I feel like I have joined a new sisterhood. This is the sisterhood of vintage style. For anyone who has been following me on Twitter and Facebook and seen the pictures I use to give a glimpse of the real me this will not come as a surprise. I love the style of the 1950s love the cars, love the music and so on. Until recently I hadn’t got around to actually wearing vintage clothing or even reproduction vintage clothing. It was just before Christmas that on a trip to London (a girly pre-Christmas shopping day out) that I first walked through the door of Vivien of Holloway, the reproduction vintage clothing shop on the Holloway Road (just a few doors down from where record producer Joe Meek had his flat and studio). I left with a 50s halter neck dress, petticoat and accessories and a somewhat diminished bank balance, although the dress is gorgeous, both to look at and to wear, and worth every penny. I was in a pub soon afterwards in my new dress when a lady came up to me smiled and said
“That’s a Viv isn’t it?”
We chatted about our shared love of vintage and she showed me pics on her phone of the several lovely dresses she owns. This was not the first such encounter and having been to vintage fairs and joined online groups I have found a new shared interest community. It feels good to get into something new.
Not everyone I know is delighted about this. I have heard arguments that my interest is crass nostalgia for a dark and dismal decade. Those who argue this point out that the 1950s were a time when Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis were sent to the gallows, a time when gay men were viciously persecuted, a time when racial discrimination was acceptable, a time of conservatism and stifling conformity.
This is all true but it is not, I think, the full picture. The 1950s were also a time of mass membership trade unions, a time of full employment, of opportunity and increasing social mobility. They were also the decade that saw the birth of the teenager, the coming of rock and roll, a time of increasing American influence that was not all bad, a time too, when society cautiously opened itself to foreign cultural and gastronomic influences, for example Italian coffee bars and Indian restaurants. More importantly the 1950s were a time of serious political protest. The mass demonstration against the Suez invasion in 1956 and the Aldermaston marches may serve as examples.
Every era is Janus faced and every era defies easy categorisation. The 1950s were certainly no golden age but were very different from the mythical decade that many UKIP members are said to aspire to return to. Katharine Whitehorn, no reactionary, described the 50s as the best years of her life.
And what of the fashions? Here I have heard the argument that the fashions of the era were emblematic of the return of women to the home, to cooking, cleaning, child rearing and looking good for hubby, in short that to be into vintage is to be nostalgic for an era of subservience and oppression. I have two responses to this. Firstly, I find it is deeply patronising to the women who lived at the time to imply they were passive consumers of fashions created by men, rather than agents with the ability to shape looks and styles. And if even of the first point was true it ignores the fact that contemporary women who adopt vintage styles imbue with their own meanings, adopting them as something empowering. Some men , of course, are interested in vintage but the scene is essentially a feminine one, and most vintage businesses are run by women for women. For many of them vintage is more than a hobby, it is a lifestyle. I am always amazed at the number of young women, some barely into their 20s. I see at vintage events dressed and made up with the most amazing attention to detail. They are saying I am different and not ashamed of it. It did occur to me that there are certain parallels to the kink scene, difference as a lifestyle, and there is also an element of cross over. Last month I had a lovely conversation with a stallholder at the BBB who is getting married this year in a Vivien of Holloway dress. For her vintage and kink are both integral parts of her identity. And just as I find the sex positive women I engage with online clever and strong, so it is with my new vintage sisters. I accept that being into feminine clothes and make-up is not for all women but for many, it is a fundamental part of the enjoyment of being a woman. And no woman should criticise them for it.
So what to buy on my next visit to the Holloway Road? That’s a difficult one but in the meantime a friend and I have a plan, to put on our Vivs, hire a Mk 2 Ford Zephyr for the day and have a drive out for lunch at a 50s diner we know. Bring on the sunny weather!