The History of Modernity Fashion Show

The past is everywhere. It is in the hipster scene, in Bohemian-styled bars, in catwalk collections, in speakeasies, in Burlesque and cabaret, in the styling of Mad Men and umpteen other TV shows and movies. Most of all, it is in vintage clothing.

Vintage shops have sprung up in towns around the UK while vintage-styled clothing ranges appear in H&M and M&S. Top Shop’s flagship Oxford Circus store has an entire floor given up to vintage and upcycled clothing and accessories while ASOS adds a vintage section to their site.

The boundaries of vintage stretch from last decade back to the beginning of modernity. It brings the 1970's, 1940's, 1930's and even the 1890's into the present day. It is all of modernity at once. But only modernity. The middle ages are not vintage, they are antique. This is a characteristic of fashion nostalgia. Art Nouveau enjoyed a similar revival fifty years ago:

“The nostalgia that pervaded culture in the 1960’s and early 1970’s was of a distinctly modern cast, focusing on a past that had slipped away only some 20 to 100 years before. It was really the recent, modern past that people hankered after.”

Elizabeth E. Guffey. Retro

This hankering after the modern past finds satisfaction in genuine old items and in new items in a vintage style. Unsurprisingly, genuine vintage has much more kudos. When the blog Vintage Brighton asked readers what they preferred, everyone who responded opted for the real thing.

There are 33 vintage shops listed on Vintage Brighton. Combine this with regular events, fairs and concerts and given that the scene takes in fashion, furniture, jewellery, toys as well craft, music and film events and Brighton has a reasonable shout to be the heart and soul of the UK vintage scene. London may have a more shops overall but they are spread over a much larger area and shared by a much bigger population. By headcount and by the square mile, Brighton is a highly concentrated vintage petri dish, making it perfect for some intense scrutiny.

This scrutiny was conducted at three vintage events:

1. Vintage Nation

Vintage Nation is a moderately sized weekend gathering at Brighton racecourse comprising market stalls, exhibitions and live music. The people here are a mix of students, young couples, families with kids and the occasional cowboy-hat-wearing C&W types who look like relics from some earlier revival movement. The range of styles stretch back from Seventies, through the Fifties, Forties, the Swinging Thirties and all the way back to the Industrial Revolution thanks to the Steam Punk adherents weaving their way through the crowd on Penny Farthings. With so many variants of modern fashion in one place at the same time, it is like a history of modernity fashion show.

Collectively, the Vintage Nation crowd are as far away from David Cameron’s Old Etonians as they are from New Labour’s Islington dinner party set. But neither are they from the shopping mall. They are from somewhere else entirely, another Britain that is neither mass-normal nor high-achieving London elite. They are from the towns. They are dissident enclaves buried deep in IKEA-land, weekend countercultures, quietly asserting their difference through the styles of the past.

They have come to look for clothes and furnishings, to get photographed beside old cars, picnic in the early summer sunshine, dance to Psychobilly and watch Burlesque shows and 30’s revival bands. In the bar they drink Crabbies alcoholic ginger beer, eat cupcakes, play tiddlywinks and enjoy the chap-hop of Mr B, The Gentleman Rhymer, who raps about tweed and crack.

If all this seems a bit twee then beware, this is twee with teeth. Vintage has a satirical bite.

Those groups of strong and independent looking young women in floral frocks and headscarves, gathering at cake stalls, may conjure up some pastoral idyll, but their clothes are from the Forties, a time when the world was at war. That air of strength and independence comes from channelling the spirit of the women who went into the factories, shipyards and farms when the men went to war. They dress like the generation who proved that there was no such thing as men’s work. The furniture hall is full of sideboards, chairs and ornaments from the 1970’s, a decade known less for domestic harmony than for strikes, the National Front, riots, punk and a nation tearing itself apart. The beige and brown colour schemes soothe the anxieties of a nation in crisis. Steam Punks on Penny Farthings celebrate the era of the Victorian middle classes, which was also a time of slums, child labour and rickets. Many of the products that vintage forsakes, the cheap fashion of the high street, are produced by the poor of the developing world.

2. Vampyr

Brighton’s Duke of York cinema on a Sunday afternoon and the tiny foyer is crammed with people waiting to get in to watch Vampyr, a black and white, silent German movie from 1932. This is a Steam Punk event and the attraction is Steven Severin, founder of Siouxsie and the Banshees, who wrote the score for this screening and will perform it live. Vampyr is the fourth in a series of silent movies Severin has recently scored:

“I realised that I must have been subconsciously been drawn to the Romantic ideal of the ‘loner’, the ‘“Byronic wanderer’, as each film features a single male protagonist searching for something they cannot quite grasp.”

Stevin Severin in The York Press

Steam Punk lies at an extreme and funny outer edge of vintage. It turns its back on iPad’s and Augmented Reality in favour of the imaginings of pre-nuclear, pre-electronic, pre-computer, pre-space travel futurists. Inspired by the Victorian sci-fi of Jules Verne and Aldous Huxley, it is 19th century futurism, all brass dials stitched into Sherlockian cloaks, jewellery fashioned from watch components and lots of tweed. It is Tintin, Conan Doyle and all those rollicking adventures in library books hungrily consumed in the childhood bedrooms of its now grown-up adherents. Steam Punk is where a loose cultural grouping begins to look like a good-natured cult. The ones who ride the Penny Farthings certainly seem to have their tongues in their cheek and there are others who can be spotted all year round striding solemnly through Brighton’s streets decked out in plain nineteenth century working man’s gear like they’ve just stepped out of a Lowry painting.

3. Mink Night

Mink Night at The Old Market in Hove is the spirit of ’29 channelled into today. The girls are in flapper dresses and pearl necklaces. Their hair straight and their lipstick pillar-box red. The blokes are all high-waist trousers, braces, waistcoats and bowler hats. In a bold act of individualism, one guy wears a fez. A nice comedy touch, bringing to mind Marx brothers movies. The music is electro-jazz. Thirties party music with a dance drive. There’s a couple of live bands with big line-ups including brass sections and chorus girls while the laptop’s apple logo twinkles in the background. Jive dancers claim the area at the front of the stage and at one point the compere throws a pile of “worthless” dollars into the audience to celebrate the 1929 stock market crash. People here party like it’s the eve of the apocalypse.

Moving from the weekend countercultures of the vintage festival, past the vintage sci-fi of Steam Punk and into the stock market crash revivalists of Mink Night feels like time travel. The fact that all these styles are popular right now begs a question about our current state of mind. It is time to widen the scope of our research.

Quora is a website where smart people answer questions, so I post this:

Why is vintage trendy?

From clothes to home furnishings, vintage festivals to vinyl revivals vintage seems to be everywhere. Why?

There are three immediate replies. The first:

“The trendiest people need to be distinct to show that they are trendier than everyone else. This usually means staying ahead of the crowd, but even if they find that unique item, other people will soon enough find it and wear or use it themselves. The advantage of vintage is that you can find some thing that no one else has and no one else can buy, which will leave you looking unique and original.”

Tatiana Estévez, Astonishingly baroque

The originality of vintage items provides a look that is not only different but also inimitable. The appeal of vintage on one level is being able to create a look that is genuinely different in a market that offers only a limited number of items in a limited number of mainstream stores. Vintage is about finding a way of expressing individuality and so standing apart form the mainstream.

The second answer:

“The best and most comprehensive answer to this question recently appeared in Vanity Fair here: The answer lies not just in people wanting to be unique, creative or one off; but in the much deeper issue of the stagnation of style evolution in recent decades. I highly recommend taking the time to read this piece.”

Candice DeVille, Vintage Stylist, Model & Blogger

The article was written by Kurt Anderson. Throughout the twentieth century male fashion changed in dramatic leaps every twenty years or so, until now. The male look of 1932 was very different to the look of 1952, which in turn was different to 1972 and ditto 1992. After 1992 however, nothing much changed. The checked shirt, jeans and chinos, outdoors and work wear look stuck. It is still the dominant style in male fashion in 2012.

Anderson argues this is partly a consequence of the fashion industry going global and the big labels no longer being able to cope with the pressure frequent fashion shifts put on their production systems. The market decided to keep things the same.

Trying to simplify choice is what markets like to do, but usually people fight back, assert their own individuality and force things to move on. However, there is a second factor at work, which is lessening the appetite for new ideas in fashion.

Anderson suggests that from the 90’s on there was so much change coming from technology that we could also no longer cope with big leaps in fashion. Through computing, mobile telephony, the Internet, the dot-com boom and social networks, we are being bombarded with so much innovation, so many new ideas that our desire for newness is sated. We don’t need fashion to give us a sense of progress because we were getting it from technology. We accept a stagnant fashion market because we were asserting our individuality through our phones and tablets. Our gadgets say more about us than our clothes. Trends like Geek Chic can be seen as fashion acknowledging it is now subservient to technology.

The third answer:

“To some people It has a lot to do with reinventing, and also going back to our roots; recognizing and reusing items that was somehow successful before in order to be cool and in a certain way conscious on purchasing, consuming.”

Leila Albanese, designer, artisan

To look back in order to recover something that has been lost is a Romantic instinct. The Romantics looked back to the classics to reconnect with something essential and authentic in the human spirit that had been lost through industrialisation. Now, in an increasingly technocratic world, where work and leisure is mediated by screens and a social networks are a surrogate for community, vintage looks back to a pre-digital time to find something lost.

Stella Mitchell, curator of The Land of Lost Content, argues that plundering the past for comfort is the thing of the Noughties. This sounds a bit like Romantic Recidivism, a term coined to describe our tendency to become culturally conservative when we can’t control the future. In a similar vein, Paul Morley describes why there is still such a large demand for anything to do with old music heroes like John Lennon, Pete Townsend or the Rolling Stones.

“Everything happens at once now and everything is available and we’re panicking about losing our home, our home bring the twentieth century, the home being everything we’ve structured and at the moment we’re clinging onto our home which is these kind of things — nostalgia and a comfort — and its like a panic about what’s going to happen when these things go away.”

Paul Morley Review Show

The new century has unleashed a seemingly unrelenting series of psychic disruptions from 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, the Credit Crunch, Great Crash and the recession, the Arab Spring, London riots and the EU Meltdown. For 15 years we have the feeling of spinning through out of control like George Clooney’s character in Gravity. It is hardly surprising that we crave some comfort but vintage is about more than solace. It is also defiant. We don’t dress in yesterday’s clothes simply because we want to retreat to some comfortable past. In these outfits we attract the gaze of the present and we stare right back.

In the early 70’s there was a vintage scene based around London and New York boutiques like The Last Picture Frock, Nostalgia and Paradise Garage. In his book about David Bowie and that era, Peter Doggett describes how vintage clothing was affordable at a time of strikes and shortages, ecologically sound and introduced some glamour from the past:

“This applied especially to Thirties chic that passed rapidly from artists such as Lindsey Kemp (with his ostrich feather fans) into the mainstream, growing more popular as the west drifted further into recession — as if the only way of coping with a return to the economic emergencies of the pre-Second World War era was to reinvent its style as well.”

Peter Doggett. David Bowie and the Seventies,

Our need, then and now, is not simply comfort but strength. To face up to hard times we dress ourselves in the clothes of people who faced similar times. In doing so we make a political statement. We are saying this has happened before and back then people looked like this. Vintage, like those other old media, is memory.

Vintage takes the style and sounds of older hard times and brings them into today’s hard times to remind ourselves that there is something we can learn from those less wasteful, more resourceful times. We can remember how to make things that last, to hand things down, to repair and mend. Vintage is a memory that shames the disposable society. It is also a rebuke to a culture that is forgetting what was fought for in the past.

Women’s vintage fashion is often drawn from the style of decades when women were asserting power and independence. It is the style of pre-war Berlin and of the war years; of the sixties and the first attempts to crack the glass ceilings of the white-collar workplace and of the seventies, the first decade after the Pill. Vintage is the style of past defiance. It is fashion of liberation frowning on an age that doesn’t remember why liberation was worth fighting for.

“To a Sixties observer, these days the liberation of women on a Saturday night in town looks very like the freedom to get falling-down drunk.”

Jenny Diski The Sixties

Fashion can be seditious. It can undermine dominant ideas and the very act of dressing up can be political. In 17th century England laws were introduced to restrict the style of clothes people of different classes could wear. It was an attempt to stop tradesmen dressing like nobility and so protect the feudal class system. It did not work and before long the aristocracy were copying the style of the emerging bourgeoisie.

Dressing up is the act of defiance that gives vintage its edge. It says that there is something wrong with the ideas that dominate mainstream fashion, be they generic styles, disposability, gender stereotyping or the whiff of the sweatshop. It says that there needs to be an alternative. The vintage revival creates a climate for ideas about craftsmanship, products that are made to last and made sustainably and fairly. Vintage is a statement about the need for new ideas in fashion.

The vintage movement is a shared longing for the values and style of a time that never really existed. The 1930’s, 50’s, 70’s and 90’s were never all present at the same time, except in our time. So vintage is not really about yesterday, it’s a longing for a future. If this future is in keeping with some of the key values of vintage then it will be strong and defiant and it will value longevity.