Like many of my peers and contemporaries, at some point in the none-too-distant past, I really got into “vintage” style. Not just vintage as in, genuinely old clothing, “retro” antique furniture and 1950′s music and hairstyles – but “vintage”, as it has come to mean. Now covering a vast variety of eccentric, quirky but undeniably contemporary products such as quirky rose scented soaps, modern clothing with a 20s/30s/40s influence, adorable cupcakes, cake-stands, teapots, tights with seams, red lipstick, big full skirts that circle around your legs like brash petals around a fragile stem – all of these things are now covered by the umbrella term “vintage”, which now, if we are honest, is often used to refer to a current fashion trend rather than a genuinely charming anachronism.
I am going to avoid making any sweeping judgements as I write down my thoughts here because, apart from anything else, I am very aware that I would be condemning myself – and indeed, would be in great danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater as well; aside from the fact that aesthetically I find something very pleasing about the “vintage” look, I also think there is an argument to be made in favour of the ethics of re-buying and re-wearing old clothes, jewellery and knick-knacks. In our society of Primark and asos.com, we have created a culture based on the conspicuous consumption of whatever current trends the Fashion industry shovels into our bloated cuckoo mouths. There is something curiously satisfying about buying a dress made 30, 40 or even 50 years ago that has already been out dancing many times, and yet has kept its youth and beauty, having grown better with age. Admiring the stitching on an old, full skirted red dress I own, I am struck by the genuine quality of the garment – it sounds trite but, clothes just aren’t made like that anymore. Mostly because now they’re often made in sweatshops by children in developing countries overseen by companies who value increased output over stringent standards, cutting corners over fine craftwork, and indeed, companies in whose interest it is for clothes to wear out quickly – after all, they’re so cheap we will just go and buy new ones anyway.
Yet, when I look at my wardrobe and the various vintage styled garments held therein, I am struck by the fact that not all of them (by a long stretch) are genuinely vintage, second-hand, or even boutique made. Some of them are of course; yet others are from H&M, Topshop, Juice – the usual culprits, even some from (dare I say it) Primark. Clearly, the ‘ethical’ facet is merely masquerading as justification. So it is obviously something beyond this concern which attracts me to this style, so quaint and pretty, elegant, sophisticated. So feminine…
And this, I think, is at the heart of it. A month or so ago, I found myself spending a rather ridiculous amount of money (I am too embarrassed to admit how much) on a matching cake-stand and toast rack. When I get paid, I will probably go back and buy the tea pot. They are red with white polka dots and they are all adorable. Similarly, like so many girls, I love baking – I love cooking, actually. I don’t even mind giving the house a good vacuum, I find it very therapeutic. However, I have noticed, over the last year or so, because I have started paying attention to such things, that there is a curious tendency to fetishise behaviour that is considered to be traditionally feminine. Suddenly, the same women who fought to be allowed to wear trousers are eschewing them in favour of skirts more reminiscent of Gaultier’s 40s ‘New Look’ than power dressing. Suddenly, we all seem to want to convey the image, at least, of a construction of femininity that is very much of another age.
Ballet lessons are popular. We take up hobbies like cake-making, or burlesque for the more risqué of us. Suddenly, I am aspiring to a fantasy of womanhood based around a kitchen, darling little biscuits, a nipped in waist and gentle little footsteps on the stairs just – like – so.
I am not sure that I feel ok with this.
As much as I would like to be able to distance these sweet little stylistic touches from what they represent, from whence they sprung, the fact of the matter is I spend a lot of my time trying to look like a woman from an era in which we were regarded in the eyes of society as being fundamentally less capable than our male counterparts of fulfilling.
Yet now, suddenly, because we’re far away enough to have donned rose tinted spectacles, we celebrate as ‘kitsch’ this era of restrictive social stereotypes, no contraceptive pill and few options for many women other than to stay in the kitchen cooking all day – not cupcakes, either. People who really should know better talk fondly of a time in which men were “real men” and women “real women” – as if, today, our gender identities have collapsed into some kind of indiscernible grey mulch, so fragmented and uncertain of ourselves as we all must be without glaring uniform signifiers to reassure society that we are conforming to its ideals.
“Real” men and “real” women – fictional representations held up as being the standard all of us living, breathing creatures of flesh and credit should aspire to. I am not by any means making any sweeping generalisations here. However, I do think this is something that we should perhaps examine a little further, or at least be more aware of.
At the end of the day, I can’t say that I will stop dressing the way I do, because I like it – but I feel that I should be honest about my misgivings. The best possible spin I can find to put on it is that there is something subversive about it; that we are “reclaiming the domestic sphere”, but really, how the fuck is that a good thing?
We fought for years to escape the rigid confines of four walls, two-point-four children, and school runs, daytime TV, quiet desperation.
The bars our mothers railed against, we have painted a darling shade of red with white polka dots, pronounced desirable.
We have made “housewife” the ideal again, by playing house – this sits uncomfortably with me, a quiet tugging sensation somewhere in my bosom, and will do so every time I stroke the crinoline-and-lace fabric of dresses from all yesterday’s parties. I think, maybe, we need to be a little more careful when idealising a past that’s not as distant as it may first seem.