It feels like vintage has always been in style, but a late ’90s turning point set the stage for the pop-culture phenomenon we're seeing today. Columnist Cate Brown traces how vintage clothing and decor have permeated the zeitgeist
If there is any doubt remaining that vintage clothing and decor have gone from counterculture faves to mainstream staples, tell me that the most entertaining feud of 2023 wasn’t Kim versus Kourtney over the Dolce and Gabbana ’90s fashion archives, the pivotal plotline of season three of The Kardashians.
Add to that sibling squabble the popularity of streaming ’90s television shows like Friends and the ’80s-based Stranger Things, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a vintage TV takeover — and it's hit a near fever-pitch in recent years.
With a “what you see is what you get” mentality in viewers, millennials and Gen Zers alike are taking to TikTok to recreate simple, classic looks, like the perfect Rachel Green outfit or Monica Gellar brown nude lip.
Do you recall when That 70’s Show came out in 1998 and bellbottoms were all the rage once again? In 2007, Mad Men brought fashion from the early 1960s back to the forefront with characters such as Betty Draper and Peggy Olson.
Those vintage looks are still everywhere: Even more current shows like Sex Education have characters such as Maeve dressing in head-to-toe vintage clothing. Hell, Daisy Jones and the Six, rumored to be loosely based on the band Fleetwood Mac, takes place in the height of 1970s rock-and-roll wear. If Stevie Nicks isn’t a current fashion icon of yours, stream that show and she’ll soon climb your list to the top.
Apple TV recently released their documentary about the top ’90s supermodels. Watch that over the weekend and you’ll surely catch catwalk fever of the perhaps the greatest and most creative decade of the fashion and music scenes in recent vintage history. How can you not be inspired watching Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista and the like in their heyday?
What was once a vintage trend brewing is now erupting into mainstream mayhem of vintage fashion takeover. Now that audiences can return to those shows and binge them today, people have more access to fashion from previous eras than ever before.
This phenomenon is leading former fashion faves to be even more popular than current runway fare. Skeptical? Ask yourself this — are you keeping up with Paris Fashion Week in your social media feeds? Or are you harkening to apparel of ages past?
Have you picked up a House and Home or Style at Home magazine from the newsstands lately? Bored with gruesome grey and modern all-white homes, interior designers are spotlighting Art Deco and midcentury modern decor in their latest reno forays. Travertine, marble and iron are in high demand, and modern replicas have even hit major retailers. Doubtful? Find me a show on HGTV that doesn’t hit the local flea market or antique shop as a staple of their home decor shopping spree.
All of this to say that vintage shopping, once a subculture for history aficionados, cool-kids and environmental crusaders has become as ubiquitous a weekend activity for soccer moms as brunch and mani/pedis.
Have you been Goodwill or the Salvation Army recently? Thrift shops have historically have been for lower-income people and deal-seekers — but with the rise of YouTube influencers doing video “thrift hauls" (for better or for worse) and faced with rising overhead costs, they've capitalized on the cachet and popularity of vintage shopping, raised their prices to be on par with what the items would arguably cost new.
Yes, of course, we must address the issue of fast fashion, its horrendous impact on the environment, and shopping vintage as a sustainable option for those looking to reduce their carbon footprint.
However, would people be so moved to shop sustainably if they were not inundated with vintage as a helpful alternative from every corner of their periphery? With the advent of social media and the easy access to information nowadays, we can go online and instantly see the effects of the fashion industry in land and ocean dumps alike.
In the most superficial of takes on this topic, most people are really after the look of ’90s nostalgia or the Y2K buzz — and when top fashion and celebrity influencers do it, the general population takes notice.
Kate Middleton makes headlines whenever she rewears an outfit in which she has already been seen and photographed. More often applauded for rewearing her royal looks, there still exists some stigma in the media coverage towards Middleton when she makes her recycling fashion choices public.
Shiloh and Zahara Jolie-Pitt have both hit the red carpets in dresses their mom Angelina Jolie wore previously as well. Shiloh reworked her mother’s former full-length Dior gown to crop it above the knee for the UK Eternals movie premiere. For the Los Angeles premiere of the same film, Zahara donned an Elie Saab gown her mom originally wore to the 2014 Oscars. Shiloh altered and rewore a Gabriela Hearst dress that Angelina first wore to a Women for Bees press event in July 2019. “We all did vintage and upcycled my old stuff,” the star told Entertainment Tonight at the L.A. premiere.
Fashion’s biggest event of the year, the Met Gala, sees celebrity guests pulling from designer archives to honour whomever happens to be the thematic topic that night. For this year’s tribute to the late Karl Lagerfeld, Blackpink singer Jennie wore a vintage fall/winter 1990s dress designed by Lagerfeld himself. Popstar Dua Lipa graced the red carpet in a vintage gown originally worn by Claudia Schiffer at the Chanel fall/winter 1992 haute couture runway show.
On a deeper level, the world has not been having its best of times in recent years. Nostalgia evokes emotion from days past that were, if not better, at least simpler times. People are looking to lock in with those emotions and memories to remember times that were stress-free and enjoyable.
Perhaps this is why the Barbie movie has done so well domestically and internationally at the box office. What little girl doesn’t love remembering playing house with Barbie and Ken in childhood? I get the warm fuzzies just thinking about it now. America Ferrara’s character in that film remembers those times in order to reconnect with her challenging teenager daughter. I’m sure many a mom can relate to that mother-daughter struggle. Clothing and home decor are largely connected to evoking an emotional impact in the home and closet alike.
Whether your motivation to shop vintage is due to its aesthetic appeal, because of current economic difficulties, due to the ethical virtues of sustainable shopping, or because you’re inspired by the media that surrounds you, this subculture-to-mainstream shopping revolution is here to stay.
Many people are taking on little spend or no-spend challenges, reworking what they have, doing DIY decor projects on pieces found on Facebook Marketplace, or building capsule wardrobes for workwear with classic vintage clothing. I can safely say that vintage is a trend no longer — the movement is here to stay.
Cate Brown is an Ottawa-based freelance writer and gallery artist.