what is vintage to you?

words by natalie sim • images by azizul ali

A strange phenomenon seems to have taken all of us captive – a sudden and confusing appreciation for your dad’s wardrobe, his previously ugly chunky “dad” sneakers, and baggy polos are mysteriously making their way into your own closet. This unfathomable love for your dad’s clothes can be explained as the “vintage” phenomenon, a result of the cyclical nature of fashion trends that return and breathe life into a whole new generation of consumers. Today, it is “vintage” that is given a new lease of life, explaining why your dad’s wardrobe is suddenly back in vogue.

While the mainstream trend towards wearing vintage can be traced to as early as the 1980s, it has evolved from being a subcultural phenomenon in the 1990s to becoming part of mainstream collective consciousness today. In an age where technology and social media are increasingly indispensable in our lives, we are given an alarming visibility in a virtual world yet run the risk of disappearing completely within it. People started looking for ways to stand out through fashion and turned to vintage and its one-of-a-kind allure and authenticity as a substitute to the saturation of fast fashion in the market, especially with the recent media focus on the unethical practices of the fashion industry. The recent revival of heritage brands, return of old sneaker silhouettes, and the inclusion of “vintage” or “reclaimed clothes” sections in high-street stores are thus not unsurprising and prove that even big brands are responding to this resurgence of styles from the past.

Ironically, “vintage” has become something of a buzzword among the younger generation today, and while the trend only really took hold of Singapore very recently, there is a burgeoning “vintage” scene in the Lion City. Following in the footsteps of world-famous vintage boutiques like Round Two, “vintage” stores have been popping up to cash in on the renewed demand for vintage gear. Enabled by the reach and accessibility of social media marketing platforms, many of such stores run as successful businesses entirely online, with only a handful having traditional brick-and-mortar shops.

The “vintage” phenomenon does, unfortunately, come with several complications. The recent surge in demand for vintage clothes, for instance, meant that good quality vintage items were growing scarce. Many vintage retailers have thus decided to sell items that are manufactured more recently, despite being aware that these items might not exactly be “vintage” and that their claims to authenticity tended to be rather iffy. This then brings us to another unspoken but important issue – what does “vintage” even mean? Defining “vintage” has become rather tricky, and the value of the “vintage” labeled items available in the market today is increasingly difficult to get right.

While it may not matter to many, such definitions are important to the diehard followers of fashion who would be interested in the history of the clothing item. To put it into another perspective, however, the definition of “vintage” may be of interest to us when we start asking questions like, how do we know exactly what we are paying for? How do we know when we are scoring a deal and how do we know if we are being ripped off? How do we know if the Nike tee we are proudly prancing around in is authentic and not a recent reprint?

There is indeed a jarring lack of consensus when it comes to defining the term “vintage”, which has also often been used interchangeably with “retro” – an occurrence so common, it has become normal practice for local resellers of vintage clothing to label items as such in Singapore. Studies have been conducted to combat this fluidity of the meaning of “vintage”, but while results typically show a majority agreeing that the “vintage” category encompasses fashion predating the 1990s or anything more than 20 years old, there is also an acknowledgment that as the meaning of “vintage” shifts and develops alongside present fashion trends, a definitive definition for “vintage” has been rendered almost impossible.

With that being said, there also seems to be an underlying proposition that “vintage” involves an element of time – recognising the history of the vintage items, how it’s designed and the way they were made reflected the era in which they were produced and worn. On one hand, the time aspect to “vintage” could refer to the brand’s heritage and legacy. Take Nike for instance. Its incredible growth throughout the years that can be visually noted simply through the tags on their t-shirts, which have changed with time. On the other hand, “vintage” clothes also represent the clothing technology of their time, which also reflects the enduring quality of the clothes. One clear indication of vintage clothing technology commonly used as a reference point among vintage enthusiasts is the single-stitch technology, the predominant method used in t-shirt production until the mid-1990s. This method of sewing, which is also known as the lock-stitch, is known for its durability, with its seams being able to remain intact even if one of the joints in the stitching breaks. More recent tees are hemmed with a double stitch, which employs a less durable chain stitch that unravels more easily as a whole. Similarly, the fabrics used when manufacturing clothes have evolved with time. Materials like pure rayon, nylon, and wool are older, whereas spandex, poly/cotton and blends are representative of more recent technology.

Unlike the term “vintage”, “retro” does not come with the same sense of time or history, and instead refers to a style that imitates or reflects fashion from the past. While there is no concrete definition for the term “vintage”, there is definitely a fine line between “vintage” and “retro”, and the values of the items, monetary or otherwise, would, therefore, differ accordingly and should be applied with greater clarity.

In the local context today, it seems that “vintage” and “retro” are used by both resellers and consumers alike, to broadly refer to the aesthetics and styles of the 80s and 90s – namely the bright, mismatched colours and patterns, oversized silhouettes, “dad shoes”, and heritage sportswear brands. However, we cannot be sure how the tides would shift with time and how much more diversely these terms can and will be applied. With each decade bringing forth new things that can fit into the “vintage” or “retro” category, the focus grows increasingly subjective and the question becomes, what is vintage to you? It is then up to us to determine how to approach the idea of vintage fashion, and our own individual ways of appreciating these clothes can perhaps also give these items a certain kind of value too.

So, what does vintage mean to you?