The Retro Look: Second-Hand Fashion Goes Uptown

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“The Retro Look: Second-Hand Fashion Goes Uptown” By Steve Berg, Minneapolis Tribune Staff Writer Friday, April 27, 1979 As they say, Andrea Williams looked like a million bucks. She wore a fashionable navy-blue pinstriped jacket with padded shoulders; a white shirt with a narrow collar, the same kind they’re showing in all the designer boutiques; a scarlet sweater-vest; black suspenders; khaki slacks, cuffed and straight-legged; and an elegant pair of black and white saddle oxfords. It as truly a striking ensemble, especially considering Williams, a Minneapolis commercial artist, paid less than $6 for the whole works. She is one of a growing community of people here and across the country who are buying their clothes, almost all of them, from second-hand stores. “I’d guess that 90 percent of my wardrobe is made up of, you know, clothing that has been worn before,” she said. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, young, ragged students frequented the second-hand stores, snapping up army surplus field jackets and other old military items as an anti-war statement. By the mid-’70s, artists, actors and the more stylized segments of the gay and black communities—those people usually on the edge of new fashion consciousness—discovered second-hand clothing, first as a “camp” statement and later as a legitimate style. Now a much wider spectrum of folks, mostly young professionals who prefer inner city living, are flocking to second-hand clothing, stuff that in many circles has ceased to be “rags” and is now referred to as “recycled” or “vintage” or “antique” clothing. Or classier yet, The Retro Look. Retro is a combination of ’40s and ’50s styles. Some feminists have interpreted Retro as “reactionary” fashion, a return to the padded shoulders, tiny waists, slit skirts and the sexy “hurt me” facial expressions of the Marilyn Monroe ’50s. Retro clothing (both new and second-hand) goes for big money at the designer boutiques, but some—Williams among them—are convinced that The Look can be achieved without large cash outlays. Williams calls what she does “junking,” although many Retro-look partisans would take offense at that, preferring a more refined description. On weekends she spends hours picking through the bins and flipping through the racks at her favorite haunts, some of which she refuses to reveal. Junkers are that way. “It’s a race between us and some of the fancier second-hand stores to see who can score the best stuff at the best prices,” she said. “One day I bought 30 ties (those nice narrow ones), two shirts and a vest for 65 cents. Next time I came back, all the ties were gone. Somebody from one of those fancier stores had probably come in and cleaned the place out.” Williams, who is in her 30s, gets ideas for what she calls her “items” by looking at the Italian edition of Vogue magazine. “It’s more outrageous than the French Vogue,” she said. “The things you see in there are going to be fashionable here in two or three years. And the only places you can buy these things are the junk places.”

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In that way, many of those who by at second-hand shops feel they are teetering on the cutting edge of high fashion without paying high prices. Williams’ pinstripe and khaki ensemble, for example: $2 for the jacket, 50 cents for the shirt, a dime for the vest, $2 for the pants, a quarter for the suspenders and $1 for the shoes. “My socks,” she said with raised eyebrows, “are new.” Still, that’s 5.95 for the outfit. Most of the clothing was originally menswear and needed cleaning and extensive alteration, costs which might double or even triple the original raw price. Still, Williams said, it was hundreds of dollars less than she would have paid at a boutique or a high fashion department store. “Also you can’t forget,” she said, “that the construction of these clothes is much better. The fabrics are better, the wools and the cottons and the gabardines. I have a gray cashmere coat I bought at a junk sale for $5 that I like much better than a coat I bought new for $200.” “The quality of clothes has definitely gone downhill since the early 1960s,” said Leslie Meier of Minneapolis, another enthusiastic second-hand buyer. The new generation of second-hand buyers also believes that buying used clothing is simply more fun than buying new. “You get to know that stores,” Williams said, “you get to know who is strong on ties, who is strong on sweaters.” Faithful trashers also visit their favorite spots often, hoping to get in on new shipments and building a certain rapport with the clerks. Also, stores tend to move around a lot, and it’s important for a good second-hand freak to stay au courant. Williams has definite tips on junking etiquette: “A lot of people would be appalled at some of the places I go into. Some of them are pretty grubby. A lot depends on how you look when you walk in. You get real humble. You don’t look like somebody who owns the place. You do a little rap first. Tell them what you want and they’ll get real excited if you find something. Establish a little rapport. It’s important.” Many of those who buy used clothing to be fashionable—not just to make ends meet—approach the experience with a certain sense of humor, a certain attitude that vacillates between camp and practicality, an attitude that seems deeply rooted in nostalgia. “The relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental,” Susan Sontag wrote in a 1964 essay “Notes on Camp.” Camp fashion means living your life as if it were theater, she wrote. And in talking to second-hand fashion buffs, you do get the impression they believe they are putting something over on someone. Perhaps they are. At a place on Lake Street called “The Trashing Machine,” Williams admired a bizarre earring and brooch set that looks as if it came from the tackle box of a fly fisherman. “Quite an interesting item!” she said with a wry smile, well aware that she could have pulled off actually wearing the pieces and wearing them well. The days of the dirt-cheap second-hand wardrobe are, of course, coming to an end. The more attention used clothing gets in the media, the more popular it becomes. The more demand, the more scarce truly fine items become and the more expensive they get. Good, cheap second-hand stock has become extremely rare on both coats, and even in the Midwest, wholesale buyers are having to go farther into the country to buy good items for low prices at estate sales or, more traditionally, get them for free from charity drives. A new hierarchy has developed among the stores which have, by choice, divided themselves into at least three tiers: (1) The traditional, large-volume warehouse outlets where the shopper rummages through bins and where a top-of-the-line sport coat might cost $5; (2) the medium range thrift stores where items are sometimes cleaned and pressed and hanging on racks and where a nice jacket might go for $10 or $15, and (3) the vintage or antique clothing boutiques, many of which specialize in fine used clothing from a particular era and where a typical jacket might run $40 to $60.

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The catchy names of some of the stores reflect the changing attitude toward used clothes. Elite Repeat and Norma’s Encore Shop in St. Paul; Rag Stock in downtown Minneapolis and Dinkytown; and Fagin and Me, Jeepers Creepers, One more Tyme, The Trashing Machine and The Switching Post, all in south Minneapolis. At last count, there were probably 30 such stores in the Twin Cities, some much less visible than others. Howard Weisskopf who owns seven stores in Minnesota and Wisconsin including Minneapolis Rag Stock Inc. is one of the city’s biggest second-hand dealers. He calls his stock recycled clothing and believes it has gained respectability partly because of style and cost and partly because more people are interested in the preservation of old things, even clothes. “the kids are looking for the salt-and-pepper sport jackets with narrow lapels from the ’50s,” he said, “and they want shirts with small collars or button-downs—very big—and vests are a must. They want those alpaca golf sweaters, gabardine pants and rayon sport shirts. The girls buy old slips and wear the top part for formal things . . . This stuff is being ripped off in the fashion world today more than anything else. I’d say the kids are leading the designers. I guarantee you, two years from now you’ll see this stuff in Justers.” Weisskopf was saying that fashion is cyclical. The big second-hand sellers from the ’40s and ’50s are very similar to the designer clothing being sold for big money today. He traces the second-hand fashion movement back to the mid 1960s when, he says, “kids literally went around in rags.” “What I call the flower children were doing anything to upset the establishment,” he said. “Now recycling something is looked on the same way as God, the flag and motherhood. It used to be that you looked both ways before you went into a Salvation Army. Now you see all kinds of people in there.” If Weisskopf represents volume, Linda McHale represents the “upper end” in the second-hand clothes business. Her shop, “The Corner Store, which recently moved from Franklin Ave. to Lake St., specializes in stock from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. “I won’t buy ’60s stuff,” she said. Her merchandise is all cleaned and pressed and looks like what it is—a quite carefully selected group of antique or vintage clothing. McHale keeps up by reading all the latest fashion magazines. It all turns over about every 30 years,” she said. Our women customers are still mostly into ’40s clothing. The men are already into the ’50s.”   Berg, S. (1979, April 27). The Retro Look: Second-Hand Fashion Goes Uptown. The Star Tribune. Retrieved from https://startribune.newspapers.com/