I have always enjoyed wearing vintage clothing and used to love going to flea markets, picking up items and saying: “My grandmother wore that,” or “My mother had those.” Then it happened: I picked up a dress and said, “I owned that!” When you get old enough to remember the first time around, can you still wear retro without looking dated? — Ilene, Larchmont, N.Y.
It is true that when we think about vintage clothing these days, we often think about it as a young person’s game: Gen Z rediscovering the ’90s (or the ’80s or the early 2000s) and finding the joy in low-slung cargo pants, cropped tops and mini backpacks as everyone celebrates them as champions of sustainability; or fresh-faced celebrities looking hip in midcentury haute couture.
Loving resale is a good thing, no question, but it has also led to a situation where the whole meaning of “vintage” has become confused with “used clothes” and “retro” — which are, in fact, not actually synonyms.
There is, as it turns out, no generally accepted definition of “vintage” — The Vou.com newsletter describes it as “any object representing a previous era or social period, at least 20 years old but not older than 100 years.” Vestiaire says that vintage is “15 years old or older.” Many other sites use the term simply to mean old — and by “old,” I mean last season. Which is itself a development that can be attributed to our bizarrely truncated sense of time, thanks to social media, and the constant stream of new information.
Let me tell you: “Vintage” does not mean last season. It doesn’t even mean last year.
But if we think of the meaning the way the Cambridge Dictionary does, as “of high quality and lasting value, or showing the best and most typical characteristics of a particular type of thing,” then it becomes a signifier of connoisseurship, knowledge and taste. And that, in answer to your question, has absolutely no age limit.
It’s not when a garment was made that dictates whether you should buy it — or whether, once upon a time, you wore a similar style — and not even its price, but its quality and how it fits into your new wardrobe. And self.
After all, as Simone Hines of Erstwhile Style Vintage pointed out, whatever clothes you remember from your own youth will look different through the lens of now. You have changed over the years, as has your body. What may once have felt frumpy to you may now seem elegant; what might have seemed like weak social signaling could now look sardonically cool.
Rachel Zabar, a vintage dealer in Los Angeles who says she still wears the Norma Kamali ruched minidress she wore to her prom, offered a few guidelines when I called.
First, she said, approach vintage “ironically.”
“I grew up in the 1980s, and I love a striped knee-high tube sock,” she said. “Sometimes I wear these on the tennis court with a cute Stella McCartney for Adidas tennis dress.”
Second, think high-low, as in “a vintage Diana Ross Live in Central Park tee with a pair of high-waist jeans.”
And finally, take a page from the vintage looks Carrie (a.k.a. Sarah Jessica Parker) modeled in the last season of “And Just Like That…,” many of which came from Converted Closet, a label that upcycles vintage garments. Then, alter the look.
See, for example, Carrie’s white lace jumpsuit, which was made from a 1980s Victorian-style wedding dress. Or, for that matter, her actual Vivienne Westwood wedding dress, which became a last-minute Met Gala gown. A turquoise wrap, a kooky hat and that dress was given a whole new, more modern, meaning.
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.