Oxford is blessed with a wealth of perfectly quaint vintage stores: from the formidable Unicorn on Ship Street to The Ballroom Emporium just over Magdalen bridge, Oxford is full of little vintage nooks and crannies. Vintage seems to be assimilated into the clothing market like a brand of its own – but why is our fascination so deep? ‘Vintage’ can be misleading – where is the line between vintage and old, and how can we know that we aren’t being fooled by yet another marketing tool? Almost every girl’s wardrobe is lined with pieces of ‘vintage’ clothing, but maybe we need to look twice before buying into the vintage frenzy.
Bored of the almost identical styles churned out on the high street, we look to vintage clothing to find something original. Certain brands – Topshop, Zara, Urbans Outfitters – dominate the high street, leaving little room for independent brands. We fear that everyone will know where, when and for how much we purchased our outfit, because they have the same one – but in white. Certain trends are plastered all over every high street shop, and shopping can be almost mind numbing. Moving away from these high street names can be mean stooping to poorly made clothes off the internet or breaking into your overdraft to buy from smaller, more expensive names. Vintage, too, runs the risk of cutting into one’s precious savings, but it also offers an assurance of individuality and style. When the high street strives to achieve a vintage ‘look’ anyway, the real deal has the bonus of being completely unique.
Yet sometimes the shining surface of vintage makes us make some serious shopping errors. The growing demand for real vintage clothing means that supplies are more and more scarce: clothes from 20 years ago are being placed alongside 1920s skirts, when our mothers probably remember the newer pieces from the first time round. We can be fooled into thinking that anything that is second hand possesses all of the charm and quality of the best vintage clothing. Anything that looks like our grandmother would wear it is thrown into the vintage pool, especially if it is floral. It can take hours of searching to find something that you would actually wear, or isn’t extortionately expensive.
Vintage shopping can be a gruelling process, which leads only to exhaustion and disappointment. The girls at Coachella this year completed every outfit with a pair of vintage shorts or a unique vintage top, but when faced with a mountain of uncategorised Levis shorts, with an out-dated measurement system, the glamour seems to fade. It feels impossible to find the winning combination of size, style and price. If anyone has peered through the glass or maybe even stepped though the door of Unicorn, you might have experienced the same inner panic as I have at the thought of trawling through its mass of stock looking for one item in your size. Even if you were lucky enough to find it, it would probably be way out of your price range.
Environmentally and ethically, however, perhaps vintage is the way to go. Shopping vintage is the recycling of the clothes the world – no new materials go into making our favourite vintage pieces, and no energy is used in a production line. There is no risk of there being any sweat shops, unethical trading or poorly paid workers. To my mind, it also allows us to wear one of the most controversial styles in fashion: fur. What is so disgraceful about the fur industry is the current market, which exploits workers and brutally kills endangered animals, in the name of fashion. Although an animal was once killed to make a garment bought in a vintage shop, many feel that they are not supporting or funding the current market by buying a 50-year-old fur jacket. Vintage stores might make our shopping experience more stressful, but maybe it is worth it for its ethical advantages.
When we look at a yet another floral vintage shirt, do we see it for what it is, or through rose-tinted, 1960s glasses? If it was not shrouded in vintage glory, we might not be prepared to pay so much for it, let alone spend an hour searching for it. But isn’t that the fun? We get to look through decades of fashion and styles, finding weird and wonderful statement pieces, and the occasional every-day piece is something of an unexpected bonus. And it doesn’t matter if we would never wear 99% of the things we find; it is for a love of fashion that we are so committed to vintage.