I Dress Like a 1950's Throwback, But I Don't Want to BE One

...sometimes my inner feminist feels guilty, though 

Dressing in vintage, as the late, great Bette Davis might have said, ain't for sissies. In the 10 years since I first wandered into a second-hand shop and thought ‘Goodness, a skirt with sombreros and cacti printed on it! Now there’s something you don’t see every day…’ I’ve had any number of clothing calamities. A friend's collie once mistook my Bakelite bangle for a dog chew and nearly yanked my arm off. Another time, I padded out my too-big 1950s bullet bra with tissues before a dinner date, which gradually worked their way free and ended up dropping out of the bottom of my dress in the middle of the restaurant, Shout magazine embarrassing moment-stylee. The risk of 50-year-old garments disintegrating on the dancefloor means that I rarely leave the house for a night out without safety pins, a miniature tube of Superglue and a roll of double-sided tape. 

But in spite of all the broken zips and missing buttons, my relationship with vintage clothing has gone the distance. I've tried out every 20th-century fad going, from flapper dresses (which made me look like a sparkly barrel) to Anchorman polyester. Finally, I settled on my current style, which is probably best described as 'Diana Dors does DIY'. Mostly, I can be found in high-waisted trousers, tie-up shirts and cardigans embellished with poodles and the like. If I’m hitting the town of an evening, I favour frothy frocks – the goal is to resemble a human Vienetta. The little girl I once was, who used to insist on going to the shops with a washing-up bowl on her head, would have been thrilled to know that the woman she’d become would still be playing dress-up on a daily basis. 

But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t occasionally feel a twinge of ideological discomfort. Sometimes (particularly when I’m taking a tray of brownies out of the oven in one of my cherished 1950s pinnies) I wonder whether I really ought to be aping the look of an era in which working mothers were frowned on but nobody batted an eyelid at marital rape. Am I unwittingly endorsing the kind of attitudes towards women that flourished back then? Can you love vintage and feminism, or are the two mutually exclusive? 

I could fill pages wrestling with this particular dilemma, but this is my first Vagenda post and there’s a whole internet’s worth of sneezing puppies out there vying with me for your attention, so I’ll try to keep it shortish. (Disclaimer: although there are lots of us who go ‘ZOMG WANT WANT WANT’ over the same Etsy listings, of course, I can only really speak for myself.) 

Perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this if I dressed like a Land Girl or one of those devil-may-care 1920s ladies who roared around in a Bentley cracking wise. But the fact is, my chosen decade is one during which the freedoms women enjoyed during the Second World War (wearing trousers! Building planes! Copping off with strangers in air-raid shelters!) were binned, and frosting a cake became the sole acceptable path to personal fulfilment. Bad times indeed. I mean, I like frosting and all, but not that much. 

But you know what? A fondness for frills and flounces can mean just that – nothing more. Wearing old fashions doesn’t make you old fashioned. Love Mad Men, loathe misogyny, as the home-painted mugs I’m currently trying to flog on eBay read (yours for just £6.99 plus P&P – don’t all rush me at once). However, not everyone sees it that way. My dress sense has, on more than one occasion, brought me to the attention of less enlightened members of the opposite sex, who’ve assumed I’ll be a sugary-sweet, giggling thing untainted by the writings of Germaine and pals. Unfortunately for them, if I were to re-write My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music, lumped in with the kittens and mittens would be compound expletives, shouting at the television and the Viz letters page. 

For me, feminism means exercising your right to make choices – feeling ok with putting down the screeching ladymag you’ve been flipping through in the hairdresser and saying ‘Thanks awfully for the £2,200 “must have” pleather onesie, Mass Media, but I think I’ll pass.’ Vintage dressing is all about options – you can pick and choose items from any period in history to suit the body you have, rather than starving, depilating and spray-tanning said body into submission so it looks appropriate in the denim micro-shorts deemed essential this season. Lots of vintage-wearing women sketch out the clothes of their dreams and then make them at home, which strikes me as the joyful opposite of shuffling zombie-like to the shops on a Saturday and spending your hard-earned dosh on whatever the glossies tell you to. 

So, yes. It’s is a happy-making business. But it also takes some guts, even in this Cath Kidston-print age. Although the reaction I get from people I don’t know is generally very cheering, I’ve also been heckled more times than I can shake a cheese-and-pineapple skewer at. Only last weekend, someone at the bus stop yelled ‘DOT COTTON’ at me as I walked past in my twinset. (As it happens, the inimitable Mrs Branning is something of a style icon of mine, so I was pretty chuffed – yeah, in your face, Bus Stop Heckler.) If you’re on the receiving end of this kind of guff regularly and it doesn’t totally flatten you, your default stance quickly becomes ‘Pffft. My body, my business’. Which can only be a good thing. 

The women I know who wear vintage styles are a diverse bunch, but they’re almost invariably creative, strong-willed and independent-minded. Many are former goths or indie kids, well used to blowing a gigantic raspberry at mainstream bunkum about femininity. It isn’t that they, or I, actually want to go back in time – personally, I’d rather move to Mars than spend the rest of my life dolloping Betty Crocker goop onto some doughy executive’s plate. For me at least, part of the thrill is in feeling like you’re reclaiming the look and remaking it in a feminist way. Whenever I stick to my guns, answer back or pay my own way in a vintage sundress, I like to imagine the haters of days gone by choking on their prawn cocktail.

- EH (blog here