When I walk into a charity shop because of the beat-up penny loafers in the display windows or the kitschy mohair sweaters being perused by ladies that remind me of my aunties, I can never contain myself. The question of why I buy vintage, and especially vintage I know I'll never wear, has a bit of an indecipherable history to it. One day I was purchasing what most college kids buy — cardigans and jeans and Converse to beat up by summer — and the next I was trying on '50s prom dresses and watching His Girl Friday, itching to figure out how, exactly, I could perfect dressing like a reporter from the '30s. And I guess the main reason I'm drawn to vintage is that the clothes aren't just stuff you can wear on your back. They also hold a narrative.
It's not like I was raised around red lipstick or skeleton keys or Mad Men-inspired whiskey sets. Yet the whimsy of it all has caught my attention. I went through phases during which I wanted my dresses to look like picnic blankets and my shoes like ones Southern matriarchs might sport to church. And then I crossed over to a more menswear-inspired, Katharine Hepburn-esque look that had a lot to do with wearing Oxford shirts without bras and my dad's watch on my wrist. Things ebbed and flowed, but one thing I knew was that I was attracted to the world of vintage because of my love for stories.
Vintage items have a tale to tell. The flapper dress that hung between the ghastly '80s New Year's number and the regular denim pinafore somehow made its way to my suburb, but from whose attic? I can almost imagine the woman who must have folded it carefully into her past before finally donating it. I can picture her as a teenager with a quick laugh and a stubborn streak — one that would worry her mother, but keep her dad wrapped around her finger. Maybe she would swing to jazz and touch up her lipstick in smoky bathrooms, talking quickly like a 1920s movie star about the boy she liked.
Maybe she did and maybe she didn't. But it's fun to try to find that person in chiffon and bead work, allowing me to connect with a woman I'll never meet but can remember nonetheless. I have a deep appreciation for these stories, even if they're only in my head. Vintage clothing is full of mystery and history, and wondering about it all is half the charm.
So when it comes to vintage, I buy a lot of things I'll likely never wear, but that I just need to own when my paycheck allows for it. My closet is like walking into a curiosity shop. On one side, you have my sensible clothes, with sweaters stacked neatly according to color, collared shirts ironed and hanging primly, and the less OTT vintage suitable for the day to day. And on the other, you have a collection of sartorial chapter books — a history of women I admire and think about often, wondering what sorts of things they did with their lives while wearing those clothes. And while that might sound like a hodge podge of a wardrobe, I think you can be drawn to a style completely different from your own (brocade opera jackets even if you're a tomboy, or baggy overalls even if you're sophisticated) and not have to feel guilty about getting less use out of it.
A lot of times, people buy things that are practical — like sweaters we can bundle up in and shoes that'll take us to work — but not everything in your closet has to be sensible. It's romantic to buy pieces that you never plan to wear, but you have an appreciation for because of what they symbolize: A past life, and a different narrative.
Even inside of ourselves, we all hold a series of unique narratives, and they can lead us down different stories and paths to choose between. Are we the responsible version of ourselves, who goes to work at a sensible job and hits the hay by 10 PM in order to beat the alarm? Are we the one who sneaks off with pool boys during family vacations, or doesn't quite tell mom the truth when she asks what we did last weekend? Do we roll up our sleeves and work hard for what we love, or do we wish we could spend our weeks building sand castles? Chances are we're a little bit of all of that. In that same way, an old dress with moth holes in it or a worn-in flannel shirt might not be in keeping with your defining style; but you can still feel connected to these things because they foster a sense of curiosity about aspects of your persona you're not exploring enough otherwise.
And so, I own pillbox hats I'll never wear anywhere but dim movie theaters, and heavy evening dresses with broken zippers and champagne stains down their hems that'll live only in my wardrobe. I have '80s dungarees that look like they belong in a hip hop video, and sheer dresses that felt like they could have been owned by an angry suburban teenager who paired them with flannel shirts in the '90s. All these stories, all these different chapters and shades of a life a person can lead, are tucked away into my closet. And that's a pretty badass thing.
I buy vintage I never plan to wear because I love people, and I love every version of myself too. I'm a non-historian historian; an antique appraiser who judges the worth of clothes depending how many memories can be stuffed up their sleeves and into their pockets. Vintage is wonderfully nostalgic, sure. But more than that, it's history and a memory. For me, owning it is a way of preserving those yesteryears and reminding myself that there are many different ways a person can enjoy their life. Some pieces in your closet can become keepsakes that make you appreciate or delight in a life someone before you has lived. You'll probably never, ever meet them, but it's grounding to know you have a piece of history hanging in your closet nontheless.
Images: Marlen Komar