Adorned with Oxfords and a sharp tweed suit, dandy wellington poses for the camera, transporting her 21st century fans to the fabulous opulence of yesteryear. Her style is refined and reminiscent of retro jazz artists, with bow ties and boater hats aplenty. Wellington seems like the kind of person you’d drink scotch with in a film noir. Beyond her excellent style, Wellington was one of the first to popularize the phrase “Vintage style, not vintage values”, bringing advocacy to the table alongside her debonair outfits. In burlesque galaxyWellington writes that although the phrase “will have slightly different meanings for different people, to me it means this: although my style and clothing may be old, my values and perspective on social issues are not”.
The mantra can be found in different contexts: on pins, Instagram infographics and posters at feminist protests. But, beyond its liveliness, the motto features notions of inclusiveness and accessibility that weren’t necessarily present during the peak of popularity of vintage styles. Historically, society has used these styles to uphold certain ideals. However, the vintage community is reclaiming the clothes to create a more progressive future. For example, light femininity was expected when poodle skirts had their campy 1950s heyday. During this time, women were taught submissiveness, as was the principle that appearances equal inner worth. Since society once used these garments to support restrictive ideals, such as femininity or submissiveness, some believe the garments instantly conform to these beliefs.
Therefore, one may ask: why would modern women wear clothes from the oppressive period that people fought so fiercely to escape from? When people equate their choice of clothing with the morality of past decades, it fuels the conformism the pioneers fought against. Perhaps the answer is that, thanks to the hard work of our ancestors, women now have the choice to dress as they please, from pin-up hairstyles to below-the-knee skirts. Wearing modest corsets or blouses was once expected but is now just one option among many. There’s an interesting liberation to wearing clothes that were once forced upon people simply for aesthetics. One can find a challenge against antiquated oppressors by reclaiming a fashion style and making a progressive statement while wearing it.
While some may argue that someone who dresses in vintage style sees a problematic past through rose-colored glasses, equating their morals with their appearance is contradictory. Beloved vintage style YouTuber Rachel Maksy took to the internet to debunk some misconceptions, featuring a range of vintage enthusiasts on her channel. After discussing her own experiences with romance from vintage eras, Maksy introduces Nadia, or @feminist_fatale on Instagram, to discuss the personal appeal of vintage fashion. Nadia remarks, “It’s a misconception that I’d be one of those people who wished I lived in the 50s because I could go get milkshakes and go to the drive-thru and I could wear pretty dresses. But, I think to myself, ‘I could do all these things now and have basic human rights!’ »
Wellington is also featured in Maksy’s video, and he discusses the reservations people of color may have about joining the vintage community. He argues that his vintage style pays homage to the innovative power of those who, in the midst of hardship, have made incredible artistic and societal contributions. As a native of Harlem, Wellington has a particular interest in the Harlem Renaissance, which was the visionary 1920s revival of black music, art and fashion. “A big part of my existence in this vintage community is to continue to tell the truth about this story – to honor it,” Wellington says earnestly to the camera.
Representation is another crucial point of the phrase. Many beloved fashion eras, from the flashy Victorian to the wartime silhouettes of the 1940s, were periods riddled with contempt for those who didn’t fit a mold. A recurring pattern can be seen by looking at advertisement years past: the models were mostly thin and white. Despite what brands may have historically communicated to the public, models weren’t the only ones wearing the clothes. By dressing vintage in modern times, people of all kinds can reclaim a narrative that once excluded them and represent ideals that weren’t common in their chosen fashion era.
Plus size clothing, for example, was not represented in mainstream advertising during the popular decades of vintage fashion, primarily in the 20th century. Historically, designers have ignored options for plus size clothing, suggesting that there is an “ideal” body type. For example, according to Alexandra Mondalek, the mid-century obsession with thinness left plus-size consumers overlooked as the ready-to-wear industry grew. Thereafter, options were few and people often had to make their clothes. Additionally, from a historic preservation perspective, plus-size clothing has often been prioritized when creating a preservation case, curator Emma McClendon told Mondalek. As a result, the “Vintage Style, Not Vintage Values” community has welcomed plus size fashion enthusiasts with open arms, leading to more equitable representation and demystifying the idea of a “fashionable” body type.
Not only are vintage clothing enthusiasts salvaging older fashions, but they are also helping to preserve historical artifacts. Whether it’s rummaging through estate sales or finding long-forgotten clothes in landfills, it takes hard work to wear vintage. More tedious activities are required to restore a garment’s former glory, such as getting rid of playful moths or degreasing decades of accumulated dirt.
Vintage clothes were also “made better” than today’s garments, with higher quality fabrics meant to last. The work of Brit Eaton, also known as “fashion archaeologistis proof of the durability of vintage clothing. Eaton searches through old, often abandoned buildings for clothes, especially denim. Everywhere, from long-forgotten mine shafts to decrepit buildings, Eaton’s comes across decades-old jeans that are still in fantastic condition. He discovered a rare find that was surprisingly still wearable – a pair of Levi’s jeans from the 1880s. clothes were made to last and cherished by their owners.
“Vintage Style, Not Vintage Values” is an uplifting mantra that celebrates the freedoms that come with fashion’s freedom of expression. But, in an age of ripped jeans and fast fashion, it can seem daunting for some to dress vintage. As vintage enthusiasts hit the streets in decades-old outfits, perhaps the advice of a famous jeweler Harry Winston should come into play: “People are going to watch. Make it worth it.