Dress like you mean it with vintage

Image from metmuseum.org

Cocktail attire from the amazing American designer Charles James, circa 1930s

We have different reasons fueling our appreciation of vintage – they vary from the detail on the most everyday of objects, the quality of the craftsmanship – or admiring the elegance of a bygone era. Whatever the reason, few could dispute that vintage clothing holds a certain glamour and appeal, characteristics so many modern garments simply do not. I mean, do you swoon over the cut and detailed seaming of your fleecy yoga pants? Not likely. Scoring high on the comfort scale, low on the elegance scale. Let’s investigate how you can dress like you mean it with vintage.

Shopping for vintage clothes, we often see “cocktail suit” or “dinner dress” or “day dress” used in the descriptions and think, “Wow! They must have gone to a lot of fancy dinners and stuff….”. Yes and no.

Yes. People were just more social and “dressed” to meet up with friends or go out into public. They would host dinner parties, teas and musical evenings. Were these “formal” gatherings? Not as we understand the word formal. Dining out, attending religious services and the like were regarded as “events” and you dressed accordingly. Dressing your best – out of respect for the event, your host and venue.

No. You simply would not have worn your dressing gown or scruffy house dress in public. You would have been embarrassed to do so. Chances are very strong you wouldn’t have worn either of these garments outside the home, period.

Professionals dressed appropriately and respectfully. Even as far back as the 1870’s, a respected female physician asked for fashion advice – noting her well turned out colleagues garnered more respect than poorly turned out ones.

Look at the casual/candid photos from the early 20th century – people looked “dressed up”. Check out these awesome street scenes from Edwardian London – don’t these women look smashing? I would bet a majority of these ladies were neither rich nor spent a bunch of cash on clothes. They simply took time with their appearance. Young women were guided in terms of dress. Learning what to wear for what occasion. They were encouraged to purchase or make garments that fit and flattered their bodies, to choose quality over quantity – dressing well without breaking the bank. They learned how to combine taste and style from dress doctors. Dress doctors were typically not designers, just ordinary women – with a sense of style and a focus on cost effectiveness. Based in home economics departments across the country, they educated young women in running a cost efficient, clean and attractive home as well.

British tourists visiting the US after WW2 commented upon how tastefully American women dressed day to day. Heading the practical advice of the dress doctors – these women knew how to be tasteful and stylish.

Visitors would be hard pressed to say this now – let’s find out why, shall we?

Dressing on the Side | The Cult of “I Don’t Care”

A great many people don’t care.

Now, realizing I’m a woman of a certain age – I hold no illusions that the world “was a better place” back in the day. Change and evolution are a constant. Some of these changes are great! The technological advances immediately come to mind – along with air conditioning and indoor plumbing, but I digress.

Image from metmuseum.org

Maxi dress, Halston, dated 1981

This past New Years Eve, I had the pleasure of volunteering for the celebration at our Art museum. It was a gorgeous evening. And costly – tickets started at $250 a piece. The revelers positively glittered. Colorful cocktail dresses, LBD’s and even a smattering of ball gowns for the ladies. Some very smashing vintage was spotted as well! Yours truly rocked a silk crepe LBD from the mid-20’s. A majority of the gentlemen had on dark suits or tuxedos – one fine fellow was decked out in full Kilt attire, jacket, sporran, knee socks, the whole shebang – he looked incredibly handsome and elegant.

But wait! Is that a dude in a hoodie? Is that a couple in matching fleece pull-overs and cargo shorts? Is that woman wearing leggings and sweatshirt that says “Like a Boss”?

Seriously, what’s with wearing your junky junk clothes to a dressy event? Or anywhere besides the hardware store, for that matter? When did this become OK?

The internet is verdant with blogs and opinion pieces surrounding this trend. Major magazines have addressed it, take a look at this piece in a 2012 issue of “Forbes” magazine.

When did we cease caring?

Dressing on the Side | In The Beginning

Research tells us this casual trend had a soft start in the 1960’s. The country was in great turmoil – many of our leaders were assassinated. Young people were scoffing “the man”, protesting the war in Viet Nam and pushing for a different society as a whole.

Add to that, people had been moving out into the suburbs since the end of WW2. Casual, back yard entertaining became the norm – your LBD just didn’t work at a cookout or pool party. But we still had a sense of pride and elegance, as seen here.

Fashion as a whole became more casual and youthful. Look at these models from the 60’s, compare them to fashion pictures from the decade before – we’ve gone from women to girls. Knee and midi length skirts to micro mini. Again, all of that aside, casual photos from the time still show Americans dressing reasonably well, pulled together and wearing “street clothes” when in public.

Through the 70’s and 80’s women increasingly joined the workforce and needed to dress accordingly. I began my professional career in the mid – 80’s, I remember getting dressed each day for work. My workplace had a strict dress code: for women no trousers, you had to wear stockings, your skirts shouldn’t be more than 2 inches above the knee and “city shorts” weren’t allowed. The men were expected to wear suits or sport coats, collared shirts and ties. We looked like professionals, like grown ups.

By the end of the 80’s, the cult of “I don’t care” really started to gather steam. Some say “casual” Fridays fueled the flames. Of course, in the ‘80’s, casual Friday meant less formal – trousers, open collar shirts, no jackets/suits, loafers, sweaters, etc. Not ripped ill-fitting denim, grungy t-shirts and flip flops.

Others made mention of the change in schools – everyone gets a prize for just showing up, all in the name of self esteem. There could be some relevance there, everyone is a winner and dress codes are haphazardly enforced.

Whatever the reason, over the past few decades, we’ve slipped.

Dressing on the Side | Dining Out and Travel

Spend any time in a major American airport and you’ll see this trend in all its glory. Our airports are beautiful places – good restaurants, upscale shopping, mini day spas and some even feature original artwork and live music. They’re downright festive. Pretty cool, all things considered.

Image from: Rococo Vintage

Lovely 1940s day dress

The people IN the airports, on the other hand? Not so much. Did I just step into a hobo flop house? Yes, travel can be complicated and frustrating at times. Are planes dirty? Yep. Are we packed in? Yep. Having traveled extensively for business and pleasure throughout the US and abroad, I’ve noted this is a decidedly American problem. Most Europeans still dress decently to travel and their experience is not so different from ours – they too have increased security protocols, packed planes and occasional delays. So what gives?

Not saying we should go back to suits, gloves and a clever little hat for travel wear – but “Hello Kitty” pajama pants, dirty Uggs and a pilled North Face jacket perhaps shouldn’t be the norm, either. And no, your pillow is not a fashion accessory.

We’ve given up.

We expect great customer service – but when it appears you’ve just fallen out of bed? It’s difficult to take you seriously. Given your appearance, you don’t care about yourself – or the person providing the service, so why should they care about you? Unfortunately, perception is reality and it becomes a vicious cycle.

It’s so frustrating! You take time with your appearance – donning your favorite vintage Gold Worm knit dress and fabulous heeled boots, taking a few extra moments with your hair and make up – anticipating a great meal in a “nice” restaurant. For you it’s an event, for the couple sitting next to you? Apparently not – given they’re both wearing printed t-shirts and shorts. The mans baseball cap remains on his head, and you’re afraid to look at their footwear. What’s with shorts in mid – December? They’re just too cool to care.

The wait staff is better dressed.

Ten years ago, many nice restaurants still required a jacket of the gentlemen. Overtly casual patrons were turned away – it was a lesson learned, you want to eat here? Don’t dress like a hobo or like you just rolled off the couch in search of food.

Dressing on the Side | Capitulation and Acceptance

The couture and design houses still pump out beautiful clothing and many consumers are very label conscious – wanting to be perceived as able to afford designer and couture clothing. But we surely don’t dress like it. Blindly accepting poorly constructed and ill fitting clothes. Embracing trends without a second thought.

Coco says it best

Image from Stylecaster

If crowds at the shopping mall are to be used as an example – couture now means t-shirts, sweatshirts or accessories emblazoned with the houses logo and worn with your pajama bottoms. We’re fancy. We’re different. This Chanel handbag makes the fact that I’m wearing leggings, Uggs and a sweatshirt to a dressy occasion OK, I’m now dressed up – I have Chanel.

I can’t think Coco would be amused – this woman who designed some of the most glorious clothes ever, possessed immense personal style and oozed class from every pore, is probably spinning in her grave.

We accept the trend. It’s OK. It’s your right as an individual. It’s what everyone else is doing.

Think about that last statement.

In our pursuit of comfort, the cultivation of cool and push back against “rules” – we’re no more an individual than before. We all look the same. Just well, bad. Am I saying we should go back to starched collars, gloves and hats? No, not really, but can we just rewind things a bit to the point of caring?

Dear readers, I challenge you to step out of the cult of “I don’t care”. Dust off your vintage LBD. Shake out your sport coat. I’d argue wearing clothes that fit and are well made can be as comfortable as your slops. Save the scruffy, shapeless clothes for home or the gym. Take an extra 10 minutes with your appearance. Look in the mirror. And retire garments that are too small or simply ill-fitting.

See how your world will change.


Great sources: Forbes.com, Real Simple magazine, CNN, The Huffington Post, Notre Dame Magazine, Bill Maher “Americas Slob Culture, When You Leave the House, We Can See You”

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