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“If anyone has a divinely seedy raccoon coat lying around the house, riddled by a few heavenly holes and ravishing rips,” Nan Robertson wrote 60 years ago in the New York Times, “now is the time to wear it.” Robertson’s claxon call for wearing 1920s raccoon coats — those giant, shaggy full-length furs that were all the rage for frat boys on pre-Black Tuesday college campuses — feels fresh. Who doesn’t want to wear a seedy coat rendered divine by the passing of time? Fashion’s dime may turn on the new, but vintage clothing springs eternal: All time is the right time for vintage clothing.
It hasn’t always been thus. Few modes of fashion can point their fingers and touch their exact beginning, but vintage clothing can, and it is those raccoon coats. In a Smithsonian article published this past February, Jennifer Le Zotte, a professor of material culture at University of North Carolina-Wilmington, pinpointed the birth of vintage to a Greenwich Village dinner party in late December 1956. When bohemian Sue Salzman bemoaned a lost chance to buy a 1920s raccoon coat, a fellow dinner guest said his father-in-law had bales of them in his storehouse, and while the ’50s rage for Davy Crockett coon caps was eating some up, most were moldering. A trek to the warehouse was organized, everyone got a coat, and a fad and a fashion mode were born.
Vintage clothing, like the nouveau riche, wants to separate itself from its déclassé relatives, in this case used clothing or secondhand clothing. Vintage may today seem a discrete category, but it in essence it’s the latest way to sell clothing that other humans have already worn. Well into the Victorian era, clothing was a fungible item, something you counted along with your furniture and your silverware as part of your assets, and while people took pride in owning new clothing, there wasn’t a lot of shame in wearing used clothing. The mid-19th century acceptance of Louis Pasteur’s idea of germ theory, which connected the spread of disease and human ephemera, changed the value-free status of used clothes. Secondhand clothing became suspect, and selling it became morally questionable — and the province of poor, often Jewish immigrants.
The way that secondhand clothing moved from suspicious to significant is the basis for Le Zotte’s book, Goodwill to Grunge. Le Zotte argues that used clothing was first “sanitized” by outfits like the Salvation Army and then migrated to romanticizing flea markets in fundraisers for post-war France. Only when used clothing was taken up by bohemians did it become fashionable. These counterculture types wanted to affect a look of “elected poverty,” which placed them outside conventional 1950s bourgeois fashion — and into bombing around in 1920s raccoon coats that looked “munched upon by moths and held together with safety pins, “ as Robertson said in 1957. And thus used clothing assumed a gloss of glamour and slowly became known as “vintage.”
“This idea of the raccoon coat craze, which led into the expansion of secondhand as collectible,” Le Zotte said in conversation with me, “starts with wanting to say, ‘I'm not part of this middle class. Everybody can afford to buy new clothing now. So I want to show that I'm more special.’” Looked at this way, “vintage clothing” might be broadly defined as garments that have enough age on them that they’re no longer au courant, yet have sufficient style to make them chic. Vintage clothing’s tie to age may seem to act like a historical category, but the elasticity around what precisely makes a garment “vintage” means that it’s a marketing strategy. After all, as Le Zotte shows in her work, no clothing was officially “vintage” until 1957, when a Lord & Taylor’s advertisement used the word to promote those tatty raccoon coats.
By the mid-1970s, vintage clothing was an indisputable moneymaker, and big stores wanted a piece. Manhattan boutiques were stocked with “vintage embroidered silks, clinging crepes, floating chiffons, and ruffled prints,” a 1976 New York Times article says, marveling at the range of garments available to “recent converts to the vintage clothing cult.” Within a couple of years, big retailers got into the vintage game, with department stores like Macy’s, Abraham & Straus, and Bamberger’s opening vintage boutiques. It’s hard to imagine Carol Brady bringing Marcia to shop the vintage store at Macy’s, but consider that the mid-to-late 1970s was also the time of Little House on the Prairie, Happy Days, and The Waltons. Nostalgia had a market share.
You don’t need to be an economist to spot the issue with big retailers selling vintage clothing. Put this finite quantity of vintage clothing up against the endless stream of new clothing, and the demand for vintage is always going to outstrip the supply. As early as 1978, big Manhattan vintage stores like The Attic and Unique Clothing Warehouse were whinging about scrambling to find stock for their stores. The latter found a temporary solution in making vintage replications, or “newly manufactured ‘old’ clothes.” This new-old clothes model is something that ModCloth is most famous for today, but throughout the ’70s and ’80s, companies like Reminiscence and Urban Outfitters exploited middle-class taste by making new-old clothes.
As you’d expect with a product that’s scarce and getting scarcer, vintage clothing has grown more rarefied — and more expensive — over the decades. Last May, French designer clothing consignment site Vestiaire Collective announced the opening of its vintage division. A labile category, “vintage” at Vestiaire is, according to a promotional email, defined as “pieces designed at least 15 years ago,” and the site sports Comme des Garçons, Hermès Kelly bags in a rainbow of colors, some outrageously shiny Thierry Mugler — and eternal cool chick Chloë Sevigny as its spokesperson. The use of celebrity to sell vintage is a direct growth of celebrities wearing vintage on the red carpet, a trend that began in 1997 when Cameron Silver opened Decades, a vintage shop catering to stars like Julia Roberts, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Gwen Stefani. Celebrities wearing vintage today is, like, nbd.
Vintage clothing devotee Syrie Moskowitz has unique insight into the phenomenon of celebrity vintage. An actress and artist who has appeared in Kate Spade’s campaigns, Moskowitz has been wearing vintage since she was a child. “I always was wearing little weird white Victorian dresses. I looked like a creepy doll all the time,” Moskowitz says. These days, 30-year-old Moskowitz mixes and matches vintage with contemporary clothing, and understands that buying vintage clothing is “buying an experience, whether that experience lasts one evening, two evenings, or maybe the rest of my life if I'm lucky.”
Celebrities wearing vintage is a different matter. “The majority of red carpet celebrity culture involves stylists picking and deciding what pieces someone's going to wear, but it's basically product placement and advertisement,” Moskowitz says, “and there's nothing wrong with that. But that's distinctly what it is, even if somebody does — or doesn't — wear a dress. So for somebody to wear vintage on the runway, there's a way of them saying, ‘I'm wearing this just for myself.’” It may feel paradoxical to see a celebrity wearing a five-figure collectible gown as a form of anti-capitalist practice, but given that they’re paid to wear off-the-runway garb, the stars are not like us.
Some people continue to find their vintage the old-fashioned way: pawing through bins of dusty frocks at flea markets and church sales. More are flocking to eBay and Etsy, which let you fondle from a safe distance. But many vintage acolytes rely on small vintage boutiques, like New Orleans mainstay Bambi DeVille Vintage. Like Moskowitz, whose mother sold vintage clothing, DeVille was born into it — her father was an antiques dealer, her mother was a milliner, and her grandmother’s glamorous clothes seduced her into vintage. DeVille followed vintage history’s progression from flea-market finds to shopping in boutiques, eventually opening one of her own in 1998.
Increasingly, DeVille says, she’s been using the term “antique” to define — and thus to market — the clothing she sells. “I've started actually saying ‘antique and vintage clothing’ because I consider Edwardian and Victorian [garments] antique clothing, and 1920s clothing is antique.” DeVille sees the vintage market as becoming ever more expensive. “In 20 years, they're just gonna be more valuable; they're gonna be in little, very specialized boutiques for high-end collectors,” she says. In other words, as clothing grows old enough, it moves from being special to being history.
Yet unlike an antique lamp or train, vintage — or antique clothing — is not forever. Moskowitz notes, “Clothing is ephemeral. I wore a 1920s dress last night that I just love, and it just crumbled. And that's just part of life.”
Vintage clothes may not last forever, but the category is here to stay. And if you want to wrap yourself in vintage’s birth, you can still get those 1920s raccoon coats, by the way. There’s one on Etsy, and it’s kind of a bargain for $100, divine holes and all.