The new vintage forager: hunting for nostalgia and a war on waste

The new vintage forager: hunting for nostalgia and a war on waste

November 15, 2019

“Mum…”

“Yeah?”

“Do you know what I am getting you for Christmas?”

“What, darling?”

“A t-shirt that says, 'Stuck in the 80s!'”

“Um, thanks?”

Violet was born in 2005 so in 10 years she will be wearing… what, exactly? My bias-cut slip dresses from 1999? I am keeping them for her in shoebox marked ‘Grunge luxe’.

Time flies when op-shopping. Millennials consider the '90s positively antique. In my day (yes, 1986), the hunt was on for '50s day-dresses and '60s winklepicker shoes with kitten heels. I would have rather died than wear anything new from Sportsgirl with a shoulder pad or a jaunty Ken Done print splashed with lemon yellow and pastel pink flowers.

But that's exactly what I’m trawling for on Gumtree this weekend: CUE, Merivale, Dotti and Jenny Kee! The goalposts of vintage shift subtly as you age. Those little housedresses worn ironically on a teenage body look super frumpy on a padded 53-year-old frame.

That’s probably the reason I gave vintage up in the 2000s: fear of looking dated. Going straight, I tried to wear newish clothes. Of course I bought them second hand, at designer consignment shops and on eBay. It was thrifty conformity but only for a while. The designer secondhand market is crowded, I noticed prices creeping up. The demand for silk Zimmermann tea dresses was getting so heavy last year that several companies sprang up renting the dresses out. What a cheek.

Priced out of old/new clothes, I was led back to vintage. The real stuff; the mothball and flea market finds that involved hours at the Red Cross and Vinnies. Vintage in 2019 is a political act in the name of textile waste. It’s a recycling process. And, it's a late-night blood sport for fashion addicts searching for rarities online.

Vintage is BACK. Kurt Cobain’s jumper just sold at auction in New York for almost half a million dollars. Kate Moss has edited a vintage artbook, Musings on Fashion and Style: Museo de la Moda, published this month by Rizzoli. Her handpicked edit of a hundred of the museum’s key vintage pieces is accompanied by style musings from her own wardrobe. Oh, that wardrobe! This is the magic she-cave she dipped into to design a range of affordable vintage for Topshop. Moss is the poster child for historical fashion. Such is her passion that she even released a perfume called…Vintage. Driven by what she calls “instinct”, she’s worn every era from Victorian capes to Art Deco Flapper dresses and US '70s glitzy American favourite Halston. Anita Pallenberg introduced Moss to '70s style. Then everyone followed.

That’s probably the reason I will never truly be able to afford an Ossie Clark maxi dress or a Thea Porter blouse. They are rich-girl vintage, the stuff of Sotheby’s and 1stdibs where labels suchas Zandra Rhodes and Saint Laurent sell for thousands.

Kate Moss, the queen of retro rock chick chic, at her Vintage perfume launch.Credit:Ian West/RA Images

Moss's interpretation of vintage is rock-chick chic but if you think old clothes are an eccentricity for bohemians, think again. Most of the big luxury houses across the world have vintage archives holding their own designs and thousands of nameless pieces that form their design base. Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana, COACH and co. cannibalise good pieces for their cutting rooms and seasonal mood boards. When I lived in New York, I would see the design scouts descend like vultures at dawn on cashmere coats and alligator handbags.

Susie Bick’s label The Vampire’s Wife has upscale riffs on vintage looks.Credit:David M. Bennett/Getty Images

Like a greedy food chain, fashion feeds fashion. And within this cycle, certain labels become cult. Right now, everyone wants a prairie dress. Probably because Susie Bick’s label, The Vampire’s Wife, sells her slightly Ossie Clark, slightly Laura Ashley celebrity gowns in rare silks for $3000 and up. Those prices give me a nose bleed and send me directly back to Gumtree and yard sales searching for the 1971 originals.

Last week I found a Laura Ashley ‘street sweeper’ dress printed with tiny red flowers. Pulling it over my head, I hoped for the best. I must admit when a cotton frock is that old it feels crunchy. And heavy. Often it feels more like wearing vintage curtains than a comfortable summer dress.  Clothes from the '70s are also quite tiny across the bosom and tight under the arms. They feature lace that can make you look like a cabbage patch doll and the stains of parties past. And cigarette burns from when girls used to smoke. Standing at the mirror in my “find”, I look a bit like Rumpelstiltskin. I wanted to look like Jane Birkin. I really don’t. But that’s not the point. Decade-dancing with clothes lets you live in a bubble of loving nostalgia and delicious denial, like it’s 1979 for 40 years in a row. Rock on, gold dust woman.

Often it feels more like wearing vintage curtains than a comfortable summer dress.

I admit that some of my more extreme vintage pieces look like costumes. And yes, I make my daughter cringe. At the school gates, I brave the Laura Ashley. “What are you doing?” she hisses. Kneeling down in the playground with my enormous hem splayed out I share with her the three secrets of cherishing vintage: “No one else has this thing!", "Life’s too short to wear white jeans” and, of course, "Let them stare!”

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