Okay, vintage virtuosi, let’s play a game.
I don’t consider myself an expert on vintage clothing. I have no formal qualifications; my education has been purely osmotic. I’m pretty good at dating and describing garments, but there are certainly gaps in my knowledge. So it’s downright bizarre to realize: sometimes I know more than the experts. More than people who date and sell vintage for a living. When I’m browsing eBay or Etsy, I instinctively defer to the seller’s judgment: they have the garment in front of them, after all, and if selling vintage is their job, they likely know what they’re doing. Lately, though, I’ve had an uncomfortable revelation: so many vintage “experts” are just more dedicated bullshitters than the rest of us.
One of my favorite writers posted this slice of insight a while ago:
There’s a thing some people on the Internet do – I’ve only now started noticing it – where they bootstrap their way into being famous and influential. They take a really nice professional looking photo of themselves, start a really nice professional looking blog with a name like Tech Trends From John Smith, start a Twitter account with accompanying bio like “This is John Smith, from Tech Trends From John Smith”, and then once they have a few followers they start a webzine with a cool name, and the webzine says “Edited by the author of Tech Trends From John Smith”, and Tech Trends From John Smith says “Written by the editor of COOL NAME WEBZINE”. And then they publish a few essays on something that sounds hard to publish to but actually isn’t, like Daily Kos where anybody can publish their own personal Daily Kos blog, and they interlink that with everything else.
And this always works, because nobody can possibly keep up with all of the mildly famous people on the Internet, so if somebody presents themselves as a mildly famous person, you just assume that they’re right.
I’ve only just now started checking how many of the people I assume are mildly famous could get exactly the web presence they in fact have by doing this.
If what he observes is accurate, and I think it is, then the vintage community is doing it times a million. You find a few retro dresses at a thrift shop and go “hey, I can flip these!” You stage some hipstery shoots with dried flowers and dappled light. You call your shop something like “Badger & Blossom Vintage”, and you make a nice Etsy banner to match. You regurgitate a a few vaguely period buzzwords – “housewife” means “full skirt”, right? – and presto! You’ve cargo-culted yourself into vintage expertise.
An incomplete list of terms I have seen abused by vintage sellers:
- Atomic print. Atomic prints are inspired by or reminiscent of atomic diagrams, which can be interpreted literally or more abstractly. It’s admittedly sort of a “know it when you see it” thing, but I’ve seen all sorts of things labeled “atomic” that are decidedly not. Florals, paisleys, gradients – nope.
- “New Look”. Lots of people forget that the New Look was a very specific garment design, not just a catchall term for ’50s dresses. From dictionary.com: “[A] style of women’s clothing introduced by the designer Christian Dior in 1947, characterized by a silhouette with broad shoulders, a narrow waist, a long, full skirt, and often emphasized hips.” Though that shape seems to have gone down in history as THE ’50s silhouette, the era hosted lots of other styles as well.
- Novelty print. This is novelty print: its print has a specific theme or tells a specific story. Novelty prints are often called “conversation prints” for this exact reason. This, though? An abstract print, sure. But not novelty.
- Wiggle dress. By definition, the hem of a wiggle dress will be narrower than the hips, like this. (It’s been pointed out to me that that image is reproduction, not vintage, and that is true. It does, however, accurately convey the point I’m making.) However, I’ve seen a lot of dresses labeled “wiggle” when they’re actually shifts. Important distinction to make! I’m not the only one to notice this, either. Vintage Bulletin complains that less than half the results for “wiggle dress” are even remotely accurate.
As for more general faux pas…
- If the label on that “authentic” 1940s dress reads “100% polyester”, back away slowly.
- If said “authentic” ’40s dress has an elastic waist, back away even faster.
- And, of course, if you see anyone offering “custom vintage” anything, START RUNNING. Just Say No to keyword spam.
Can you think of any other common mislabelings among vintage sellers? Let me know in the comments!