In my quest to expand my academic fashion reading, I’ve been looking at The Fashion Reader, a great compendium academic and non-fiction writing and journalism touching on various aspects of the fashion. One paper that caught my eye was Angela McRobbie*’s ‘Secondhand dresses and the ragmarket’. The article is about the role of market stalls selling secondhand and vintage clothes in the subcultural movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. She is highlighting that rather than completely opting out of consumption and capitalism, there were numerous ‘subcultural entrepreneurs’ making their careers out of providing alternative forms of consumption.
What interested me was the following quote, which starts off by saying that in contemporary consumer culture, surplus goods are produced and chucked out while they are still good enough to be used, and are then revived and enter another round of consumption. But:
Not all junk is used a second time around. Patterns of taste and discrimination shape the desires of secondhand shoppers as much as they do those who prefer the high street or the fashion showroom. And those who work behind the stalls and counters are skilled in choosing their stock with a fine eye for what will sell. The ‘subversive consumerism’ of the ragmarket is highly selective in what is offered, and what, in turn, is purchased. There is a refined economy of taste at work. For every single piece rescued and restored, a thousand are consigned to oblivion. Indeed, it might also be claimed that there is a thinly veiled cultural elitism in operation […] The apparent democracy of the market, from which nobody is excluded on the grounds of cost, is tempered by the very precise tastes and desires of secondhand searchers. Secondhand style continually emphasises its distance from secondhand clothing.
I was thinking about how much that applies today, the amount of work that is involved in filtering of ‘the wheat from the chaff’ by vintage sellers, both online and vintage boutiques, and by all of us thrifters as we go around the charity shops and thrift stores looking for treasure.
I like to think I do most of my filtering on the basis of the quality of the garment and fabric (I favour natural fibres and avoid polyester unless the design is really amazing), so I think there is an element of the stuff being filtered out because it’s really not good enough or not really fit for use. But I must admit I am also influenced by trends and change my mind about what I would and wouldn’t buy.
Trends in vintage clothes and housewares move a lot slower than the very fast turnover on the high street, but they’re still evident. I remember about a year ago (or was it longer?) there was this craze for boater hats on all the style blogs. If I had found one in a vintage shop before then I would have just ignored it as unwearable outside a fancy dress context, but now I would be really pleased to find one. And just on Saturday I was talking about how you used to be able to get lots of cake stands and old lady china in charity shops, but now that those things have become fashionable, you rarely see them, and if they’re there, they’re expensive. And other people were saying that they had got rid of lots of things like that which they now wish they’d kept. But you just never really know how you will change your mind about things, even if you generally have a pretty strong sense of style/taste in what works and what doesn’t.
This is forever fascinating to me, how trends appear and even if you don’t initially like the thing, more often than not you own aesthetic changes and you start considering things you would previously have dismissed. For example, both Dave and I were resisting skinny jeans for years, but now we both wear them and like them, too. I wonder if I’ll ever change my mind about the leggings as trousers/exposing your bum trend? It still seems completely unacceptable to me now, but appears to be here to stay, so maybe I’ll come on board eventually.
Trends and how they influence more long term style ‘rules’ is something I want to think about some more in the future, definitely! Sorry this post isn’t as focused as my usual arguments and musings posts, but sometimes it’s kind of nice to just let your mind wander in random directions without really making a point.
* for the benefit of people with sociology or cultural studies backgrounds: Her name rang a bell so I looked her up: she was part of the Birmingham School.