When we think of vintage clothing, we almost instantly think of worn out denim, corduroy and windbreakers. In fact, the term ‘vintage’ in 21st century Western culture has come to stand synonymously for a particular type of ‘old-school’ chic – a ‘hipster’ aesthetic, if you will – perhaps places like Brick Lane and Shoreditch come to mind. However, people’s motivations for buying vintage differ vastly: From simple nostalgia to staying up to date with ‘trends’, the desire of shopping secondhand locally or for the sake of sustainability. Yet the latter is precisely where the lines between ‘vintage’ and ‘secondhand’ begin to blur and in fact, the terms are often used interchangeably.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘vintage’ describes ‘something from the past of high quality, especially… representing the best of its kind’. Strictly speaking, then, vintage clothing does not need to be a relic from the past but may well be a replica instead. This misconception is precisely what major vintage companies like Rokit Vintage and Beyond Retro Ltd. build upon under the guise of sustainability. When I argue against vintage from an environmentalist and socialist point of view, these are the precise forms of vintage I am protesting against.
Firstly, I would like to establish that, yes, in any case, pre-loved clothing is principally better for the environment than buying newly produced ware. However, so called “Vintage Shops” are a growing industry of an exploitative capitalist nature and are have therefore become both ethically and environmentally questionable. The concept is simple: vintage shops buy up large quantities of ‘quality vintage’ from charity shops, then resell them at twice the price. My primary concern here is the reinforcement of class that occurs by denying people with lower income accessibility to ‘quality’ clothing. The concept of Vintage Shops ensures that “elite products”, aka a selection of “high value brands” (such as Nike, Adidas, Levi’s, Burberry etc.), stay expensive – or worse, gain value through their rarity – and thereby continue to elevate the wearer’s status in the social hierarchy.
Additionally, growing companies like Rokit Vintage and Beyond Retro Ltd. have launched mass production of their in-house brands, adding to the landfill as opposed to working against it – the spirit of environmentalism already forgotten. The general consensus appears to be that the more successful these (or any other) for-profit shops become, the more likely they are to cause significant damage to the environment through transport emissions and production waste. As establishments that aim to fight social, humanitarian and environmental injustice and crises, charity shops are the combatants to the ‘vintage’ industry. While I am to acknowledge that some charities have had controversies surrounding them (such as Oxfam, UNICEF), they arguably embody the more economically friendly alternative. As always, the most sensible piece of advice, if you are concerned with issues of equal wealth distribution or the environment, is to make an informed decision about where you get your clothes.