Vintage is the height of fashion, but for some it comes with added baggage

Sarah Ayoub
·5-min read

As I admired my reflection in the mirror, a sales assistant told me the dress I was trying on was a very popular pick among the store’s clientele, but most left the shop disappointed. It wouldn’t zip up around the bust. Having finally found a merit to my smallish chest – which seems unchanged from when I was 15, as the rest of my body gets wider and softer – I committed.

I found the dress at The Vintage Clothing Shop in Sydney’s St James Arcade while filling in time between giving lectures at a city university. It was a bright 70s maxi, with folky floral detailing on that fitted bust, a loose and flowing skirt, and the kind of voluminous sleeves that would make a Zimmermann devotee swoon.

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The woman was wrapping it up in tissue when she informed me it was a Norman Hartnell, but I was too preoccupied with the feeling of breaking some rule to be remotely enthused by the name. Only later I discovered that the designer had once made many of the royal family’s dresses, including the wedding gown of Queen Elizabeth II.

Behind the closed doors of the changeroom, I fantasized about how I would wear the dress – with boho-style hair and my tan See by Chloé platforms. But now, some 18 months later, it still hangs in my wardrobe mostly unworn; a mark of transgression against an unspoken cultural rule. And I blame my family for it.

I grew up in a migrant household, always aware that we were somewhat different. The way we ate, celebrated rituals and spoke went against the norm. But it never occurred to me that how we shopped was different too, until I was 23 and came home with a vintage top. My parents insisted I dispose of it. My mother warned that it could be harbouring all sorts of bacteria and grime; my father begged me to take some cash and buy something new.

Buying vintage or pre-loved ... was the domain of those who struggled

“If ever you need anything, you tell me,” he’d insisted, pressing a wad of $50 notes into my hand. “Don’t go buying used anything.”

Back then, I found it hard to articulate how weird it all seemed, but now I understand. I had subconsciously slighted them and the hard work they’d put into providing for my siblings and me. Everything from my access to tertiary education to my ability to travel and enjoy fine restaurants represented something they had deprived themselves of so that I would never have to struggle.

Buying vintage or preloved, to them at least, was the domain of those who struggled. Op-shops and secondhand stores were where your unwanted things went. They weren’t the kind of places to hit up if you needed something, not unless you were desperate. My buying things from op-shops was seen as a failure on their part, and I couldn’t bear to be complicit in their failings, no matter how fictitious they seemed.

I know I’m not the only one. Conversations with friends who also grew up in working-class migrant households indicated similar misgivings about shopping vintage. In my community in western Sydney, people splash their cash: on cars, on professionally decorated functions like weddings, baptisms and children’s birthday parties, and especially on clothing. If you are buying secondhand, you aren’t doing well enough, and the shame of that is your family’s as well as yours.

In the same way suburbs where Sydney’s migrants settled are unrecognisable ... buying vintage now looks a lot different

I am older and with a family of my own now, but I still have mixed feelings. These days, part of it is being complicit in the gentrification of something once associated with communities who lack means.

In the same way the suburbs where Sydney’s migrants initially settled have become unrecognisable due to the arrival of white, upper-middle-class millennials, buying vintage now looks a lot different. Instagram and online boutiques are brimming with preloved clothes that cost far more than they would in an op-shop, leaving only scraps for those who shop used from necessity, rather than sartorial choice.

On the rare occasions I have visited my local Vinnies – to browse bargain secondhand books, or acquire the kind of vintage crockery that makes food stylists drool – I have been careful not to approach members of my community. I once waded through men’s clothes racks like a spy, waiting for a distant aunt to pass. I had a job and a mortgage and was in there for props, but her circumstances were very different to mine. I was saving her the embarrassment of being seen.

These days, I pop into vintage stores with a little less unease. I feel more empowered to make choices for the good of the environment, and in recognition that many new clothes still don’t rate highly enough in terms of ethical manufacture.

But my 70s dress is still hanging in my wardrobe, a visual reminder that while I have come far, there is so much more to unpack. I have inherited my own version of the migrant’s struggle, and wearing that history will always be more of a statement than any dress, designer or otherwise.