If you read my last post which was an introduction to sustainable fashion then you may have been considering how sustainable your own wardrobe is right now. You may have thought about how you can switch up a few style choices here and there to be more sustainably clothed. Or you may have thought it’s all a load of rubbish. Whatever you’re thinking, please bear with me a little longer. This month, I’m going to introduce you to a small easy step towards a more sustainable wardrobe, and it’s actually far more stylish that you may originally think: vintage.
What is vintage?
A fairly good definition of vintage that I tend to go by is an item of clothing (or other product) that is between 20 and 100 years old and is representative of the era in which is was produced. Here we must be wary of ‘retro style’ which although on first glance gives you a similar appearance to vintage, is actually new clothing designed to reflect a previous era.
Vintage clothing has been in vogue ever since the now vintage clothes were new ones; there’s nothing better than a thrift shop find that complements your favourite jeans or matches your favourite coat and buying less new clothes in exchange for giving second hand ones a new lease of life is just one small way to start making a positive change. Last year, Britons threw away around 235 million items of clothing, many of them probably in good enough shape to be worn as new, so why should we dial back our throwaway culture and donate and shop vintage instead?
Well, do you know what fine hand-finishing looks like? Do you know what a perfectly straight hem looks like? Do you know what hand-embroidery looks like? Some of you may, and some of you absolutely won’t, and that’s not your fault. I must admit I wouldn’t know what any of these things looked like if I didn’t have such a glamorous Grandma (with seven wardrobes of clothes which is a whole other dimension to consumer behaviour) or an eye for true vintage in the thrift shops. This leads me to one of the most important things about vintage: the quality of the clothing is strides ahead of garments produced today, perhaps with the exception of couture. You get that fine hand-finished, straight hem and hand-sewn embellishment every time.
Why is vintage more sustainable?
Less waste, less resources, better ethics. It really is those three things that now give vintage it’s sustainable credentials.
Less waste: Choosing vintage saves clothing from going to landfill, avoiding an unnecessary contribution to the ever-increasing piles of waste we have strewn across the planet. Clothing waste takes YEARS to biodegrade and more and more of the fast-fashion clothing going to waste is made from plastic-polymer fibres which release plastic fibres into the environment polluting land and water. As a result, every piece of clothing rescued from landfill is a small victory for us.
Fewer resources: Shopping vintage (and upcycled or recycled clothing) displaces the requirement for new fibres to be made, and in turn reduces the use of chemicals, water and energy in the process never mind the additional waste. You must be thinking, “well eventually SOMETHING must end up in landfill even if I’ve bought vintage?” You savvy-minded cynic you. You are right though, eventually we will throw away even carefully selected and loved clothes but the point here is to encourage the gradual but continual decrease in the speed of purchase and discarding of clothing.
Better ethics: Around 15-20 years ago many high street and designer brands dramatically reduced or entirely ceased manufacturing in Britain in exchange for fast and cheap labour in Asia. The supply-chain part of the fashion industry in Britain died a pretty painful death with many losing jobs and the closure of factories affecting towns and cities across the UK. Although I was very small, or not even born when most of this happened it is easy to see how this re-shapes a community. I grew up in Northampton the home of shoe-making and location and inspiration for the film Kinky Boots; however thanks to the trade moving away from British towns the most that remains of the industry there now is the name of the football team: The Cobblers.
When clothing, accessories and footwear were produced in Britain we had the laws and infrastructure in place to give workers a good salary, healthy working conditions and people actually enjoyed their jobs. Contrast this with the scene in Asia where people are not being paid a living wage, aren’t allowed breaks at work, do not have set working hours or even a guaranteed employment contract. This means that when it comes to real vintage, you can rest assured that the person who made your clothes was paid enough to live on, got to go home to their family for dinner and likely had a great time with their colleagues whilst making them. Quality vintage of the 1970’s and before are the best buys as pieces have often been made to last, using finer fabrics and will have been made by people working in more ethical conditions as the fast fashion race only really came in during the 1980’s.
Vintage is the antithesis of fast fashion as it’s limited, tradeable and continually stylish. Vintage clothing is always far more loved than a fast fashion piece, simply because it had to be in the era in which it was made.
Removing sustainability from the conversation, one of my favourite things about vintage is the story behind the pieces. It may have been owned by someone famous, been a special purchase for an occasion years ago, it may already have some evidence of mending and the life that garment lived.
I asked some of the ALL team to join me in sharing their favourite vintage pieces and where they go hunting for vintage treasure…
My favourite vintage piece is my mum’s Dannimac trench coat which she bought in 1981 and hadn’t worn since she gave up work in 1990 so gave it to me when I was big enough for it to fit!
My favourite vintage shops are Blue 17 in Highbury & Islington (you can shop online by decade) and Pop Boutique near Covent Garden which does 60’s to 80’s and also lots of home decor stuff too. There’s also Rokit and then Peekaboo Vintage who started as a small shop on Portobello road but are now online with ASOS and in Topshop so quite a nice infiltration of fast fashion.
My favourite vintage piece is an ankle length nightdress from the early 1900s. It’s in the softest, thick white cotton, hand made, with tiny pleats, hand made buttons, very fine handmade lace trim and long billowing sleeves. It’s full on Jane Austen heroine, and I waft around my house with the candles lit, a book in hand and a shawl around my shoulders and fancy myself a Bennet sister.
I bought the nightdress from Revival, a famous vintage shop in Totnes, Devon. I’ve been shopping there since I was a teenager, it’s a real Aladdin’s cave of vintage treasures. I also love Etsy for vintage accessories: bags, necklaces, scarves etc. the perfect thing for making an outfit more unique.
If you’re nervous about shopping for vintage, or unsure of where to start, here are our top tips for vintage success…
Go with an open mind – If you head out determined to find a great pair of vintage Levis or the perfect tea dress, chances are you wont find it. Head out looking for treasure, any treasure, and you may just find gold.
Try on everything and anything – This rule applies to any kind of clothes shopping, you really can’t tell if you don’t try it on. Vintage pieces are often easier to tailor as clothes were made with more generous seams, so keep in mind that you can have pieces tailored to fit.
Check the fabric – if you wouldn’t buy and wear a modern polyester dress, chances are you wont wear a vintage one, however much you love the style or pattern. Care labels only came in in the 70s, so anything older is going to be guess work in terms of how to clean – if in doubt, ask the staff, they should know.
Don’t be put off by the smell – I know, gross, but most smells can be dealt with with a quick wash or dry clean and some lavender.
I would love to know, do you have something that’s a hand-me-down, something you’ve had for many years, or something that’s wonderfully pre-loved that you found in a charity shop? If you’ve something to share, let us know in the comments below!