Vintage Clothing: A Sustainable Love Story
This week's guest post is from stylish vintage enthusiast, sustainable clothing advocate, and influencer, @alenactran. In this post, hear her story and how she came to love & appreciate a vintage (and more particularly, sustainable!) lifestyle.
I’ve often been called an ‘old soul.’ This label has something to do with my naturally formal and introspective demeanour, I’m sure, but for much of my youth I did feel decidedly out of place, as though I had been born in the wrong decade. Instead of pursuing trends at the mall, my late teen years were spent browsing antique stores and acquiring blouses and skirts from the 1940s and 50s. Costume parties were a cinch – I had enough vintage clothing and retro hairstyles in my portfolio that a trip to Value Village wasn’t necessary. I dreamed of collecting mid century modern furniture for my future house and filling the empty spaces with the crackling melodies of an old vinyl record. Photoshoots with friends often involved dressing one another up in what vintage clothing we had (usually mine) and capturing a surreal, romanticized portrait of 20th century life. This is what vintage meant to me, what vintage fashion was for.
It’s been just over half a decade since I was a teenager, collecting delicate white gloves and vintage handbags. Exactly half a decade since I wore a scarlet 1950s evening gown to my university’s Christmas banquet. (There was a brief phase that followed in which I discovered a particular Korean fashion brand and only wore shapeless monochrome clothing. Thinking I had become a different person, I donated all of my vintage clothing, which I deeply regret). Now, solidly in my mid-twenties, I adore vintage once again – but my reasons for collecting it have shifted.
You see, a few years ago, my narrow perspective on fashion was abruptly and jarringly widened. I was introduced to the concept of fast fashion – large volumes of cheap clothing being produced at a breakneck pace, often in countries at high risk of labour abuse -- and how it enables the exploitation of countless human beings for the sake of providing us with trendy clothing at a deceptively low cost. It racks up environmental crimes against our planet that are too numerous to count, what with all of this clothing being carelessly tossed in landfills – clothing which requires the vast consumption of precious resources to create in the first place. In my journey to find clothes that were kinder to people and the planet, I learned that clothing was not always made this way. Fast fashion is actually a fairly recent phenomenon.
This is where vintage clothing comes in. Before the end of the 20th century, the vast majority of garments were still made in the country they were sold in; clothing that was sold in Canada was also made in Canada, by skilled garment workers who were paid a living wage. The average consumer was savvy, with a strong knowledge of what fabrics and techniques made an item good quality. Cheap, poorly made items would simply not be bought. Clothing was not seen as the cheap commodity it is today; it was relatively expensive, meant to last, bought thoughtfully, and made in limited quantities to ensure good construction. This is why so many vintage pieces are still being bought and have held up so well over the years.
As the 20th century drew to a close, however, clothing brands began to realize that they could make a significantly higher profit if they sold a greater volume of product at cheaper prices. Instead of selling small batches of well-made clothing at a higher markup, they could pump out vast quantities of cheap clothing by garment workers in countries with much lower minimum wages. Within two decades, the majority of fashion production was exported to developing countries. Cheaper materials were used, shortcuts were introduced to make clothing production quicker, and today we can buy a t-shirt for less than our morning latte (though the true cost is far higher).
Sustainability in fashion is a deeply complex issue. The fashion industry has evolved into a global powerhouse that touches everyone and everything, and it can feel overwhelming to consider how it is impacting our planet – and if we can ever turn things around. However, there are many ways in which we as consumers can start to lessen our negative impact and begin to maximize the positive. Instead of turning to a fast fashion retailer, buying preloved clothing – clothing that had been previously been owned or bought by someone else – is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to shop for clothes. This is because it involves buying outside of the cycle of consumption, a cycle which fuels the breakneck pace of the fashion industry. It’s also often more affordable. Vintage fashion is my favourite form of preloved clothing, since I know that my vintage pieces will likely outlast my contemporary ones, and it means I have a piece that likely no one else has. I love the style aspect of it just as much as the sustainability. And it’s not just me: more and more people are turning to secondhand and vintage fashion. The secondhand clothing industry is growing at three times the rate of the fast fashion industry and is projected to overtake it.
Whereas in the past I bought vintage clothing with the goal of emulating a 1950s Coca Cola ad, I now buy vintage to reduce my negative impact on the planet and add unique, high quality pieces to my wardrobe. I also firmly believe that vintage clothing is not just for ‘old souls’ or individuals with a passion for bygone eras like myself. You do not need to have a fascination with the past to have a deep respect for the future. There is so much vintage fashion available that can easily be added into a modern wardrobe, because the cuts and materials are timeless and made to last. It is this belief that spurred me and my sister-in-law to launch our own vintage clothing business, Truce Clothing. It’s still a fledgling brand, but we’ve already found a loyal following of like-minded individuals who care about their clothing choices and love classic style.
The heart behind Truce Clothing: to make vintage clothing, and consequently sustainability, accessible and wearable for the people. We have minimalist tastes. While many people envision colourful, quirky pieces when they hear “vintage” clothing, we carefully choose pieces that reflect what the modern woman wants to invest in – timeless, high quality garments in easy-to-style cuts and colours, which retain the character and charm that is always woven into vintage fashion. Pieces that look like they may have come from a contemporary boutique, but unique enough that people ask where you found it. And all the while keeping the vast majority of our pieces under $80.
There is a certain quality inherent in vintage clothing that makes it easy for us to find gems to add to the shop. Handle enough vintage garments, and you’ll start to develop a sense for what’s vintage and what’s fast fashion, without even glancing at the tag. Even if I were not a sustainability advocate, I would still find it difficult to wear poorly-constructed styles from most modern brands.
As I was taking a quick detour through a popular fast fashion retailer the other day, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sorrow for the racks bursting with just-arrived autumn sweaters. The knits were so loose and quickly woven together that they surely wouldn’t have retained their shape for more than a few washes. There is certainly a vast amount of privilege that comes with choosing not to buy fast fashion, as many people do not have the time, education, or financial resources to consider looking outside of the cheapest brands. But my hope is that as time goes on, there will be a simultaneous movement of fast fashion brands gradually moving away from their unsustainable production practices, vintage and secondhand boutiques gaining traction and popularity, and consumers realizing that curating a sustainable closet does not need to be expensive. There is plenty of vintage clothing to be found at thrift and consignment stores, and if time or patience doesn’t allow for that, small shops like Truce are here to streamline the process of helping consumers discover beautiful vintage garments that they’ll treasure for a long time.
About the Author
Alena Tran is a local writer, creative, and sustainability advocate with a heart for a better fashion industry. Find her at @alenactran on Instagram.
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