The Value of Vintage

Friday, May 4, 2012

So, apparently the 90s are vintage.

The Vintage Festival says so, so it must be true, after all, they own vintage now, right?

This article has caused a minor storm in some quarters and a re emergence of the debate about what constitutes vintage anyway. I’ve kind of written about this before in 2010, and 2011, so it seems it’s time for my annual revist.

Some people refuse to accept anything post 1960s as vintage, calling it instead retro. Some believe that vintage carries with it an innate implication of quality and value (which to be fair seems to be the dictionary definition). Others think that the George at Asda dress they bought from a Charity shop constitutes vintage.

90s style from Beverley Hills 90210

You’d think I’d have more of an emotional connection to the word “VINTAGE”, considering what I do, but apart from a minor frisson of annoyance when people decide to tag the word onto any event featuring cupcakes and bunting, I confess I’m not really that bothered. I’ve always considered the word in a clothing sense merely to describe clothing between 100 and 20 years old. So yes, I think 1992 is vintage, it certainly has a definable “look”, though, Like Tuppence Ha’Penny, I’m happy to leave most of it to people who didn’t wear it first time round!

Like Tuppence Ha’Penny I also consider the word retro to mean “In the style of” or retrospective. So looking back to previous styles. It’s this, I think, that has led to much confusion and shopping based irritation as many shops describe their range as “vintage” when what they really mean is “retro”.

So Vintage describes the age of clothing. Retro describes the style of clothing. But who decides it’s value?

Well, simply, you do! People who grumble that they used to be able to buy 50s frocks for £5 but now it’s so trendy that they have to pay £50 for them are setting that value, as they still want that dress enough to pay £50. If the seller puts the price up to £500 and people still pay it, well, then that’s what the dress is worth.

Much like jewellery, the intrinsic value of an item of clothing is in it’s fabric. The value of the workmanship that went into making it, the quality of the stitching, the name that’s associated with it, and the style of the garment is much more esoteric. A 1970s Ossie Clarke dress with a Celia Birtwell print is worth a lot of money to someone who has the foggiest idea who Ossie Clarke and Celia Birtwell are. To someone who doesn’t and just thinks it’s a pretty dress it’s worth no more than a Supermarket knock off of the design. In fact, it might seem to be less worth buying because it’s cost may make it unwearable, and lets face it, it’s second hand.

It’s not up to us to decide what value an item of clothing has to someone else, only what value it has to us. I might find it laughable that someone would pay actual good money for second hand clothes I was wearing in the early 90s, but no one is asking me to pay for them. I only buy the things that are of value to me, and then I decide where that value lies.

I am not a fashion collector or historian. I know a little about fashion history and fashion designers, but mostly there are just styles I like, and styles I don’t like. My interest in vintage clothing is sparked largely by social history and extreme soppiness (and the fact that vintage often fits my shape better) rather than fashion. I love to think that someone wore this dress before and now I’m giving it a second interesting life. Some people hate that, and that’s fine too.

To a collector a mint condition, designer article has a high value. It means little to me, so I won’t pay it. I buy retro styles, whether they’re new or vintage themselves now (I love my Charity Shop 70s does 30s styles), and I rarely look at a label unless it’s just to get an idea of age. I’m a mug for an item that’s been engraved, embroidered, or otherwise shows that someone else had it before me. Where as to a collector that’s anathema.

When I was little my Mum sold my Sindy house. I wrote a note in the top asking the new owner to look after it and my Mum was really cross. I wish all the clothes I bought came with notes like that. I love finding theatre tickets in old handbags, or names and addresses in old suitcases.

I’m lucky that, in general, other people don’t value those items as highly as I do, so I generally buy them for a pittance. If Vogue sparked a sudden fashion for scribbled all over Sindy houses next year and the price shot up to £1000 then would I still buy this stuff? Probably not as I don’t have a £1000, if I did, I might.

At this point it leads me to separate out the idea of vintage as “style” rather than an age. Should that trend for “things people have scribbled on” take off this year then I’ll have to stop indulging my passion for other peoples old junk, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop wearing my Heyday dresses and start wearing tracksuits. I discussed vintage as referring to a subculture last year, but as I mentioned earlier, it seems to be increasingly used as a substitute for the word retro. Dressing in a style that refers back to a previous decade has come to be seen as Vintage, whether or not that particular outfit contains a single item that is considered Vintage by it’s age.

So, should I more properly refer to my style as “retro”? Probably. Will I? Probably not.

The meaning of words twists and changes with common usage, and at the moment, spurred by the arrival of vintage mags, vintage clothing ranges, vintage festivals, and *gulp* vintage websites like most of the ones I run, the word “vintage”, in popular usage, refers both to a style of clothing that refers back to a particular decade and to clothing of a certain age or value.

So to cut all that waffle down to size.

  • Yes, the early 90s can be considered vintage.
  • No one is going to make you spend a lot of money from things from the 90s if you don’t actually like them.
  • Different things are of value to different people for different reasons.
  • Vintage is just a word that, at the moment, seems to refer to both the age of clothing and it’s style.
  • I find styles from the 20s-50s generally appeal to me most.
  • I also have a secret soft spot for all the clothes I wore in the 90s, but that doesn’t mean I’ll wear them again (lime green mini skirt and psychedelic stretch satin shirt anyone?)
  • I am a soppy old cow and if you see me coming you should probably add an extra fiver to the price of that scribbled on old suitcase.
25 Responses
  • Perdita
    May 4, 2012

    “It’s not up to us to decide what value an item of clothing has to someone else, only what value it has to us.” YES.

    To be honest, once we get past things being accurately labelled when sold, if people start whining about how vintage newbies are using ‘our’ word or ‘not really vintage’ it grates on me. And reminds me of the 90s. Because we all remember debating who the ‘real’ goths/metalllers/ravers etc’ were, based on semantics and details, when we were desperately insecure 14 year olds in cliques.

    Vintage and retro are words to describe clothing or other items. There is an associated sub culture (indeed I would say a few overlapping ones) – but it’s the spirit of the thing that counts- not cliquey values, pedantry and semantics.

    • Gemma
      May 4, 2012

      My thoughts exactly!

      I’m far too old for cliqueyness.

  • Old Fashioned Susie
    May 4, 2012

    Excellent post Gemma!! I couldnt say it better myself x

  • Mim
    May 4, 2012

    I still wear some of my 90s clothing. I realise it’s akin to me stamping a “Best Before 1999” print on my forehead, but I bought the things because I liked them and I still like them! Weird to think of it as being called ‘vintage’ though.

    If prices start rocketing, who knows what I could get for a 1991 brown topshop shirt with reindeer all over it 😉 (My favourite item is a green floral velvet babydoll dress from Miss Selfridge, winter 1993. No-one’s getting that…)

  • Charlotte
    May 4, 2012

    Bravo, very nicely written piece. Value of vintage, as with anything, is defined by what someone’s willing to pay for it.

    Incidentally I have a scribbled on suitcase you might like – a bargain price of only £100 to you 😉

    xx Charlotte
    Tuppence Ha’penny Vintage

  • Penny Dreadful Vintage
    May 4, 2012

    Ultimately it is just a useful tag to group things under, so there is no point getting precious about it. We all enjoy different parts of it, and you know, I probably will end up buying old 90s stuff I didn’t get a chance to wear the first time around 😉 x

  • missmatilda
    May 4, 2012

    I really don’t care either way to be honest, so long as whoever buying the vintgae 90s stuff likes it. The cynic in me says 90s stuff is far easier to find so if you label it vintage it becomes a wanted item. So VF (AKA VAG) will be raking it in with stalls with 80s & 90s fashions….

    In the late 80s I didn’t wear anything post 50s – so my personal rule is a 30 year rule! But , you woun’t catch me in a 1983 dress…………

  • Paperdoll
    May 4, 2012

    Excellent post, I reckon anything made 100 years ago is antique, 20/30 years ago would be vintage and anything ‘new’ with an older style/look is retro. I’m a vintage enthusiast, I really just wear what I like as I don’t want to look like the teenagers in the high street anymore, I don’t buy glossy mags or watch reality TV. An item is really only worth what someone will pay for it at the end of the day, if it’s seen as ‘trendy’ some people will pay more, just to be ‘on trend’.

  • Miss Magpie
    May 4, 2012

    I think the only thing that annoys me is when a dress that is still on sale in Primark is called ‘vintage’ or as you say a local fair has bunting and cupcakes and suddenly it’s a vintage fair. Other than that I don’t care. People are far to precious.
    I do laugh at the people who refuse to accept things they have worn in their lifetime being called vintage.
    You know what people? it comes to us all, getting older is the one thing you can do bugger all about and it’s inevitable that things you wore at one point in your lifetime will eventually become vintage!

    There are some things from the 80’s and 90’s I wish to god I had kept, but ce la vie (not that I could fit my lardy arse in them anymore mind!)

  • Suzy
    May 4, 2012

    I’m happy with the 90s being classed as vintage and agree it has a distinct look. I wouldn’t wear it though, hehe (I was there the first time round). I wonder if what we are wearing now will be classed as vintage in 20 years’ time? Maybe it won’t matter then, I don’t know. But your post, Gemma, makes some really good points and I find myself agreeing with pretty much everything you say. And Perdita makes a good point about cliques. Live and let live, that’s what I say.

  • Suzy
    May 4, 2012

    Sorry, another musing from me: I’ve just been thinking about why some people tend to discount the idea that fashion from eras they have lived through is vintage. I was born in 1975 so I remember 1980’s fashion onwards. Okay, I don’t discount it but I really wouldn’t wear it. It’s mainly because it doesn’t fit in with my aesthetic values, but I have also often wondered whether it’s also because it holds no mystery for me because I was there at the time and, essentially, it’s mundane. Are we seduced by fantasies of the past?

  • clarabelle
    May 5, 2012

    Like you, I share the love of things with their history literally written all over them. I bought so many dresses in TZ that have come from the US, where people seem to write their names in clothing a lot more often than here in the UK. In one case, I inherited a dress from a friend and wondered who “Nadine F” was. She was, in fact, known to my friend and she told me a little about her! Passing things down and re-wearing feels …like being connected to people the world over. As though we’re sharing an element of ourselves through the clothing choices we make. It’s a reminder that our lives are intertwined and there can be something that transcends a single lifetime, even if it’s only an echo, a label stitched in the back of the neckline.

  • Casual Wear
    May 5, 2012

    Great article, quite strange to think of 90’s clothes as vintage. Many people add vintage on the label in order to put the price tag up.

  • Desirae
    June 25, 2012

    Thank you for your article. I am one of those that gets their feathers ruffled when people say the 1990s are vintage. This is hard for me to accept since I wore these clothes when they were new. Maybe it’s because I forget just how old I am getting. But, you make valid points. Your post has made me take a deep breath and calm down. Thanks! :)