Blue Stocking

A rumble in the jumble

Christobel Kenbt

New year, new wardrobe.  Or rather, if €33bn in sales of second-hand luxury goods last year are anything to go by, new old wardrobe.  With designer handbag brands taking old classics in part exchange for new, and online designer “pre-loved” sites such as Hardly Ever Worn It and Vestiaire Collective offering authentication services and credit schemes, the second-hand market is most definitely undergoing a transformation, and I for one am not absolutely sure I like it.

Not that I’m averse to wearing someone else’s old clothes: on the absolute contrary.  I have been in love with vintage since I was eight years old and trying to squeeze my skinny arms into one of my mother’s old Mary Quant for Ginger Group mini dresses (brown polka-dot chiffon, since you ask, and no, even at eight I was too big for it). 

Throughout my teenage years I ran the gauntlet of grimly disapproving iron-haired ladies at charity shops and – even better – I haunted jumble sales.  The latter barely exists in its true form now (jumble sales have been wiped out by eBay or gone large and unmanageable as car boot sales) but its paragon in the Seventies was a village hall with trestle tables piled high with the mothballed clothes of the dead, an extraordinary treasure trove. There were rich pickings of Fifties taffeta and Sixties chiffon cocktail dresses, Irish tweed suits, sailor smocks and plus-fours and satin-lapelled tuxedos only slightly gone at the crotch.  

An outfit that still, 45 years later, represents a fashion pinnacle in my vintage wardrobe was a pale violet round-necked cashmere sweater and a beautifully cut pencil skirt in army-taupe glazed cotton that made me feel like Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity: at the height of punk I wore it to gigs, with my hair razor-cut up the back. 

I had Thirties hostess-gowns Myrna Loy could have sashayed in and psychedelic trouser suits that could have come straight from Laurel Canyon; I had diamante parures that Marilyn Monroe might have fondled with elbow-length gloves, and I had Starlight Lounge black satin winkle-picker courts.

I wish I had them all still, because I’m as passionate as ever about vintage clothes, even if these days I rely on brilliant curators from Blackout II Vintage to Timeless Vixen to feed my habit – and the new fashion for old fashion has meant that prices, once rock bottom, are climbing steadily.

The decline of fast fashion in favour of recycling and re-use – many shoppers are calling time on Primark’s 99p T-shirts, given the sweatshop industry and intensive agriculture needed to feed its throwaway culture – can of course only be celebrated.

And it’s heart warming to think that, just like my generation, today’s teenagers are drawn to clothes with patina, that tell a story of a lost age or just offer an insight into a former teenager’s life (ticket stubs in handbags, a dress that’s gone under the arms from too much dancing), even if they haunt Vinted and DePop instead of jumble sales, and the dress is “Eighties bodycon” instead of Sixties satin with a chiffon train.   

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. She has lived in Essex, Modena, Florence and Cambridge and has written seventeen novels, ten of which are set in Italy. Her latest novel “The Widowercame out in May 2021

Arts & Culture

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