For me, history is one of the most important and meaningful benefits of existing. There is a lot of idiotic tripe spoken about the Past, Present and Future as though the latter two were as distinct from each other as they are from the former; in reality, the only Future we know is the immediate Present. The Future is not predestined. We don’t have to ‘wait until it comes around’ like some kind of vessel of Time. It happens with every ticking moment; the Present is simply the slow but sure unfolding of the Future.
The Past however is distinct because we know that it happened. We know that Shakespeare existed. We know that the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783 and that JFK was assassinated on the 22nd November 1963. It is the only certain thing we know. It is for this reason that it holds such fascination for the intelligent beings that inhabit the earth. Wondering about the Future is a daydreaming exercise but analysing and studying the Past is not only productive but rewarding.
One of the most useful things about the past, as far as fashion is concerned, is that its records enable creatives to adapt styles that not only looked acceptable but were popular too. When fashionistas claim the new craze is precisely that, “new”, the chances are it is simply an older style that has been altered for a modern market. A vintage knock off.
The vaults of fashion are chock full of frills, pleats, cuffs and buttons that are constantly recycled though the decades and centuries in which these dusting glories once shone, like the newspapers, are long gone.
Perusing the racks at a vintage store, I flick through items of age and residual humanity; for people have lived in these clothes, loved in these clothes and very possibly died in these clothes. Though rigorously cleaned, they still retain that uncommonly musty smell. I am given to understand that it is the thought of such unpleasantness that guides certain cultures that second-hand living is unacceptable; for them vintage clothing, whether Savile Row or C&A, is off the list.
For the particularly squeamish there are solutions to the barrier of second-hand living. Personally, I am not interested in second-hand shirts, underwear (for obvious reasons), socks or shoes. They are items too intimate to adopt as my own; no matter how clean, I cannot wear another man’s Club collar. Even if I could overcome such squeaky reticence, finding a decent vintage shirt is very difficult, particularly one of a style that has long vanished. The Vintage Shirt Company, based in Lewes, Sussex, are the saviours for gentlemen who crave un style ancien. Producing everything from 18th century lawn shirts with frilled cuffs and fronts and early pleated linen Victorian shirts to boiled front Edwardian evening shirts with detachable collars, they are an index of forgotten styles.
Their inventory does not stop at shirts either. They provide an extraordinary range of collars, some of which are washable, as well as an impressive array of neckwear – 18th century cotton cravats, Regency bows and Victorian silks – as well as an inexpensive collection of headgear that betrays the theatrical custom of the store.
Yesteryear also reigns at Old Town clothing, an aptly named Norfolk based retailer of vintage style jackets and trousers. The aesthetic is more utilitarian; a collection of working-class classics from the late 19th and early 20th century. Utterly frill free, patch pocketed jackets are a throwback to the era of shipbuilding, terraced houses and Bovril billboards. Fabrics are sturdy rather than refined and there is a definite solidity to the appearance of the garments. A breath of fresh air for those with a taste for recreating the Hovis man, most of what Old Town produce is not available to purchase anywhere else; their niche is the offer of a practical, sensible style of clothing that the world rejected with the decline of the traditional working-class. The deep irony is that these £200-£300 items are more likely to be bought by gastropubbing design executives with Range Rovers and cottages in the Cotswolds. Nothing like a bit of proletariat panache.