Category Archives: Vintage 101

Vintage and Feminism

I’ve been wanting to put up a post about vintage and feminism for awhile now, so with vintage blogs all abuzz with the topic in right now, I thought it was time I published my thoughts on the subject.

Feminism is one of my great loves (some of you may know that I actually have a somewhat neglected feminist blog called Woolf Woolf: A Blog of One’s Own that I set up towards the end of 2011), so naturally, I was thrilled to see the topic come up in the vintage blogosphere. Gemma of Retro Chick wrote a post on the subject, as did Lena of Style High Club. Both posts are very interesting, and it’s cool to see thoughts pouring in on the subject from all their readers.

(Actually since Lori of Rarely Wears Lipstick added her thoughts, I fear there’s not a lot left to say, but allons-y nonetheless!)

This is what a feminist looks like.

Feminism is an issue that I think vintage wearers must confront from time to time, seeing as our clothes quite obviously reference more repressive or tumultuous times for women. Looking like a museum piece has the side effect of people assuming you have some sort of comment on the era you “come from”, and so it is that we are brought into conversations of this nature.

People often like to draw my attention to the irony of being a feminist dressed like a 1950s housewife. More frequently, I’m misread as conservative, as people mistake my aesthetic nostalgia for a moral nostalgia. Some people have trouble seeing vintage clothes without imagining the vintage world.

The truth is that most of us wear the clothes, but not the attitudes. In fact, although superficially “conservative”, the vintage community seems to have produced an unusually high number of kickass feminists, radicals and unorthodox thinkers.

Independent dressing attracts independent men and women. Vintage-wearers aren’t exactly fashionable in their knee-length skirts and hats, but I think that coming to terms with being unfashionable takes a great deal of strength. Choosing to forego fashion trends may seem trivial, but I see it as a form of resistance.

This phenomenon is paraphrased rather nicely by Gemma of Retrochick:

In my experience it’s those women and girls with the confidence to break away from … cultural norms that are more likely to demonstrate  an independent spirit, and the intelligence to deconstruct what they see presented to them as “ideal”.

I don’t mean to suggest that dressing in vintage frocks is in itself an inherently feminist act, because of course it is the strength of one’s conviction rather than one’s wardrobe that makes a feminist; but I do want to suggest that feminism is particularly relevant to the vintage subculture, and that having the confidence to develop one’s own style in opposition to what is prescribed by the fashion industry and/or the media does indicate some sort of radical thought.

I feel like one radical act breeds another, so once one comes to reject mainstream standards of beauty, one is probably a lot more likely to reject other things too, like patriarchy, for instance – cue feminism.

Of course this isn’t to privilege vintage styles over any other styles. The basic feminist doctrine of choice dictates that one should act on one’s own whims, so a feminist can just as easily be found in a mini-skirt or denim shorts as in a 1940s tea frock or tweed breeches.

Potential Feminist

Also a Potential Feminist

The problem surrounding modern fashions (described by Gemma and Lena as “hypersexualised”) is perhaps the sense of coercion, by which I mean that a lot of women may feel like they don’t have free license to experiment, or deviate from the trends. This isn’t really a problem created by the particular fashions, but more by mainstream media/etc, although I suppose because the styles themselves channel a level of sensuality that may be unnatural or uncomfortable to some girls, the problem is sort of exacerbated.

Vintage has its problems too – the male gaze has always been around, so the clothes don’t really sidestep any accusations of objectification and such. The difference, as I see it, is probably that a higher proportion of those who dress in vintage have made a very conscious choice to do so, and there’s also therefore a higher chance they’re well-equipped to deal with misogyny.

Although wearing vintage is not inherently feminist, I think it can easily, and often does, produce feminists – and I love that. Nevertheless, there are a lot of ways to rebel, and wearing vintage is just one of them. That independent spirit that makes a feminist can manifest itself in endlessly unique and equally valid ways.

Having victory rolls is hardly a prerequisite for feminism, but they can top off the fabulous vintage look of your local kickass feminist who’s putting up her middle finger to patriarchy.

Images via here and here.


Filed under Feminism, Vintage 101

Dating a Vintage Frock

Dating vintage really is quite an art. A lot has been written about the various idiosyncrasies of vintage clothes you can look out for when trying to sort out their eras. I won’t give you an exhaustive list of these because some other vintage bloggers and resources have already covered it very well: click here for Tuppence Ha’Penny’s brilliant post, and click here for tips from the Vintage Fashion Guild. Rather, I’m going to show you how I dated one particular frock.

I bought this lovely dress recently from Mint Condition in Rozelle. Of course the shop tag tells me it’s 50s, but I went looking for evidence of this nonetheless. There is also variation in styles of the 50s, so it’s useful to know if it’s early or late 50s, or even early 60s.

The first thing to consider is the style. It’s a little difficult looking at this picture of the dress as it’s hanging rather than being worn, but the frock is in the classic New Look silhouette we know dominated dress styles from 1947 to the early 60s. This means it has a fitted bodice and a circle skirt. So we know it is, at least stylistically, from or inspired by this era.

Nonetheless, I’m inclined to say that this frock is from the late 50s or early 60s because of its length. This picture isn’t the perfect way to check it out, but you can hopefully sort of see that the skirt isn’t really all that long by mid-century standards – on me it’s just about knee-length. Though the same silhouette carried through the 50s to the early 60s, one of the obvious changes was the rise in hem-lines which lifted hems up to the knee, whereas previously frocks were almost almost below.

Another sign it’s in a vintage style: the matching fabric-covered belt. You can see this dress is actually in flawless condition – a lot of frocks lose their matching belts over the years, which is kind of sad.

One of the most convenient things to look at when dating vintage is the zipper. Metal zippers were used all through the 50s and early 60s, until later when they starting using plastic and vinyl instead. You can see that this zipper is clearly metal, so we know the dress has some age to it. You can also see that it’s in the side seam of the dress, which indicates that it’s probably from before the mid-sixties at which point they began to put zippers in the back of frocks instead (thank god). Note that zippers are often replaced over the years, so if you’re 100% sure a dress is 50s but it has a plastic zipper, don’t fret.

It’s handy to look at the hem. I find a lot of vintage frocks have hand-sewn hems, or at least the stitches aren’t really so neat. The most important thing to look for is overlocking, which if you don’t know what it is looks like this. Overlocking wasn’t commercially available until 1965, and after that it was used to finish most hems, so if you don’t see it this is a good sign. You can see this hem has been hand-stitched, and rather than having overlocking to finish it, the hem has simply been folded over before being sewn up.

In this picture you can also see the “pinking” which features in a lot of vintage frocks – pinking is the zig-zag edge you can see. “Pinking shears” were often used to finish off seams before 1965 because overlocking wasn’t available yet, or else seams were also often left raw/unfinished.

I was super-excited to discover a Union Label in this frock, which I’ve never been able to find before. Union Labels were put in American and Candian-produced garments up until 1995 (I believe), and by looking at the label design, you can figure out which era a dress is from. There’s a really good guide to them here on eBay. This label features the logo which I discovered is from the period 1955-1963 (see it on another dress here). The description of it from the eBay guide is as follows:

“This label was issued after AFL and CIO merged in 1955, and lasted until June 28, 1963. It is usually printed in blue on white, and features a scalloped circle with a threaded needle diagonally behind it. In the center are the large letters ILGWU, crossed with a smaller AFL-CIO. Around the edge is printed Int’l Ladies Garment Workers Union.”

Another thing to note here is that the label designates the fabric content as “100% cotton”. This brings me to think that the dress is from the period 1960-1963, as it wasn’t until 1960 that the USA Textile Products Identification Act mandated the use of labels listing the fabric content. It could perhaps be an odd garment from before this, but I’m going to wager now that it’s very early 60s.

Also, it’s listed as a size 14, which wouldn’t at all be accurate by modern sizing standards. Vintage clothes often have wacky sizing.

It was also exciting to buy the dress as “deadstock”. This term means the dress has never been worn, and still has its original tags which is very cool. Looking at tags or labels is very helpful, first of all because it gives you the brand, but also because by looking at the style of the tag you can tell some things. The tag here is in an elegant sort of font, which means it’s probably 50s or early 60s, because after that the fonts became a lot more modern or psychadelic.

Here’s the other side of the tag:

Having the designer name is a treat, because if you do some research you can figure out more about the origins of the dress. The Vintage Fashion Guild has an excellent database of vintage fashion labels you can sift through if you have the time. A google also reaps rewards. Barba Dee wasn’t in the database, but googling the name uncovered an August 1959 edition of the “Milwaukee Journal” in Wisconsin featuring an ad for a corduroy jumper by Barba Dee. And then I found this December 1959 advertisement in the “Pittsbourgh Press”:

It turns out there’s a whole resource of old newspapers in Google News Archives. Barba Dee was advertised in papers between the years of 1955 and 1963, mainly around the East Coast of America – this tells me some interesting things about the origins of my dress.

So that’s my little process for dating a vintage frock. As you can see, shop tags are sometimes a little inaccurate – it seems my dress is from the very early 60s (1960-1963), not the 50s as the store suggested. If you want to know more about dating frocks, I definitely recommend checking out the Vintage Fashion Guild website.

I’m going to be wearing the dress out tonight for the Old Hat Social, even though it will kill me to cut off the original tag. I hope you all have lovely weekends, and research your wardrobes if you have the time.


Filed under Vintage 101