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Old Clothes, New Vintage: Nostalgia in the Twenty-First Century

30 Apr 2019

Text by Anja Aronowsky Cronberg
Art by 
Karen Kraven

As anyone who has recently visited a department store will know, we’re exposed today to an abundance of what we might call new vintage clothing. These are the clothes that we buy brand new, but that aspire to have the vintage appeal of things that get better with age. Today, both high fashion and high street fashion draw continuous inspiration from styles of past decades, sometimes emulating the era currently in vogue so well it’s difficult to tell the 2019 version apart from its historical inspiration. Gucci’s zany take on the 1970s, Celine’s interpretation of Parisian bourgeoisie in the 1980s, or Lemaire’s spring/summer nod to Victoriana are just a handful of current iterations of our infatuation with the past, and “distressed” and “vintage” have been part of our fashion vocabulary for over a decade. What, then, is the allure of buying something new that has the look of something already old, or something old that has been lovingly broken in by another? Why are we so keen on wearing clothes that tell tales of times past? 

One theory might be that we're attracted to the small signs of age that accumulate on the surface of these clothes as a sort of sign of authenticity and a marker of status. Grant McCracken, the Canadian cultural anthropologist, calls this the object's “patina.” These small chips, dents and slight discolourations then exist in order to prove to us that the garment in question is legitimate, in other words that it's “the real thing.” Yet patina is not an actual status symbol in itself, instead it underlines the status assertion made by the garment by showing that it's acquired these miniature marks through the passing of time, and allows the observer to make the assumption that the garment has been in its owner's possession throughout this conversion from brand new to covered with traces of its own history.

Patina has been used throughout history to differentiate old wealth from new money, maintaining society’s rigid hierarchy by keeping pretenders from scaling the social ladder in a way that was too fast for the conservative elements in society to handle. Today however, instead of being applied to social ranking, it’s used to indicate authenticity, as now the notion of authenticity has seemingly replaced the value of societal status. In other words, today status lies in authenticity, real or imaginary.

Although the notion of patina might not apply well to a 1950s-style cotton skirt, which tends to look tatty with age, it’s a concept that comes in very handy when we look at denim, for example. When we buy a pair of worn-in denim jeans, with bleached creases and holes on each knee, a fabricated patina has been applied in order to give authenticity to our new trousers. By wearing worn-in pants, we’re declaring ourselves to be genuine, raggedy urban cowboys, cool cats. Our mass-produced, pre-frayed denim trousers show us as “the real thing,” and herein, of course, lies the inherent contradiction of new vintage. 

Gossypium, handcut denim and steel bracket, 2018 / Anna, Alma, Rheya, photographs, 2017


Since the hobo and the cowboy, via the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean, worn-in denim has been part of the mythologizing of the rebel. This “rebel” has been used to flog everything from cars to cigarettes and perfumes, and it continues to entice us by symbolizing the individual whose ambition it is to act as an alternative to the social norm. This celluloid rebel eschews everything conventional in order to live a life of bohemian outsider-ship. Although few have managed to live this life, and, it must be added that those who do are in actuality more often than not dismissed as slackers, the rebel lure has continued to draw us in. Worn-in jeans, in this sense, acts as a way to give us the ability to display at least the signs of a bohemian life on the fringes of respectable society, even if one isn't prepared to go all the way.

Patina on jeans says, “I'm an individual,” “I've had these jeans forever,” and “These jeans have had a rough life” (implying “I've had a rough life”). My question is then, how does this implication get subverted when your jeans haven't, in fact, had a rough life, but have instead gotten their roughened-up look, not from life, but from the factory? And, further, how are we to read these jeans when the bleached and frayed look has become so common, that we can, by a mere glance, tell which jeans have been frayed in the factory, as opposed to on the street? In other words, how can the notion of “authenticity” be a successful one when the artifice is so obvious?

Also, as consumer society tells us that individuality is a commodity available for sale in a fashion store near you, and that the more we consume, the more “individual” we’ll become, this penchant for the rebel, or “rebel,” is an interesting one to examine. One way of looking at the “rebel” in the early twenty-first century might be by envisioning this rebel as a hangover from the 1960s counterculture. In this post-normcore age, the penchant for scruffiness would then exist as a reaction to overtly branded clothing, as a way to extol your own virtues as an aware consumer, making the proliferation of new vintage an antidote to the recent surge of logomania.

However, seeing as the counter-culture’s twin goals of rebelliousness and cool have now become integral parts of consumerism itself, it’s difficult to imagine this countercultural, anti-consumerist hero as anything but seriously misguided. As beat-up sneakers and frayed denim have become an effortless way in which to proclaim your anti-conformist leanings, manufacturers are as a result answering this need for an alternative to pristine branded attire through the production of new vintage. If seen like this, perhaps the counterculture of the sixties as well as its modern-day version are nothing more than an extension of the notion of conspicuous consumption, affluent Westerners in search of social distinctiveness. Consequently, patina becomes nothing more than a marketing ploy, a myth with no bearing on actual individuality or authenticity. Patina in contemporary society is then reduced to mere rhetoric, pure commercial nonsense. 

 

An alternative way to explain the appeal of new vintage is by looking at the concepts of nostalgia and memory. Modern society’s “memory crisis” can be traced back to the nineteenth century’s [1789–1920] obsession with the past and the increasing speed of change in the modern world that complicated the notion of memory. After upheavals from 1789–1815 in Europe, people became perplexed by their own history, feeling that recent events somehow prevented them from relating to their own heritage. The consistency that had always existed between time and subjectivity now suddenly seemed disarticulated. If seen in this way, modern culture’s obsession with memory could be said to have been a direct result of this feeling of displacement. 

Drip, Drop, acrylic, vinyl and bias tape, 2017

The importance of memory can also be said to stem out of a reaction to modernity's rejection of the old in favour of the new. As modernity strove to celebrate the latest innovations as utopian, the culture became increasingly amnesiac in its approach to its own past. The German philosopher Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, writing in the post-World War II era, already claimed that modern capitalist culture acted as an eraser of history, that the ever-increasing speed with which we live makes us oblivious of our past, thus rendering us intrinsically amnesiac. Although the “memory crisis” in Europe in the aftermath of World War II was based on reasons different from the “memory crisis” that many philosophers and cultural critics argue that Europe and America have experienced since the 1980s, the theories of the Frankfurt School continue to be relevant. Nevertheless, this view sits uneasy with the idea that our culture is obsessed with memory.

One way to see this issue is that memory and amnesia are in fact two sides of the same coin, rather than polar opposites. As the speed around us increases, the reaction against this fast-paced culture seems to lie in reminiscence. However, rather than merely becoming an antidote to capitalist commodity fetishizing, perhaps memory exists today in order to recuperate a mode of contemplation in a world regularly perceived as filled to the brim with an often-threatening sense of information overload. If seen like this, memory, and by extension, nostalgia, can exist as a reappraisal and re-evaluation of the past. Memory culture then becomes a way to reconnect with history, of slowing down the frenetic pace of our culture.

Anna, Alma, Rheya, photographs with handmade net, 2017 

Nostalgia then becomes yet another way in which we attempt to reconnect with the past, new vintage being one possible link in the process through which we perform this act. Through the purchase of new vintage clothing, the consumer seeks to distance himself from a present that seems just too alienating. Through the consumption of the past, we create an illusion of a slower paced, more understandable world. The utopia the early part of the twentieth century had imagined for the future, the later part of the century displaced on the past. In this way, buying a pair of pre-faded jeans can be seen as a rebellion of sorts, a rebellion against the idea of constant progress, against temporal irreversibility. New vintage clothing reminds us of a time when life was uncomplicated, of a past free from modern-day worries. Interestingly, this past is, more often than not, one that we were never a part of in the first place. New vintage fashions tend to be resurrected at least one generation after the time they were popular the first time around. Perhaps we need this distance to be able to look back at “a perfect snapshot” of the past. This past has to be remembered as free of discoloured marks, as a romantic ideal when everyone was just a little more un-spoiled, a little more authentic, and a little more “real.”

This type of nostalgia is defined by cultural critic Arjun Appadurai as “armchair nostalgia,” nostalgia for something of which the nostalgic has no direct experience. In donning a pair of mass-produced cracked leather shoes, we yearn for the unattainable past and simultaneously reject the present, a present which is perhaps only escapable through the longing for an untarnished sepia-tinted past.

This distance between ourselves and the past is of absolute importance. We nostalgics are infatuated by the distance itself, without it our longing would be fruitless. Because it is, of course, not the actual past that we long for, a past that we sometimes realise must have been just as messy as our present, but rather an imagined, aestheticized past, one that’s obtainable for consumption. This type of “nostalgia mode,” as defined by literary theorist and Marxist intellectual Fredric Jameson, can be said to have replaced historicity, being nothing more than a carefully constructed simulacrum of the past. It exists in order for us to create the illusion of “pastness,” a past that is nothing more than a pastiche of the actual, historical past. 

Anna, Alma, Rheya, photographs with handmade net, 2017 

Nostalgia then becomes a cultural style, removed from any sense of real, existential longing or memory. Continuing this critique of postmodern nostalgia, it's tempting to regard new vintage as an anarchic form of nostalgia, a sign of late capitalism's lack of zeitgeist, of designers pilfering the past for lack of inspiration in the present. The manner in which we might today mix a pair of battered tennis shoes and a 1980s power suit could then be seen as nothing more than nostalgia commodification, as a neat wrapping up of past styles to be sold tied up with a ribbon and easy on the eye.

There are then, as we've seen, many different ways to look at the current vogue for memory and nostalgia, seen here as represented in new vintage clothing. Some seem to follow along with one another, while others seem directly oppositional. As far as the patina and nostalgia models examined here are concerned, we have to ask ourselves how far they answer our questions concerning our ongoing craze for new vintage, or, perhaps more pertinently, which questions do they leave unanswered? Are a pair of pre-faded Levi's a way to authenticate yourself, or are they a way to mourn times long gone? Does a factory-made tattered leather bag tell us about contemporary culture's commodification of the past, about a hyper-realization of times of yore available to us only as simulacra? Or, is it instead a way to open up and re-evaluate history? These are all questions that every nostalgia aficionado needs to ask in order to come to grips with the allure of clothes that tell tales of times past. 

Anja Aronowsky Cronberg founded Vestoj in 2009 as a platform for critical thinking in fashion. Today she creates the annual Vestoj Journal, Vestoj Online and the live performative Vestoj Salons. She lives in Paris, and today produces Vestoj under the partial patronage of London College of Fashion, where she also works as a Senior Research Fellow in Fashion Theory and Practice. 

Karen Kraven is a Montreal-based artist working with photography, sculpture and installation. Informed by fashion, labour and optical illusion, she is interested in the ways clothing registers the body; how it is fragmented, unstable and under interrogation. Her work with textiles and clothing is influenced by her father's (and his father's) knitting factory that stopped manufacturing the year she was born.

Recent solo exhibitions include Pins & Needles at the Toronto Sculpture Garden, Deadstock, Maw Gallery, NYC (2017), Slack Tide, Parisian Laundry, Montreal (2016), Flip-Flop Punch Front, Mercer Union, Toronto (2015) and Razzle Dazzle Sis Boom Bah presented at the ICA, Portland, Maine and the Darling Foundry, Montreal (2014/5). Her work has also been included in exhibitions in Marseille, Mumbai and Baltimore. Reviews have been published in C Magazine, Canadian Art, Momus and Artforum. Her work is in the collections of the Art Gallery of Ontario, TD Bank Group, RBC, Banque Nationale and private collections. Karen Kraven is represented by Parisian Laundry in Montreal.