The Vagenda

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


16 thoughts on “I Dress Like a 1950′s Throwback, But I Don’t Want to BE One

  1. I really like this post, because your vintage is my cupcakes. I think modern feminism gives both these things a thorough bashing because of what they COULD (and occasionally do) represent – oppression, domination and house-wivery.
    But… I like cupcakes. They’re just fucking nice, OK? And so are hair rollers and vintage dresses (that cut is the BOMB) and oldschool heels.

    Feminism is, among myriad other and serious things, about choice and freedom of expression and if vintage is yours, go forth guilt free and rock that shit for your oppressed predecessors who couldn’t rock it in their turn.

  2. Hey, so this is very insightful and great.
    But the image you are using is of me, from my blog, and its not being credited.
    Could you please credit if you are going to use it?
    Twila Jean

  3. The thing is, in any form of cultural participation we will run into ideas we don’t like, though it isn’t always that simple. I love blues music, all kinds and while the overall idea is of course of black empowerment, it comes off as horribly sexist. “My woman done left me . . .” etc which are lines which I am sure everyone has heard. However if you look back at the history of the music they are not singing about females. They are singing about their bosses, they couldn’t complain about their bosses directly for fear of highly painful consequences. So do i disregard Robert Johnson et al? No it was of their time and and its an historical placement and besides Lou Anne Barton and Bonnie Raitt, put the balance back towards feminism years ago.

    I am a wrestling fan to which is a clusterfuck of embarrassment when it comes to the way women are treated. However among that detritus, women’s wrestling produced one of the most beautiful documentaries I have ever seen, which is all about female empowerment. Kim Longinotto’s GAEA girls is documentary about a women’s wrestling school and the wrestlers there in. I would also say that Dynamite Kansai, Mayumi Ozaki, Manami Toyota and Toshyo Yamada put together the greatest wrestling match of all time that filled Yokahma Arena that literally made grown men weep. Which is worth remembering when I see Velvet Sky tottering around in 5 inch heels on Impact Wrestling on Sunday.

    The key thing is to find the good and champion it. No guilt necessary, lets just bring the mainstream to us.

    Wonderful article.

  4. I LOVE 40′s and 50′s vintage and will dress in big dresses regardless, I present myself as an absolute take no shit feminist and the way I act is besides the point to how I dress. I love lipstick and wear it all the time, I like looking so feminine that people get taken aback by my bulldog mind. I used to think it was a problem but I don’t anymore. Wear what you like because it doesn’t symbolise anything anymore. Each decade had a specific style that no one could dress differently in but now we have the freedom to dress as we choose and it’s just the way we want to dress

  5. As an ardent feminist who also happens to love baking and knitting (and shuns trousers for skirts on a daily basis), I too am constantly refereeing the battle between my principles and my tastes. I love pink, heels and painting my nails in pastel colours. But just because I enjoy looking stereotypically feminine and get a kick out of wearing a scarf I actually made myself, it doesn’t mean I’d rather my entire sex was shoved back into the kitchen and reduced to a uterus with a feather duster.

  6. The last summer of high school 50′s style clothing came into fashion and I immediately spent all the money in my ‘for uni’ savings account. Yes, I was broke for years, but I’m still wearing that haul 10 years later. Modern fashion just does not suit my shape. Vive la 50′s housewife!

  7. Great article, which I find very legitimising! I’ve always been pulled towards vaguely 19th century stuff: maxi skirts and white cotton, before the words ‘maxi skirt’ meant anything. The style suits me better than anything else, and when I became disabled I gradually realised that for very practical reasons long skirts worked best too.
    My only problem, and I know the writer alluded to it too, is the messages that dressing like this sends out to men. The combination of long hair, long skirts meant that back when I was single and in my 20s I seemed to appeal to (much) older or misogynist men, sure I’d be ‘unspoilt by feminism’ and not easily convinced otherwise!
    My disability made this far worse, as evidently when combined with my look I was just crying out to be ‘protected’, i.e owned. (There was some stalking, it wasn’t fun…)
    I learned that I had to incorporate at least one definitely modern or on trend thing, and swear a lot, if I wasn’t going to be a total weirdo magnet. Very depressing, but true. These reactions often made me question whether I was letting down my feminist self.
    Now I’m married, more disabled & in my 30s I can dress however I like without anyone wanting to own me — freedom!

  8. Weirdly enough, when I see women dressed in vintage 40s or 50s style, I usually assume that they are feminists and don’t take any shit! My reasoning is that it takes guts to dress differently from the masses, and therefore, by standing out, you are kicking arse already. Which in my mind makes you a feminist. Logical?

    I love my 50s-style dresses, but I’m so low-maintenance that I only wear them on days/nights out as it’s too difficult dressing up every day (I have to wear a uniform at work, so can’t anyway)