altering your vintage to fit ( we don't live in the age of girdles anymore), I do think that there can be positive aspects to walking a mile in someone else's high waisted pants. Sometimes older is better.

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