As a writer, vintage clothing has a special value: stories locked in seams, memories stuffed in covers, held between pleats and hidden in rooms. Sometimes the previous owner left you evidence: a shopping list in a pocket, a coffee stain or a recording from a happy night’s dance. Imperfection is an indelible detail of the beauty of second-hand clothing. A tear or missing key can tell the story of an item’s authenticity, and sometimes an imperfection explains how the item found its way to you, who fixed it and loved it again. It’s true of humans too – our marks and scars tell the stories of where we’ve been, where we’ve fallen and how we’ve healed.
For thousands of years, people have been dressing each other, and because it was too expensive to buy new things, they bought and sold clothes. My grandmother sewed the dress that my mother wore to school, then my aunt wore it and then it was passed on to my cousin. But at some point, this hand-down tradition stopped being so common. Buying new clothes was a way of showing self-respect; The only people who wore vintage clothes were poor or strange or both.
But countercultures have also created humor in fashion: in the 1960s, miners in San Francisco put together discarded and donated clothes to create spectacular outfits as a radical anti-capitalist lifestyle. Then the London punks took it further, mixing old clothes into a new aesthetic to make people look like survivors after a trip to hell and back. The new look entered mainstream culture through television and movies. After that, Goth and Grange invaded the nineties. In 1993, as a teenager, I saw Kurt Cobain sing live on a sheer green sweater, and my world changed forever. Cobain represents anti-conformity, strength over honest vulnerability, and an aesthetic that can be corrupted by its own anger and passion and still be beautiful. Grunge spoke to the nihilist artist in my slightly broken teenage heart. Everyone I grew up in wore clothes from the same shop: Umbro football shorts, canvas trainers. I was not a normal person, and I proved that by wearing wine.
Most of my collection comes from a vintage clothing store in Cambridge, Massachusetts called The Garment District. In the nineties, you’ll still find Forties tees and Saturdays polyester print shirts selling for a dollar a half a kilo in Mountain Wear. I sit in the pile and go through the clothes, pulling on a glittery sleeve and finding a sequined coat, or a perfect pair of graffiti-customized Levi’s 501s from a distressed denim dig, and I get an adrenaline rush. Above the knees, reading ’76’ section. Back then, I didn’t think about the ethics of buying wine. I’ve been buying vintage to challenge the status quo. And dressing in vintage was a visual art; I saw it as a fashion collage. Sorting through piles at the clothing district, I wasn’t looking for quality basics that I could wear year after year: I was looking for that one thing that made me feel like I wanted to have it.
Dressed in vintage clothing, it made me feel at home and connected to people who had passed through this place where my family were newcomers. I was born in Boston and was the first in my family to call the USA home. My ancestors are Croatian and Persian, but New England will always feel rooted in my bones. I was dressing the people who lived before me, weaving their stories into my own.
The addition of vintage clothing to everyday wear seems to be a recent phenomenon, born of desire and nostalgia as much as it is a necessity, but a different necessity these days. Affordable clothing is everywhere, and it’s toxic to the environment. During its life cycle, a pair of jeans emits more than 33 kg of CO2, which is equivalent to driving about 69 miles. And if you try to throw away that pair of jeans, it can take up to a year for them to fully biodegrade — and that’s only if they’re 100% cotton. Synthetic fibers make matters worse. Getting dressed in the morning has never been so morally charged – and people will judge you for it. Head to toe fast fashion looks good for just one day. So what? Recycling your clothes is one way to clear your conscience.
What a vintage-phile like me loves most is seeing them pull new fashion icons from the past. I think Kai Gerber is making the nineties new and cool again by sporting her supermodel mom Cindy Crawford’s iconic Alaia leather jacket. Zendaya wore a black and white strappy number from Valentino’s SS92 collection on the red carpet, lifting the look from Linda Evangelista and making it all her own — no small feat. And we’ve got Emma Chamberlain’s ‘Gigantic Savings Trips’ from Day to Day, where she explains how pieces from the 1990s and the noughties can be read for a different time.
And while I think it’s important to clean out and review the laundry from time to time, there are some things in my closet that I’ll never part with: the blue hooded sweater I wore when I met my husband, the dress my mom wore when she got married. She lived in Brussels in the 1970s, my late brother’s ‘I climbed the Great Wall of China’ t-shirt.
I feel like a time traveler when I wear any type of wine. The texture and weight of the clothing on my body, the way it moves around me, the shapes it makes, all transport me back to whether I’m making a memory, whether it seems to be me, or someone else entirely.
When I sat down to write the show notes for the Proenza Schouler AW22 collection, I couldn’t let go of the idea of fashion moving through time, reflecting the values and wonders of the times. Talking to designers Jack McCullough and Lazaro Hernandez about how they conceived their collection was like talking to a novelist or filmmaker. You build the world, think about the characters and how they move; Like a wardrobe for an unborn woman, they look at the past and renew it to say something else. Where are we going? And how do the clothes we wear reflect who we want to be when we get there?’
A few months later, I walked the runway for Maryam Nasir Zadeh, an Iranian-American designer I really admire. Apart from the nerves and sudden lack of clue how to move my legs, I felt completely new on the catwalk. No one wears these clothes, I don’t see them. I was introducing them to the world for the first time. There was something magical about that. On a normal day, if my clothes don’t look good, they shake or ride up, it’s because there’s something wrong with me – my shape, my size. But being a future fashion model, I did not feel such insecurity. I didn’t need to be ashamed of being the weirdo that I was. Mary didn’t want me to wear makeup. Light hair. I felt stripped and exposed, and beautifully myself. No clothes, no vines, were there to describe me.
‘Lapvona’ by Otessa Mosfegh is out now.