Grandma chic: the allure of vintage

17 June 2010

Written by: Jean Kemshal-Bell

Floral is this season’s studs and a cuppa is the new cosmopolitan. Pre-loved fashion is sending a generation of youths on a bizarre form of cultural subversion. Forget rebellion, teens are channeling grandma.

Arts, crafts and even baking are now typical activities for today’s teens. The hipsters dub it ‘Grandma Chic’ – and it has become a vivid part of Australia’s most fashion and socially conscious.

The trend was brought on by a place where tea sipping already dominates. Headed by indie songstress Kate Nash, young British women, with their blouses buttoned high, are pursuing hobbies once reserved for the elderly.

Joanna Barnett, 37, has been a vintage collector for more than 20 years and is the driving force behind Bowerbird . Recently featured in the pages of InStyle, OK! and Peppermint magazines, Bowerbird – a Sydney-based online store which specialises in vintage clothing and accessories from the 1920s to the 1980s – is enjoying the nation’s increasing acceptance of vintage styles.

The vintage dress, Barnett says, remains the most sought-after item. ‘The idea was to bring fabulous, unique and affordable vintage fashions to like-minded women who adore dressing up and also love the idea of owning a beautiful, wearable piece of history.’

An added bonus, Barnett mentions, is that vintage fashion is sustainable. While the garments found in most chain stores are produced in third world countries where ineffective waste management and worker exploitation is rife, vintage fashions are recyclable.

This, she believes, is where the success of vintage largely lies. ‘Clothing is so disposable these days. And so poorly made! It’s sad. I love that a vintage garment has already lived a whole life and has a history woven through the fabric.’

The idea of ‘wearable history’ is one which resonates through fashion literature. In her 2006 essay, Playing Dress-up: eBay’s vintage Clothing-land, Katalin Lovasz tells of the delight she felt after finding an old shopping list in a vintage dress she bought – likening the experience to a childhood game of dress-ups.

The appeal of vintage, however, goes much deeper than that. ‘There is something subversive about wearing a vintage dress,’ Lovasz writes. ‘One feels one is cheating the fashion industry, one-upping it even.’

Fashion design student Christie Robbs believes it is a colourful means of breaking the rebellious teenage stereotype. ‘I think there is an uprising of social groups where youths are encouraged to celebrate their differences and are therefore unafraid to do exactly what makes them happy, rather than conforming to what is considered typical teenage behaviour.’

Robbs, 19, who describes her style as ‘nostalgic with a hint of current trends’ is a self-confessed vintage addict – spending most of her disposable income in Newcastle’s diverse range of vintage outlets.

The attraction, she says, is in ‘buying something that is immune to the coming-and-going of fashion trends. It’s a way of owning timeless pieces of fashion that none of your friends will have.’

For this reason, young people, eager to assert their individuality, are clinging to a lifestyle once exclusive to the over 65s. Robbs, a picture of quaintness in her floral and pearls, is no exception.

‘My bedroom is decorated vintage-style, I do my makeup a certain way,’ Robbs says. ‘Buying and playing records makes me much happier than buying and playing CDs. Drinking tea from a teapot with a cup and saucer will always be better than a takeaway coffee.’

‘I think modern society popularised technology that was fast and to the point, but has lost sight of doing things beautifully. The art of calligraphy and letter writing was lost upon the invention of email and texting. I could go on forever,’ she muses.

‘It would be easy for the new generation to live off fast food and buy mass-produced clothing, but I guess there are too many people who see the merit of handmade crafts, a nice home-cooked meal and looking back at the past for inspiration rather than just accepting what is put in front of them.’

Vanessa Turton, creator and owner of Newcastle-based label Taeto, is one such individual. With her collection of vintage-inspired toys, cards, art and jewellery, Turton aims to give ‘a new lease of life’ to that which would ordinarily ‘get thrown out or forgotten about’.

The Taeto range, which is made mostly from recycled fabric, paper and even the pages of children’s books, follows the basic vintage philosophy: ‘Why buy new when you don’t have to?’

Turton, however, doesn’t dismiss fiscal tensions. With the Global Financial Crisis still lingering, recycling, in whatever form, remains the most viable means of production and purchase. Op-shopping has suddenly taken an upmarket turn.

Boutique charity stores, such as Newtown’s King 359, are opening in the nation’s trendiest areas. And, as a part of its Fashion with a Conscience initiative, the Salvation Army now provides online advice on how to dress stylishly in thrift.

This comes as no surprise to Turton, who says, ‘I suppose, as an artist, I have always chosen the second-hand option over the new because of financial concerns, but it is more than that. Things that have history behind them are warmer, more interesting I think.’

And indeed, as modern life becomes increasingly chaotic, individuals are embracing the traditions of our loving elders, the comforts we remember as grandchildren.

In a recent interview with journalist Rachel Wells, Frankie editor Jo Walker revealed some literary roots behind Australia’s vintage obsession. The independent women’s magazine, run on a minuscule budget and edited from Walker’s one-bedroom flat in Brunswick, Melbourne, saw the possibilities of vintage long before it entered the mainstream.

Now the fastest growing publication in the country, Frankie’s snappy take on society, art and fashion has paid off. With a 31.6% growth in circulation last year, Frankie stands at favourable contrast to Cleo, Cosmopolitan, Madison and Marie Claire which have recently experienced decline. The magazine’s success, Walker states, lies in its ‘genuine and real’ content.

It is this sense of community that keeps the vintage flame alive. Vintage is a fashion statement – yes, but it goes deeper than dollar bargains. Young women, discouraged by the isolation of modern living, are finding solace in the past. Whether it is cooking a great meal, sewing one’s own dress or having a quiet cuppa with an old friend, there are some things in life which defy time, place or age.

Lee Tobin is a Bachelor of Communication student the University of Newcastle.