The “Vintage” Backlash (Or Why I Won’t be Hanging Up My Petticoats)

Friday, June 29, 2012

Something funny is going on in the happy land of “vintage”.

For a long while we were happy with our victory rolls, and maxi skirts, happy to spend an evening mixing and mingling. Ladies with tea dresses chatted with ladies in mini skirts and chaps with moustaches chatting to tattooed rockabilly babes.

And, for the large part, that’s still the case, but I sense dissension in the ranks.

Recently Emma Peelpants and Tuppence Ha’Penny both posted excellent blogs discussing whether there was more to vintage than victory rolls and a mid-century aesthetic. Which, of course, there is. In the online world there have been rumblings of discontent about the pre-eminence of polka dots, pin ups and bunting in any publication or event that calls itself “vintage”. Where, we want to know, are our cocktails, our smartly tailored suits and our ground breaking early feminists in this world of tea, petticoats and housewives?

Tea, petticoats and housewives were all part and parcel of the vintage world, but now it seems that sometimes the cynicism of the marketing machine has taken over and all those other types of “vintage” are being squeezed out.

On talking to many “vintage” chicks it seems that many of the women who turn to a vintage inspired style, whatever their take on it may be, often do it out of a desire for something a bit different. In their younger days they often sported dreadlocks or stripy tights. Many of them also have a particular love of social history, they know why copying Veronica Lake’s hairstyle could be so dangerous in the 40s and they know that in the 50s you’d far more likely see a victoria sponge on the tea table than a cup cake.

But now Vintage is mainstream, but only a specific kind of mid-century, Cath Kidston floral drenched, victory rolled, baking and cups of tea in mismatched china sort of vintage. Less than a year ago I could write about whether people felt they were brave enough for Vintage. Now Trevor Sorbie is popping into to produce these horrendous Victory Rolls on some poor unsuspecting staff member.

I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but this is my humble take on what I see.

All the increased press interest in the world of vintage has been a welcome thing to most people who’ve been running businesses inspired by vintage or writing vintage blogs because increased press means publicity, sales, readers and, ultimately, money.

Then, in the continual hunt for new markets and new subjects, the “big boys” got in on the vintage act and they started expecting these people and businesses to work for “exposure” (that means “for free”), they asked people to lie and pretend they lived a lifestyle they didn’t really live and they generally jumped all over the word “vintage” and all the people that loved it, whatever you take “it” to be.

So people start to feel dissatisfied. Those people who turned to a 40s and 50s style of vintage out of a certain independence of spirit and bloody minded desire to look a bit different feel like their look is being taken over and dictated by fashion magazines. Those who favour a 60s or 70s aesthetic start to feel a bit left out of a scene that they were happily involved in before.

The darker side of vintage. Courtesy of Emma Peel Pants

So, has the backlash begun?

My personal feelings about it all are mixed. It’s frustrating to see fashion magazines who blatantly don’t have a clue about anything that happened more than a year ago talking about “40s style bobs” on the catwalk. I like a bit of bunting, but I wish it didn’t all have to be “vintage” bunting and I feel a mild frisson of irritation when I see yet another “vintage” tea room that last week was just a tea room.

On the other hand I remember the renewed sense of body confidence that discovering vintage clothing gave me. I remember that curling my hair wasn’t something I could just magically do, despite years of trying with tongs, I had to learn, and that for the first time in my life I had hair that didn’t drive me insane with my inability to do anything with it. I remember the excitement I felt on finding a group of people that liked things like the Andrews Sisters and dresses with waists, just like I did, and I remember how pleased I was that everyone was so welcoming in this little world that seems to have become called “vintage”.

I hope, in my possibly rose tinted way, that the current obsession with victory rolls and petticoats might lead some people into dalliances with a style that will make THEM feel that way. That they’ll discover more about history and vintage styles and they’ll find their own look, just like I did. I hate the thought that they might feel intimidated or put off. It’s one of the reasons I love being part of the Historical Sauces. We try and combine learning to create a look with a sprinkling of fashion history and we try and make it accessible.


Individuality is great, but if you’re allowing what other people like or don’t like to dictate your style, then you were never individual in the first place. If you like those victory rolls don’t give them up just because everyone is wearing them. If you want to look like a 24/7 pin up that’s your choice, if you lean more towards a depression era housewife look then GREAT! Team your 40s suit with a beehive, or finger waves with a mini skirt, whatever floats your boat. Maybe you like to pull out the pin curls for special events, but live in jeans day to day, who cares? Just don’t try and pretend you’re something you’re not.

So, are we vintage till we die? Maybe not. But we can do “vintage” our own way and not let it’s current fashion status affect us.

It’s your life, your look, and you should never let anyone tell you how you should look, think, or feel.

Just a quick note, I do feel funny about using the word “vintage” in this context, but it’s a convenient short hand and a word I knowis used commonly to self define a style, culture, whatever. Take it how you will! I’ve written more about what the hell “Vintage” seems to mean here
29 Responses
  • Liz Tregenza
    June 29, 2012

    I agree with so many points you make here Gemma, and it is difficult. I adore vintage, but my love mostly stems from the social history aspect. I’ve increasingly tried to get away from just looking like i stepped out of the 50s (one of the reason why i got my hair cut short) because I got fed up of people saying things to me like “Don’t you wish you lived in the 50’s?” erm. No. I would have never had the opportunities i have had if this was the case!

    Also, there is this big problem of “vintage” and just associating this with the 50s. Personally, whilst I don’t often wear it I am incredibly passionate about design of the late 60s and early 70s too. And yes, in many events claiming to be vintage, this aesthetic gets forgotten about.

    Of course there is also the problem of just using it as a tag word, which is one of my personal bug bears. A missuse of a term. Now more or less meaning second hand. It also annoys me as much as the missuse of the term curator….

    Anyway! That was my (slightly too long) two pennies worth : )

  • Kate Collison
    June 29, 2012

    Very good piece. I probably fall betweeb two stools myself because as you know I dip in and out of ‘vintage’ dressing and era’s at will. However, that doesn’t mean I can look at the whole Cath Kidston / cup cake / keep calm and fill in as appropriate and not want to scream.

  • Minn
    June 29, 2012

    The interesting thing is that before this ‘vintage’ business the sixties and seventies nuts, particularly the former had their own scenes. Really you would run into someone in a nylon mini dress and you would chat but they would have little more in common with you and your 30’s or 40’s aesthetics than someone in an equally interesting interpretation of ghetto rap bling. Personally I find the seventies kind of crap so I choose to largely ignore the fashion and design of the era and don’t want to be surrounded by the clothes and paraphernalia. There is an active scene here which has not made allowances for earlier eras, anyone remember the mod revival of the late 70’s/80’s?

    As a child of the seventies that era is neither vintage or even really very retro for me! So I would really rather go to events that exclude the seventies and late sixties stuff. I think however that if you have an event that is claimed to be all encompassing it should be, and I will enjoy it because I know that I might have to stomp to Mud (much better at that than jiving!).

    The problem here is inevitable, this ‘vintage’ thing was never grass roots or even authentic, it was a load of very young women wanting a bit of fun – nothing wrong with that. We’ll all continue being 50’s, or 40’s or 60’s fans as we were before. Those who have come to it newly and developed a genuine deep interest will not lose it, and don’t have to dress up to express that. But I must admit I have found the whole thing deeply infantile, a bit like wearing tartan during the BCR craze which is why the infantile childish elements: cupcakes, spots and twirly hair, have predominated. I like all those things well enough but you know, we’ll all find our own level of happiness with it once we realise that the idea of a encompassing vintage scene was all bollocks to begin with! x

    • Perdita
      June 29, 2012

      Really? I have worn 60s and 70s since the early 90s, and have always experienced ‘cross over’. Perhaps because I came from a collecting background so whilst I wear a lot of 60s-70s, I collect 30s-50s stuff for my home.

      I find the most vehement ‘stay away retro’ people are the younger ones, who say things on forums like “I have been wearing vintage [ie repro prom dresses] for TWO years and anything that isn’t 50s is antique if it’s older or retro if it’s newer…”

  • Louise
    June 29, 2012

    I agree, personally I loved vintage before it was mainstream, and I’ll love it after too. I don’t stick to an era, or a style and that’s ok because I’m being me. Great post. X

  • Perdita
    June 29, 2012

    Very wise words indeed. Just because some people want to make cash out of something, doesn’t mean it can’t be fun for those of us who loved it before it was mainstream. Rejecting something because it’s mainstream is rather, well, angry teenager!

    I for one shall keep on wearing my own take on vintage/second-hand. A lovely man at work said that sometimes he sees my outfits and says “wow” because they are so unusual, and some of the kids sing songs from appropriate eras (disco hits, Grease, 90s…) when they see me in the playground (in a nice ‘in joke’ way). I would like to reflect on that in a wise way, but actually I just did a little air-punch and went ‘yesssss’. Who cares if the marketing moguls don’t think I’m vintage enough… I’m making myself happy, cheering up people I know, and spreading the “respect everyone, regardless of how they look” message in my bright pink and yellow frock!

  • Mim
    June 29, 2012

    I agree with you 100% that giving up something just because other people like it is as much allowing people to dictate what one wears as much as following the herd.

    Ironically, I find the steampunk subculture, which has a strong look of its own, far more welcoming of my vintage-mishmash-with-science-fiction tastes than the ‘vintage’ one. That said, both subcultures are suffering from the problem that commercial interests want to play in their sandpits nowadays, and to dictate how the people who were already there should be doing things. The best thing people can do is not abandon the things they love, but stay firm and keep doing it their way. (Of course, people evolve away from things, only boring people stay the same their whole lives, but that’s very different to being driven away.)

    • Gemma
      June 29, 2012

      I agree with you 100% here! I find Steampunk fascinating too, but I’m equally intrigued by how many rockabilly and “vintage” girls I’ve met are into comics, sci fi and computer games!

      Genuinely I’ve never felt the slightest bit judged for my clothing choices till it started to become “mainstream”. It’s a shame, but u can also see how it might make people who liked the non judgment want to distance themselves from the idea, and that could seem, in itself, to be judgemental.

  • Jeni
    June 29, 2012

    Its an interesting issue Gemma, and I find it sad if people who are passionate about authentic vintage clothing and lifestyle can let a fashion trend make them walk away from it. I can honestly say it doesnt bother me that much. For a start thats probably because I don’t pay all that much attention to main stream trends anyway. At some point every subculture gets channelled by mainstream fashion, and as you say, maybe thats a good thing if it introduces people to the vintage lifestyle and they find out what is so amazing about it, like we have. I imagine the majority of people who have been influenced by a magazine’s version of vintage, will not be wearing it in a few months. Mainstream versions of vintage don’t bother me, probably because I know its not vintage anyway and if people want to wear crappy hairstyles and think they look like they are from the 40s well then good for them. As long as journalists do their homework, and get dates right etc, (that really irks me!) I don’t feel that it reflects on me, what I wear or my lifestyle. I don’t classify the way I look or dress as anything, I just happen to like well made clothes that are usually old, and I like old music and furnishings and design. I know that I will be living this way for a long time to come, and that fashion trends will have moved on to something else as fast as you can say cupcake!

  • Sandy P
    June 29, 2012

    I’m finding my trouble is that I was already doing to polka dots, full skirts, curled hair thing and this year after deciding that the housedress style of the 40s doesn’t really suit me, I’ve embraced the whole “pin up/rockabiilly” thing. But now there’s this sort of backlash to those apsects so I now think that when “others” (heh…sounds so melodramatic!) see me (not that they do often…not sure what I’m whinging for really! LOL!) they’ll think I’m part of this new media inspired look and that I should be frowned upon until I go back to “normal” and leave the vintage thing alone for the more discernable vintage enthusiasts.

    Phew…not sure if I’ve made sense there but never mind eh!? LOL!

    • Bunny
      June 29, 2012

      I know what you mean and I agree! I wear a lot of 70’s style clothing (ironed jeans with huge turnups, velvet jacket t’shirts or shirts with big collars) as day wear and 50’s/rockabilly(full circle or pencil skirt, quiffed hair,’nice’ top with either black knee high boots or winkle picker shoes!) inspired as going out wear. I made myself a great maxi dress from a 1970’s sewing pattern but then they came into fashion in a big way and for some reason I felt that I wanted to say to people ‘I’m not wearing this because its in fashion I always wear stuff like this!’ So ye,s I get what you mean!!

  • Miss Peelpants
    June 29, 2012

    “Those who favour a 60s or 70s aesthetic start to feel a bit left out of a scene that they were happily involved in before.”

    Very true. There’s a camaraderie between *some* mid-century fiends which can feel icily hostile to people like me, who like to wear ‘Seventies kind of crap’. When I read something like what Minn wrote below, that’s when I feel genuinely sad. I would never dream of saying something so negative about people who enjoy ’80s and ’90s styles, nor would I want to actively avoid them in my life or at vintage events. From a historical point of view, it is just as valid as anything else – regardless of my personal experience of growing up in those eras – and I possibly admire them even more for choosing to buck the trend.

    I just want the wider fashion world, and big business, to give up, bugger off and leave vintage alone for a good long while. And they will, when the bubble bursts and they stop making money out of it. I have customers all over the world who buy Sixties and Seventies clothes because they love them, I don’t need magazines or whoever telling people it’s ‘on trend’ to be able to sell my clothes. They sell on their own merit to people who are genuinely passionate about them.

    Most of the listed definitions of vintage in dictionaries pertain to wines, but states also “representing the high quality of a past time”. Doesn’t define the past time, it just has to be in the past, and of a good quality. And nary a mention of victory rolls! πŸ˜‰

  • Honor
    June 29, 2012

    Well observed post. Thank you. I ‘found’ vintage through dancing, eg: I learnt to dance and realised that when I went to a ‘dance’ I wanted to wear a nice dress…

    Several years later I’m sitting at work (dress-down friday) in a red 50s style day dress, it isn’t vintage I adjusted a boot sale find but with my regular work-a-day hair style (when its sleep or hair, sleep wins).

    I agree with other comments that I do this for me, I don’t pay attention to main stream or Cath whatshername or all marketing hype, things rise and fall in popularity. For me I love the challenges of learning and research; if its re-learning to sew (to fix my dress), do my or friends hair in neat barrel curls/rolls, perfect my eyeliner, buying the ‘right’ china cabinet for my Beswick Ware and grandmother’s china, or learning to dance. These and many other things including and making some new and valued friends are all down to me dicovering ‘Vintage’.

    I expect that some people will judge that I am not ‘vintage’ enough, as some do. But I’m happy and that’s all that matters to me.

  • Stephanie
    June 29, 2012

    Style is about feeling great. Where I live, there is not a bustling vintage or “vintage” community so I really don’t have a lot of this mainstreaming in my life. I wear vintage because it makes me feel beautiful and fabulous and different. I love it and I’m going to keep wearing it as long as it makes me feel that way. I’ve not been part of the vintage scene for very long (only two years) but I have no doubt that the mainstream fashion world will get over vintage and move on to something else. Here in the states, it’s 80s retro that is on trend and I’m more than happy to stay way away from that.

  • LandGirl1980
    June 29, 2012

    What a cracking post.

    I have become bored with the way the word “vintage” is used – so much so, that I have started to step away from it and use the word “retro” instead – because I feel that it is truer to my own style and the things that I sell.

    I loathe the big boy cashing in, and the “hey, do you want exposure?” of some magazines. Makes me cringe. These types are taking peoples genuine love of things to make themselves cash and treading on peoples feelings whilst erasing their own integrity – if they had any in the first place.

    I don’t know. Maybe I plod along in my own little bubble, with my circle and my interests. Suits me just fine πŸ™‚

    I say again, cracking post πŸ™‚

    • Suzy
      June 29, 2012

      I like the term SusieQ used in her guest post for Gemma to describe vintage items. She called them “original” – original 50s dress, original 60s shift etc. I remember this is how it used to be. Vintage is such a buzzword now. It was only a matter of time before people started to turn.

  • Suzy
    June 29, 2012

    “Stay firm and do it your way” – I second that! Give it time: the mainstream interest will blow over and those that are really in it for keeps will still be here. I’m not keen on the commercialisation myself, but I choose to ignore it. Ilike what I like and no one is going to change that. Amen.

  • Bunny
    June 29, 2012

    I’ve just looked up what ‘steampunk’ is I have heard the phrase but thought it was chunky metal jewelry anyway I just looked and I love that look! I never knew what it was called! But I am a bit cowardly when it comes to wearing corsets out of the house! (What I should say is I am a bit of a coward about wearing cosets full stop,I’m shy!!)
    I may do one day though!

  • mrs pastry
    June 29, 2012

    hi fabulous post,
    i so agree, i am now a 45 yr old, but have worn vintage, or original, second hand , old or just dressed like a nutter all my life ! from back in the day when i lived in London in the late 1980’s when you could find channel jackets on the markets, to now repro (heyday love) stuff and new i mix it all up. I hate this notion of vintage especially vintage primark on ebay !!! the messages you have received all have the same message be yourself and wear clothes that suit you, fit you, and make you have a spring in your step !!! iona x

  • Luna
    June 29, 2012

    I loved this post! (I just want to comment it, so please excuse my bad english, I am german ;))
    I really really adore… well “vintage”, as defined by the fashion between 1910-1960s (thats the frame I put “vintage” in). And usually I notice, that it bothers me when people call something “vintage” that in fact, has just a flower print or is grunge or just cheesy. I like cheesy things too or a Nirvana-Shirt (oh how I love Nirvana), but that is not “vintage” for me!
    As a child I always wanted to buy clothes I could do a time travel with! I used (as I do now) to watch old movies and so I had a bit of an idea how people dressed in other decades. As a teenager I started reading books about the history of fashion and I went to a lot of fashion museums. And I am the only person in my circle of friends that is able to distinguish 30s/40s/50s in terms of “design”.
    (I hope my english is comprehendible πŸ˜€ :D)
    But sadly I have just a few real vintage pieces in my wardarobe, they are hard to find here and I have no time to do pincurls everyday or so. Nevertheless as I started blogging I called my blog: “Vintage Tagebuch” (= vintage diary), because I want to record my process of changing my wardrobe into something that reflects my hobbies, my ambitions and the things I love. And no magazine or so insinuated me that.
    Soon I noticed that maybe I shouldnt have used the word “vintage” for my blog title because people expect different things hearing that word.
    A hipster wants a cool and stylish modern look.
    An experienced “vintage” woman maybe thinks I am just another girl that has no idea what vintage is and that I am just one of the fellow-runners; due to the fact that I am not 100% vintage.
    So yeah, sometimes I felt intimidated and pulled of because I thought “Oh no, other vintage bloggers hate me”. There are so many vintage people out there that fear every newcomer is a threat for their Bohemianism.
    But I know, it is OK if I mix a 20s pair of shoes with a 50s circle skirt and if I buy some repro/high street stuff because I cant find real vintage or if I just go out without pincurls, because doing it differently to please others would be just silly. Some people might think thats not “vintage enough” to be called so and I accept that, but I hope my blog name does not offend them. Dont hate me πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ !
    I am just beginning to find my own style and I love you for this sentence: “It’s your life, your look, and you should never let anyone tell you how you should look, think, or feel.” So… thank you. I guess this comment is veeery long now πŸ˜€ sorry πŸ˜‰

  • Miss Magpie
    June 30, 2012

    I have to say on the whole it doesn’t bother me that Vintage is currently ‘en vogue’ if it does mean other people might discover a passion for beautiful old well made clothes then that is no bad thing. I agree with Jeni’s post below I just wish bandwagon jumping magazines would get their facts right! I do find the whole cupcakes = vintage perplexing but if there is tea and cake in the offing I’ll probably be swayed lol.

    I don’t follow one vintage style and I mix modern with original, and I have encountered hostility from the Vintage ‘in crowd’ for it which I find a bit sad really. They miss out on meeting fun and interesting people by being so snobby, who cares if the frock is repro if the person wearing it is a darling? I used to be like that when I was a 17 year old rock chick and ended up hanging round with a crowd who looked cool but were shallow bitchy people on the whole, which very soon lost it’s appeal.
    Anyway not sure where I am going with this other than I agree with you I guess!

  • Wendy S (@VintageChicksUK)
    June 30, 2012

    Great post, Gemma, well said! Not sure I can add anything to all the rather eloquent replies above. However, I WILL say that I am probably ancient compared to the rest of you and this is almost part of the cycle. I know that I’ve left vintage alone in my wardrobe for a few years before, whilst concentrating on something else that took over for a while (having babies in my case). But, you know what, it always pulls you back… Sometimes a change is as good as a rest, and if you love it, you will ALWAYS love it. Just keep your originals safe! I gave a lot of mine away and have always regretted it, although it’s fun building up your collection again (if more expensive!). xx

  • Lovelys Vintage Emporium
    July 2, 2012

    Gosh this is such a complicated topic that I think to do my thoughts justice I might need to blog it too at some point! I think ‘vintage’ can be whatever you want it to be. I have never been part of a ‘vintage scene’ but it looks fun if you are. I just mix designer, high street and vintage and wear vintage clothes because I love them. I favour 70s but mainly because I am super tall and curvy but if I was tiny I would also wear 30s. Live and let live. Great blog. Lynnette from Lovelys Vintage Emporium

  • Isis
    July 2, 2012

    I can’t add anything because you have already said exactly what I feel!

  • Poppy Valentine
    July 3, 2012

    I agree that the whole idea of vintage has just become mainstream, and it’s mostly out of greed by ‘the big boys’ as you put it so well. Cath Kidston started off with a lovely little shop in Clarendon Cross, Holland Park, where she would buy chairs from jumble sales and paint them in duck egg blue. Place them in the window with a lovely cushion made out of original 50s fabric, and hey presto, a look was created. She used original 40s and 50s prints as her source material and created something that was new and fresh, while still looking old, if you know what I mean!
    Cath Kidston sold her business to an American holding company several years ago, she has nothing to do with it anymore. That’s why a bastardisation of these classic prints has flooded our high streets in everywhere from Ikea to Primark.
    Shame really

  • Charlotte
    July 9, 2012

    What she said.

    Basically you articulated what I was trying to say in my article!

    xx Charlotte
    Tuppence Ha’penny

  • Katie
    August 30, 2012

    So, basicly, all the mainstream companys are reaizing they look silly having everyone look the same, and now they want to be cool and ‘differnt’? Wow. Just when you thought they couldn’t make people conform enough…….