What is “Vintage” Anyway?

I’m confused. This happens easily.

Sometimes the answer is just not to think about things too much, but it’s too late, I already have. I think this has been floating aimlessly around in the back of my head for some time, as a kind of amorphous, shapeless half formed question. But now I finally have to ask. What the hell *is* “vintage” anyway?

The word vintage, as applied to clothing, can apply to anything between approximately 100 and 20 years old, depending on who you ask. So currently that’s approximately 1910 to the late 80s, ish.

But “vintage” over the last few years seems to have started to apply itself to a subculture. I’ll be honest, I have no idea what that subculture was called before it became vintage. If you speak to some people they’ll tell you they’ve been rockin’ and rolling or attending 40s events for decades, but all I know is that I’d certainly not heard the word “vintage” applied to a group of people until some point in the last 10 years.

More specifically it seems to apply to a group  of people with a particular love for the styles of the mid 20th century, say 1920-1960. But those people need never have been near an actual piece of vintage clothing in their life. Their wardrobes could be entirely filled with Topshop, and vintage repro.

So I guess what’s been floating around in my head is “Why am I “Vintage””. Both self defined and defined by others the word “Vintage” is used to describe my interests and my style. Yet my style is very different to other people also described as “vintage”.

Back in May Jenny Yesterday wrote about narrowing her wardrobe down, to reflect her favoured era’s of 1947-1956 (though it’s worth noting she too points out that being too uptight about these things is foolish!). Such a thing would never occur to me as I plunder every decade for my daily outfits. From a full on (repro) 30s look for the Chap Olympics to early 60s Chic for a Breakfast at Tiffanys party, to mixing and matching 30s hair with a 50s dress. Landgirl1980 wears a very definite 40s style, though much of her wardrobe dates from much later, and Style High Club is at heart a 60s chick. Yet we all identify with the word “vintage” to describe us as a group.

If you’re not wearing actual vintage clothing, and the people who are described as “vintage” all have completely different styles, then what is it that separates a modern repro 30s inspired style from the 1970s borrowings from the 1930s, or even this September’s 30s inspired “high fashion” Mark Fast catwalk show?

Is it that interest in the actual history of the clothes and items that you’re wearing? Is a “vintage” gal in a brand new Biba dress from House of Fraser different from a “fashionista” in the same dress because she bought it knowing that it might be 70s style but the 70s was all about the 30s anyway. Is she “vintage” because she KNOWS that her shoes are in the style of a different decade than her dress, even if she doesn’t care?

When I hear people complaining about a lack of actual interesting content in Vintage Life Magazine is it because Vintage Life, is really just another Women’s magazine and us “vintage” women, we want more? We want to be informed about the people who wore the styles and the clothes the first time round. We want to know how they were made, why were they were made and why they were worn.

Could this also be the source of that slight frisson of antagonism between the sudden fashionability of “vintage” and the “vintage” sub culture. They are 2 different things with the same name. The fashion for vintage that incorporates cup cakes, Cath Kidston and many of things that I remember being called “shabby chic” 5 years ago actually has very little overlap with that emerging vintage subculture of intelligent and stylish chaps and chapettes with a taste for elegant early to mid 20th Century style and a bookshelf full of history books.

So what happens when the waters recede?

What happens when bunting goes out of style again and the charity shops are full of last seasons lace trimmed Primark blouses?

I’d like to think that “vintage”, or whatever it ends up being called in future, will be enriched by its flirtation with fashion. That some die-hard vintage fans will have a renewed interest in an occasional foray into High Street shopping and some fashionistas will have a little bit more knowledge about the history of style, rather than just looking to next seasons disposable trend. Some people who started buying into vintage as a fashion trend might fall in love with events like A Marvellous Cocktail Party and the Ric Rac Club and stick around for next years.

Lets face it, you don’t know these things exist unless someone tells you about them. I know I didn’t! Maybe the fashion for vintage has bought a lot of real history buffs crawling out of the woodwork.

What does the word “vintage” mean to you? Has it moved beyond a merely descriptive word for clothing of a certain age?

Is it just another fashion fad, or is it here to stay?

  1. The word means absolutely nothing to me, but seems to currently be marketing and PR ‘gold’ and that is all is really is. I’ll just continue having my ‘interest’ in the past and running into people who share it like your good self! x

    • I’ve always thought that as word to describe clothes or wine it made sense. But it seems to have become more than that, in that ever evolving way that our language has. I am interested to see if it’s a fad buzz word or if it’ll stick around in it’s new incarnation.

      I’ve definitely met MORE people with similar interests in the past 5 years or so.

  2. Very interesting post, especially as for the last few days I’ve been researching if there is an official definition for which eras are vintage (there isn’t as far as I can see).

    I think vintage is a subculture and as with all lifestyles everyone has an individual interpretation of it. For me it’s about appreciating past designs and a deep-rooted interest in history. I love the 60s but would equally say I have a huge passion for 30s art deco and really love some contemporary fashion designers. For me that’s not a contradiction but just a reflection on the fact that each decade has produced something design or culture-wise that I find interesting and that becomes part of my life.

    • I do think that interest in history and design seems to be the defining feature of people who are into more than just a look. Whatever your decade of preference.

      I’m drawn to the 30s Art Deco stuff, for instance, but I do love Pop Art and the 50s Atomic styles too.

    • I have read the word was coined by someone who now manages the Vintenzia vintage events in West London…whether this is true provenance or PR stuff I know not.

  3. Really interesting post and it is good to reflect on these things. I use the word vintage and identify with it as a style but only in the absence of anything better. I like to think that I wear the clothes that I like but that this liking is increased by having an awareness of the history behind the clothes and the reasons why people wear what they do.

  4. I think most people who label themselves as “vintage” have an interest in the history behind their look and they are making a conscious decision to dress this way. While their style may evolve and change, it’s not because it’s not longer “cool” or “in”.

    I don’t wear a ton of actual vintage patterns not having a 26″ waist or the ideal body shape for my favorite (or any) period but I do make a lot of my clothes using vintage or repro patterns which I think is very much in the spirit of one of “my” decades-the 40s.

  5. Wow, now I’m confused too, lol. Like you, I’m happy to plunder all decades for my wardrobe, but just lately I too have been wondering if I should try to narrow it down to a pure 1950s look, but hmmm, I’m not sure. Also, I love Cath Kidston and bunting and the romantic side of fashion, but also have an interest in the proper historical side too. I adore vintage, but like repro and have recently noticed that friends refer to me as ‘vintage’ too. I just don’t know where I belong, but I do love it all, and I do love just being different to the masses.

  6. Quite frankly, the idea of being involved in a subculture fills me with dread. And it’s a part of people’s mentality I will never understand. How does that make you an individual? I have a personal obsession with the Sixties and Seventies and I don’t particularly need to hang around with people who dress the same as me, and I don’t particularly need to get the look spot on either. In a way, I rather like the fact that this seems to be largely reserved for a certain type of 40s/50s crowd. I’ve cautiously entered club nights connected with the eras and music I like, but I’m happy to just flirt with it. I don’t need it to define me.

    However, the Seventies look has been so relentlessly plundered for the designers and the high street that I can’t help but feel very miffed about it. I actually felt queasy when I recently saw someone on my train wearing a floppy felt hat in the evening. The moment people who don’t truly care about vintage start looking ‘try hard’ with that kind of thing, is the moment it dies a little bit for me. I’m happy to admit it, because I’m a snob.

    If my website name wasn’t vintage-a-peel, quite frankly I think I would start referring to myself as a secondhand clothing dealer. The word vintage is meaningless these days. It was a nice term for a while, ensuring people thought of clothes as they would think of a fine wine or car, but it’s come to mean the same as ‘retro’ and I am so bloody bored of hearing it! ;)

    • I don’t mind a sub culture as it can help you meet people interested in similar things. If a sub culture didn’t exist neither would the club nights! I’d hate it to define my life though! I’ve written about that before. I have other things in my life, real ale, a mild to moderate Buffy the Vampire Slayer obsession and a love of Terry Pratchett books for instance. What makes people interesting is their variety.

      I think the over use of the word will wear off soon and you can go back to being Vintage-a-Peel in peace!

      • I think as soon as something becomes a consciously noted subculture it’s over.I completely agree with you Miss Peelpants, hard-core vintage isn’t for me. I love the 60s but could never imagine going to a Mod club night (I think my love for Ossie instantly dsiqulifies me from mod anyways…).

  7. I have learnt that vintage clothes are clothes that are 25 years or older. Were they made before 1920, they’re called “antique”. With haute couture it’s different tho. Here a piece of clothing can be called vintage after just a few years. But if we go by the 25 years or older rule, clothes are vintage (today) if they were made before 1986.

  8. A good post; I like the challenge you laid down.

    As with all things, its down to the individual; and societies need to ‘label’ people. I try to wear mainly mid to late 40’s and some early 50’s. Although I’ve got a couple of late 50’s dresses and a fabulous fake fur coat from the 70’s.

    But regardless of the label, or if I am ‘on trend’ how I see myself in my mindseye, matches how I look. And that’s all that matters to me.

  9. I’m 60, so perhaps ‘vintage’, myself.
    For me, vintage is a kind of rebellion. A rebellion against the recently popular, ‘I don’t care how I look’ or ‘I just want to be comfortable’ manner of dressing. I try to dress neatly everyday, and I do take care to look like MY VERY BEST SELF.
    Often that ends up looking slightly ‘vintage’, 40’s-esque, when my intention is really ‘clean and neat’.

    • Blimey! This is a question that has long since been on my mind, as the continued and excessive use of the word ‘vintage’ to refer to age of items, second-hand clothes, and styles of dress along with anything that looks remotely ‘shabby-chic’ or country kitchen shows no sign of fading away!

      It’s a funny one for me; I tend to refer to my personal style as ‘vintage’ (for want of a better word) when talking to most people I meet, mainly because I find that this is how they tend to see and define me. My interest in clothing from the past has evolved through from a look including 60’s style shifts and 50’s dresses and circle skirts mixed with any other looks….through to a more 50’s-centric style…which very quickly developed into an interest in 40’s clothing and, more specifically, an interest in all things WWII. Since then I have settled more and more into a 40’s look, but this is all very rooted in an interest in the history of things, as well as, I suppose, a little rebellion against the nations love for jogging bottoms and trainers (though I am known, like most, to sport a pair of leggings and an oversized jumper on those dreaded off-days).

      More and more people I meet seem to think that because of how I dress, they can predict what sort of thing I will like too- at carboot sales for instance: “Oh, I’ve got something here you will just love. Have you seen it?” (waves a sequinned 80’s thing in front of my face) “It’s vintage, you know” *Le sigh*

      At the moment, ‘vintage’ has, I suppose, become a bit of a blanket-term for anything old, anything inspired in some way by the past, and most of all, as a term to refer to all the people who take an interest in the styles of the past for whatever reason that might be, or whatever era they may emulate. It is an unspecific term for people with a love of history and historical clothing styles, with a great many cliches lumped in for good measure!

      Whatever ‘vintage’ is, I don’t let myself get too concerned with it, I just know what I like, and adore seeing other peoples interest for the past too. xx

  10. I have no freaking clue. How that’s for a reply! :) I would have a hard time saying there is a vintage subculture, but that’s because there isn’t one where I live. There aren’t glorious vintage events, and tons of people dressed to the nines in vintage or vintage-inspired wear. But that being said, I do feel part of a vintage subculture online. Thank goodness, too, as it’s kind of maddening being the only one (save my partner) who cares about vintage fashion at all of the people I know. At least I can reach out over the internet to others who share my interests. So I definitely think whether that exists where you live changes your perspective on the relationship between vintage clothing, high street style, trends, etc.

    I don’t think my personal definitely of what vintage is has changed much since I first used the term in high school (and I’m 34), for better or for worse. In general I use it kind of how you described, referring to fashion, furniture, etc from about the 1920s-1960s. I know people are starting to even refer to 90s fashion as vintage but I refuse to believe I’ve lived through any decade that could yet be referred to as vintage. ;) For me it’s not just style. It’s definitely history, too. I’ve always been a huge history geek. Which came first for me? History geek, I think, style later, although not originally geeking out about the decades I later was dressing like (um, let’s just say I’m not walking around in 14th century clothing, lol). But I think the seed was sown.

    I think I generally look more 40s, but I throw in a good bit of 50s too, and I’m definitely not examining labels and construction and such to make sure all my pieces are strictly from those eras…in fact sometimes I think I’m probably often dressed all in more 50s clothes with 40s shoes and hair, and I’m totally ok with that. I gravitate towards what I love and what makes me happiest and makes me feel most comfortable, be in actual spot-on-era vintage pieces, things I’m sewing myself (not many of those yet), repro pieces, random thrifted pieces of unknown origins or pieces I’m mixing in from other decades to get the feel I’m looking for.

    In the end I guess I don’t really care what vintage means, so long as I can keep on doing what I do no matter what it’s called or how the word vintage is used. :)

    (Sorry to be so wordy!)

  11. Hmmm. Hmmmm. Hmmmmm. HMMMMMM.

    Vintage is, to me, deffo a bit of a buzz word at the moment – well – that’s how is seems to come across anywho. Like you have said – wasen’t that sort of stuff just “shabby chic” five years ago? 5 years ago, I would have been descirbed as dressing in a retro manner – and then all of a sudden “vintage” popped into the mix and here we are.

    For me, I take the “make do” approach of the 40’s-eque looks I try to convey – so I literally “make do” with what I find on the high street and various 2nd hand outlets. I came to this look through being absorbed by the history of women in WW2 and how they adapted and carried on. This came from a general love affair with womens history in general.

    ps) “a mild to moderate Buffy the Vampire Slayer obsession” – eh? Well.. next time we meet – remind me to tell you about the time I danced with Gunn, was bought a drink by Joss Weedon and was called “cutie” by James Marsters. Oh – and was so nervous/in love with Xander that when I had my photo taken with him I literally could not speak.

  12. It seems that ‘vintage’ has a cover-all feeling to it these days in the same way ‘antiques’ covers a wide area of both goods and eras. Currently I feel it is over used and abused as in the fashion label ‘Authentic Vintage’, and by media people who don’t really understand the phenomenon. Hopefully they will all get over it soon and as Miss Peelpants says we can go back to being secondhand clothes dealers:)

  13. ‘Vintage’ for me denotes a time period, roughly 20s-50s, although it can also denite something not quite that old but original and representative of a particular time (eg a 1980s bottle of Christian Dior Poison).

    I actually find the ‘vintage subculture’ and current ‘vintage’ trend quite alienating, because they narrow things down from anything of a certain age to ‘THIS’. So soft rose lipstick was actually being recommended in the late 1930s, at least in the publications I have from that time, yet all anyone thinks is red, red, red.

    I just like old tat, me. I’m more into books, comics, perfume and film than clothes, that’s for sure.

    • Oh yes- the red lips thing drives me mad! Clearly pinks, corals and buffs have been worn throughout the years, but everyone thinks red lips = 20th century.

  14. I think that ‘vintage’ as a term to describe modern clothing with a nod to the past is rather odd. Period accurate clothing isn’t vintage either but it can be described as vintage repro which ‘vintage style’ modern fashion just cannot (in my opinion!). I also think that there’s such a huge difference between the period accurate people and the kitschy retro people who tend to get noticed more for being ‘vintage’. If you took Lauren Bacall in her ordinary clothes out of 1944, she might not look out of place in 2011 for instance in sweaters, jackets and slacks with no make-up! And that’s the style I like, not because I am obscenely obsessed with being period accurate but because I like the history of it, it sort of makes me feel more connected to the past, whilst a rockabilly dress does not.

    I guess for me, in terms of actual dates, vintage tends to be 20s-50s whereas 60s-80s is retro. 90s is modern, people! I remember them and I’m only in my 20s.

  15. I often feel wrong calling the 70s and sometimes the 60s Vintage as it used to be retro as far as I was concerned 80s to me is still retro But I think putting it all under the vintage umbrella makes it easier.But when I tell people I collect Vintage I always say acually its anything from the 70s and back that I collect.
    I love so many eras I am happy to collect it all and even some reproduction look alike vintage I am happy to wear too

  16. I’m so glad you mentioned the whole shabby chic resemblance. I didnt like shabby chic when it came out 5 years ago and i didnt realise shabby chic = vintage until I read vintage life magazine (hence not a fan).
    “Vintage” seems too hard to describe as the spectrum blurs borders with retro, rockabilly and even into phychobilly, punk and unfortunately shabby chic.

    I agree with most people in that I dont care if it’s now a buzz word as long as it allows me to connect with like minded people. When you live in a small country town it’s nice to connect over the internet (although small country towns are full of vintage lovers who dont even know there’s a whole subculture like them).

    p.s This reminds me of about 8 years ago when everyone was trying to define emos. comic book nerd/ whiny teen/ seth from the OC.

  17. oooh so interesting. I am/was part of a huge subculture – yes I’m one of those 40’s/50’s type & no it doesn’t define me! – and have to say it didn’t bother me, I wasn’t constrained by it I am just surrounded by people with the same interests as me. However the whole use of ‘vintage’ has driven me insane in the last few years. The only advantage I see is that I have met all sorts of people because of it whereas I only used to meet my peers at clubs, those interested in what I’m interested in. Also have been doing it for 20 something years *ahem* so these are my friends, not just people who wear the same era clothes as me.

    I am with Miss Peelpants in that I feel the 50s has been plundered & misrepresented so much it annoys me.

    I kind of just wish it would end before more beautiful vintage items are wrecked, ‘repurposed’ or just chucked out, this is probably the thing that distresses me the most :o(

  18. Good post. I’m a 60s gal at heart and have been for the past 15-20 years or so, but I like to plunder other decades for inspiration too. To me, ‘vintage’ simply means the past, and by that, I mean anything pre-the year I was born (1975), because this is a world I never knew and which holds mystery. There’s definitely a nice big pinch of escapism involved for me! I agree with others who’ve said it’s a buzzword right now, but it was in fairly common useage in the mid 90s and I remember a small boom of vintage shops in good old Norwich (Bad Style, Viva, that one above the Movie Shop). But it had a much smaller fanbase then and was even sneered at, probably because it’s basically secondhand :-) I don’t mind the current interest because it means a better choice of clothing on the high street and a wider choice of genuine vintage too. If people want to be ‘into’ it for a season, that’s fine by me. I’ll just carry on loving what I love.

  19. When I first started to buy 60s-70s clothes, they were called ‘retro’ and associated with indie, mod-revival and Britpop. I have just continued combining vintage and modern clothes and styles, creating my strange themic style – I find it quite interesting shopping now, because I don’t look perod-accurate I’m sometimes patronised by shop staff who were probably in nappies when I first bought my 70s purple Adidas jacket I’m wearing. It make me chuckle really. Or think, to quote Ab Fab in the snooty art gallery ‘you just work in a shop, you know’.

    I would describe myself as having vintage/retro interests – not just in fashion but in food history, home decor, even tracking politics and education through the 20th century. I admire people who are period-perfect in their attire – Landgirl1980 is fantastic and what’s great is her interests and passions are expressed through her style. I have never dressed to be part of a ‘clique’, and would probably class my clothes as eclectic and thrifty… but I enjoy ‘doing vintage’ as part of my lifestyle.

    • Come to think of it, you’re right about the word ‘retro’ being used to describe 60s/70s clothes in the mid 90s, and not so much ‘vintage’ as I previously suggested.

  20. I think that “vintage” has become a a way for some to reject the medias’ obsession with having to look a certain way to be atttractive, i.e. slim, blonde, acrylic nails & fake tan etc etc. It’s about personal choice and being a bit more individual. Either expressing yourself by identifying with a particular era, or distancing yourself from mainstream fashion trends. I’ve always been a bit of a history buff, and love the social history aspect of the 30’s in particular but it’s only been over the past year or so that I’ve felt able to really experiment with my “look” maybe that’s because I’m much more confident as I’ve got older or maybe it’s more to do with “vintage” being so much more accessible now, with more outlets and the example of the beautifull vintage loving gals out there. Designers have always raided the past for inspiration, and most high street store have pretty much the same styles in “en masse” at the moment vintage is their buzzword, not that long ago it was all “prairie girl” everywhere you went!!