Artists and creatives are well-known for having an eye for gorgeous things. They’re seasoned treasure hunters: you’ll find them rummaging in reclamation yards, rifling through racks in thrift stores or sporting one-off, beautiful items either they, or the craftspeople they know, have made by hand.
They’re also seriously good at using the limited resources they have in inventive and original ways.
With that in mind, this week we’re talking about vintage. Some style bibles would have us believe that it all began with Kate Moss and boho trustafarians visiting Notting Hill stores such as Rokit and Virginia’s Antiques in the 1990s. Vogue only discovered Primark when a midnight blue, military Beatles-style velvet jacket was on sale for £17 in the early 2000s, whereas those whose budgets didn’t stretch to Dolce and Gabbana had been shopping there for quite a long time.
Similarly, there were a lot of people well before Ms Moss who had discovered the joy of secondhand clothing. Then vintage style flooded the market and was appropriated by the High Street – but the real thing remained a great way to find good-quality, original items.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure
The reason I say ‘secondhand’ is that I’m not terribly keen on the term ‘pre-loved’. Let’s be honest: someone has used it before, and it seems to be a rather fey way of sweeping that fact under the carpet. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and I’m fine with revealing that I’ve been a vintage store treasure hunter for many years.
I acquired my first item of vintage apparel as a teenager. It was a slate grey, 1960s men’s overcoat: tailored, cashmere and warm. The day I wore it, it was met with nods of approval. ‘Where did you get it?’ friends asked. ‘Tigerlily’, I replied – an Aladdin’s cave of sartorial loveliness near my home (now sadly defunct), which stocked anything from 1930s silk dresses to exquisitely cut 1960s men’s suits. I would visit American Classics (then a unisex vintage store) in London for Levis and grey marl sweatshirts.
If Tigerlily hadn’t existed I may not have been aware of vintage so young, but thankfully it did; I could luxuriate in a world of feather boas, floppy sunhats and 1940s tea dresses anytime I wanted.
At university I wore vintage Fair Isle tank tops with crisp white men’s shirts, accessorised with scuffed jeans and an old leather briefcase. I found a pristine ivory dinner jacket cut by Gieves & Hawkes in a thrift store and sported it as an oversized summer blazer. I took a man’s dusky pink, paisley silk dressing gown to my utilitarian student flat and wore it in the mornings. Along with the Chanel No. 19 I’d treated myself to, a little luxury made living on a student grant and waking up every day in the grey Thatcher years a bit more bearable.
After college and living in London, I scoured Spitalfields and Portobello markets regularly. The Friday market under the Westway was the best for original and handmade clothing, well-known to fashionistas and stylists. There was a stall specialising in vintage cashmere – some designer, some classic Scottish fine wool – in pretty much every conceivable colour. I bought several, and still have some of them. I continue to regret that I saw a 1960s Ossie Clark dress one Friday, lonely and neglected on a dry cleaner’s hanger under a market awning, and didn’t buy it. At the time it was out of fashion – and I could never have worn it, it was too psychedelic – but his designs are now collectors’ items.
My love for rail-hunting continues
These days, my love for rail-hunting continues unabated. I’ve found anything from a buttersoft leather Prada hobo bag to Maxmara velvet trousers, a 1980s Dior silk blouse and more besides. My most recent find was a deep emerald green Brora cashmere sweater, so soft you could curl up and fall asleep in it. No longer ‘pre-loved’, all its previous owner needed to do was to wash it gently and de-pill it to restore it to life. As they obviously couldn’t be bothered, my gain was very much their loss.
I’ve also found Jermyn Street shirts in crisp Sea Island cotton for an absolute song. Formerly belonging to gentlemen who have their attire professionally laundered, they’re maintained and gifted in tip-top condition. This kind of item is definitely worth looking out for if you’re a chap, because they’re superbly cut and excellent quality.
My rationale behind vintage shopping is the opportunity to find something interesting at an affordable price (who doesn’t like luxe for less?), but more recently it’s been a chance to take stock of my general approach to dressing.
I’ve stopped buying fast fashion: partly because of the ethics of it, but also because it just isn’t classic. As you get older, transience doesn’t work. Stylists talk about capsule wardrobes, and it makes sense. Viewed in terms of cost per wear, if you spend a reasonable amount on ephemeral items such as a white shirt, properly tailored trousers and jacket, a well-fitting pair of jeans, a little black dress and so forth, you have what you need. The rest is decoration.
What I’ve found is that frugal is freeing
I’m not suggesting we all go minimalist, but there is a lot to be said for viewing our wardrobes in a more restrained way.
What I’ve found is that frugal is freeing. I no longer waste time and money perpetually buying new, inexpensive things that will be out of date the moment the season ends. I look at what I have and see if a new item will go with what’s already in my wardrobe. If not, I don’t buy it.
I also review my wardrobe at the beginning of each season to see what needs to stay or go. If it needs to go, it’s washed or dry cleaned and donated to a charity shop.
Apps are a great way to keep tabs on your closet: my favourite is Stylicious. With organiser apps you can photograph and categorise your whole wardrobe, from main items to shoes and accessories, helping you each season to see what can be repurposed, tailored to fit or styled to keep everything up-to-date – or indeed, what needs to go. You can put together different styles in a lookbook, which encourages you to think about clothing combinations, and makes your wardrobe work even harder for you. Organiser apps also help you to avoid duplication and overspending, such as buying yet another pair of jeans when you already have sufficient.
With this in mind, I loved Dawn O’Porter’s series last year on Channel 4, This Old Thing. She is a big fan of vintage and lives the style: much of her task on the show was to persuade phobics that vintage is not smelly, fogey or, as one High Street shopaholic shuddered, ‘clothes from dead people’.
I loved Kirstie Allsopp’s programme, Fill Your House for Free, a little less. Much as we’d all like to skip dive and Freegle our way to furnishing our homes, the time that it takes to find, upcycle or repurpose items, and the skill levels of the industry professionals that Kirstie had on board in the show, aren’t an easy prospect for the average Joe or Josephine. It’s a noble idea, but perhaps unrealistic.
However, I am an advocate of flea markets, furniture yards and charity shops, because they are great places to source items that you can use and treasure – and benefit a good cause in the process.
I say: repurpose with purpose. Go normcore and capsule that closet before shelling out on cheap, badly made frippery that isn’t made to last – and enhance your wardrobe with timeless vintage pieces.
You’ll look fabulous, and always be in style.