The Art of Vintage
Monday 25 August 2008
“A man who speaks well does well; a man who dresses well does even better”.Edward G. Robinson (Larceny, Inc. 1942)
Vintage clothing might not be everybody’s cup of tea, particularly in a society that seems to prize newness above all else. But to dismiss it out of hand or not give it due consideration is to miss a useful trick, and thereby limit your options.
You may remember when I posted on the Harrington Jacket that I bought mine from a wonderful vintage shop in Greenwich by the name of Emporium. Given that Emporium will be the subject of Wednesday’s post, I thought it might be appropriate to lay down a few thoughts on the art of vintage clothing....
Get over your misgivings
I own one Savile Row suit, and I love it. It fits me like no other garment I own (from whatever source), looks the personification of elegance, and it only cost me £65 (courtesy of Old Hat). Women have been clued into vintage clothes for years. Being savvy enough to work out that if they want to avoid the monotony of the high streets’ offerings, possess high quality clothes at next to no cost and strike a note of day’s gone by elegance and quality, then vintage was a canny way to go. At the end of the day, people who go to the trouble to buy high quality, expensive tailoring will look after it, indeed sometimes it’s never been worn.
Vintage clothing might not be everybody's cup of tea, particularly in a society that prizes newness above all else. But, to dismiss it out of hand or not give it due consideration is to miss a useful trick, and thereby limit your options.
Men on the other hand have been rather slower on the uptake. Now, if you’re already feeling squeamish with images of jumbles sales in mind, or hand me downs from your older brother, stop now. Just as an aside, Jeremy Hackett (of ‘Essential British Kit’ fame) started out selling vintage clothes, and one of his regular customers was Ralph Lauren. Of course this should come as no surprise when you consider that these two brands, above all others, have derived their success from supplying the masses with the uniforms of ‘old money’.
Think of it like this; regulation second hand is just that, any old kit of uneven quality and pedigree –more likely as not standard high street names. Vintage clothing, and its devotees, are all about quality tailoring, cut, names with some pedigree, buying into the almost lost art of fine clothes making.
If asked, lie
That great political and philandering rapscallion, the late Alan Clerk, is reputed to have said of Michael Heseltine that he was, “the kind of person who bought his own furniture”. We English, with our innate snobbery, are so wonderfully predictable. Say you bought an item of clothing at a jumble sale or less reputable outlet and you will most likely be looked down upon, or at best humoured. Turn up at a wedding in your grandfather’s morning suit and that is par for the course. I have known plenty of fellows who own, and wear, one bit of bespoke kit or another which has been handed down, and for some reason, far from detracting it adds lustre.
This sort of inverse snobbery is something I am guilty of myself. But there are sound aesthetic reasons behind it, however contrary to common sense. Essentially, I find that when things are brand new, whether it be suits or shoes, there is a tendency for them to look too new, if you follow me. As such the clothes often appear to wear the man rather than visa versa. This goes with a little wear; the clothes sit more easily, and I grow more at ease in them. Richard Torregrossa, in his book ‘Cary Grant: a Celebration of Style’, notes that according to GQ columnist, Glenn O’Brien, “English aristocrats gave their suits to their valets to wear until the suits lost their crispness”. He also notes, in conversation with Oleg Cassini on the socialite Maurice Bosdari that the latter would crush and roll his lapels until they were just right: “Clothing must never seem new; it must look old, but not too old”.
Of course if you’re still nervous about venturing into vintage because of what people might think, lie. No one has to know the truth, unless you tell them. Or write a blog...
A whole new World
In fact you have nothing to fear, and you’ll be in excellent company. Talk to most vintage sellers and you’ll soon discover that their best clients are in fact fashion designers. Likewise, few films, TV programmes or theatrical productions would have got far without the vintage clothes trade. Indeed, some vintage sellers even gain a certain fame of their own. A prime example of this is the legend David Saxby, who owns Old Hat. Readers of that wonderful publication ‘The Chap’ magazine will know him as the sartorial agony uncle.
Caveat emptor -buyer beware
Of course you will have to keep your wits about you. You have to be on the look out for moth holes, stains, snags and the like. But it’s like any kind of clothes shopping; at the end of the day you don’t have to buy. If it’s not something you feel can be fixed then walk away. The same philosophy applies to the issue of price. Most vintage outlets will stock both men and women’s clothing. Sadly, the popularity of women’s vintage has allowed the ramping up of prices in recent years. This trend has invariably transferred to the male side. At the end of the day, just because it’s Savile Row or classic Barbour doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to ask a King’s ransom. If you’re familiar with the shop ‘Bertie Wooster’ you’ll know over pricing was one of the most common complaints –it may also explain why they appear to no longer be in business in their own right and have been taken under the wing of David Saxby.
You should also remember that many things are one offs, so you won’t always find something in your size. Don’t give up hope, half the fun of vintage is that moment, when it comes, when you find just what you’re looking for.
A sartorial playground
Now, I don’t know about you, but I can afford to have my shirts made from scratch. I can play with designs, textures and details to get what I want. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same of suiting and outerwear. So, my advice is treat vintage as an inexpensive way of playing with your wardrobe to get what you want. For example, the coat pictured at the top of the post. I found this unusual article in Portobello, it’s from the 1970s and weighs a ton. Cut like more like a box coat with a Raglan sleeve, it actually has a formed shoulder. In truth it’s a bit of a buggers muddle, but that’s why I like it. I then added the buttons on the sleeve and got my tailor to add the velvet along the pockets and collar. The result is a coat unlike anyone else’s and at a cost far less than standard issue kit from the high street.
From leather jackets and Savile Row suits to cuff links, vintage provides a feast of sartorial possibilities, at a reasonable cost. Think of it as a dirty little secret between you and your dry cleaner. And like any dirty little secret, enjoy being in the know.
Posted by Stealth