In a Perfect World…

Recently Phoebe Garland published an article in Fashion Exposed Online, musing on thoughts of a Perfect World. Phoebe is a fashion agent with many years of experience in the industry, so her list is from her perspective – but it’s set me thinking about what my Perfect World would be, from the perspective of a vintage fashion historian/retailer/author.

In no particular order –

1 – In a perfect world, everyone would wear second hand clothing.

Most people appreciate the virtues of second hand cars, second hand houses and second hand furniture. In many cases, older is more sought after and more valuable due to it’s quality and rarity. Even those who like everything to be brand new, do not think twice about sleeping on second hand sheets in hotels, sitting on second hand chairs in restaurants and using second hand crockery and cutlery in cafes.

“But clothes are more intimate!” I hear you say – maybe, maybe not. When you buy a brand new garment from a shop, it has been handled by many people before it gets to you. The fabric will probably have chemicals in it to make it easier to sew and it may have been tried on lots of times, sometimes even worn all day by shop assistants. It’s a good idea to wash all new clothing before you wear it, for these reasons, but then it will immediately lose it’s crisp “newness”.

Ironically, when you buy second hand clothing in a vintage shop, it’s likely to be cleaner than the new clothing (assuming the trader follows the law and washes all the stock). It gets tried on a lot less and already looks like it will when you wear it – many modern clothes lose their shape, colour and freshness when you wash them but with vintage, if it’s survived many years, it will probably continue to look as it does now as long as you look after it.

More than 70 years old, this evening frock from Melbourne department store Buckley and Nunn is ready to dance the night away at a few more parties – now available in the Fitzroy shop.

As someone who has always preferred the second hand over the new, it’s like sharing a secret, the secret of better quality, more interesting and unique clothes and as a nice bonus you get to pay less for them because most people prefer to buy new!

There’s another big reason to wear second hand – we have enormous quantities of quality clothing in the world, and much of it ends up in landfill due to our “new” fetish.

2 – In a perfect world, people would wear colour.

It’s one of the great fascinations of my life, that the better life is in a (Western) community, the drabber the clothes. When people were kicking up their heels in the ’20s, the palette was mostly black, grey and a few pale colours. Then in the ’30s when life was hard with the Great Depression and impending war, people looked to fashion to cheer themselves up with bright, clear colours and frills, ruffles, puffed sleeves, bows, sensuous fabrics and accessories.

Candice DeVille cheering everyone up at the Art Deco Exhibition at the NGV in 2008, in 1930s silk velvet from Circa.

Despite what the media have been telling us, life is pretty good at the moment and this is reflected in our ongoing love for monochromes; black, grey, neutrals….kind of dull really. The fact is that clothes affect how you feel and I know all too well that when I’m dressed in shapeless black, I feel like an old Greek widow. No offence to any OGWs, but I’m not ready to feel like that – so even though I wear mostly black still, I like to spice it up with sparkly 1930s diamantes and marcasites, ’40s-50s silk cravats in warm colours and vintage scarves. Oh, and pink hair – the hair is great because I can never feel drab with pink hair! It suits my lifestyle much better than I could have predicted and best of all: it makes me feel good!

There are so many wonderful colours and colour combinations – some of us look good in black but most of us will look better in a colour because black drains the colour from your skin and attracts heat. I used to work for designer Liz Davenport, and Liz catered to an older clientele – I had trouble with the incredibly bright colours she used in her fabrics until I realised how much better older skin looks with a colour reflected up to it – but you don’t have to be older, colour looks good on all of us.

3 – In a perfect world, people would prefer quality over quantity and respect their wardrobes.

Traditionally, fabrics and clothes were expensive, so most of us had a small wardrobe and repaired it was clothes were damaged, altered it as fashions changed or garments were passed to a new wearer. Cities had large second hand clothing markets, where many people bought their garments. Rich people passed their old clothes onto their servants, who would sell them or alter them to their purposes.

One of the things that I love about vintage clothing, is that much of it reveals this process – yesterday Hannah brought me a silk coat for Show and Tell. Hannah thought it was from the ’20s but it was actually a late Edwardian (about 1918) duster coat for protecting your clothing whilst driving, that had been updated in the ’20s – so you could see the bones of the earlier era underneath the “upcycling”. How cool is that?

The deprivations of the ’30s and ’40s created a generation who associated old clothing with poverty, and the offshoring of fashion manufacturing in the ’60s produced the means for quick and disposable fashion that we still have now. On the upside, fashion trends can rapidly hit the market and meet demand in this fast age of ours, but the downside is poorly made garments that simply will not last to be the vintage of the future.

I believe in having a small wardrobe of sensational pieces that all work well for you: have nothing that you do not wear and wear nothing that does not make you feel good. I don’t care how big, small, young or old you are – we can all have wonderful clothes so why settle for less?

Kate enjoying darning a late Victorian piece of “white ware” lingerie. Buy quality and take care of your wardrobe and your great-grand-kids might get to enjoy it in a century’s time.

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