Olivia Glazebrook

Rumble in the jumble

The craze for vintage clothes is a heartening response to the dreary sameness of high-street fashion, says Olivia Glazebrook

Wayne Hemingway — de-signer, trendsetter and fashion watchdog — was interviewed by the Telegraph before his festival ‘Vintage at Goodwood’ took place over the weekend. He made two claims that inspired me, not a natural festival-goer, to dial the booking hotline: ‘There will be attendants for each toilet so that they are as clean on the last day as they were on the first,’ he said, and then, ‘You’ll probably look a bit out of place if you turn up in shorts and sandals.’ These are the kind of bold assertions that have made him an arbiter of taste. Who could resist such a challenge? Mr Hemingway, sir, a ticket please! I ironed my shorts and polished my sandals instanter.

With his festival Hemingway intended to showcase the best of 20th-century British cool, to celebrate each decade from the 1940s to the 1980s. In a green field in Sussex, every group, club or gang from within each of those decades — people who live and breathe their ‘niche’, who have perfected every detail of their look — could get dressed up in their best clothes and dance all night. This would be a playground for lovers of vintage, and best of all it would be a playground in which no one would get a kicking for their hairstyle, their outfit or their taste in music.

As well as dedicated followers of fashions past there would be dabblers like myself — the truth is, it wasn’t just the promise of attended loos that lured me in. Searching out old, used, cheap clothes in charity shops and jumble sales has long been one of my favourite occupations.

It is a habit that used to be rather sniffed at, definitely not something anyone boasted about. Discreet communications might have taken place between rummagers, when one identified another, but open discussion of a preference for secondhand clothes would have been unthinkable.

How times have changed. The word ‘vintage’ has been dragged — sorry, ‘sourced’ — from the back of the closet, ‘customised’, and given a new image. Where once it was applied only to very good wine or, at a push, very old cars (those built between 1919 and 1930, to be precise), now it seems to indicate pretty much anything bought, found, or worn secondhand. My old Nike hi-tops are nothing more than that until I advertise them on eBay when they become, to someone else, vintage.

The trend is a response in part to the dreadful sameness of the high street. To buy vintage is an attempt, however feeble, to assert an individual look. What is new about the current craze is its connotation of mindfulness: of responsibility, of conscience. Today, to state proudly that ‘My coat is brand new, it came from Hermès and it cost me a fortune’ is enough to put you in the same chain-gang as all those other middle-class criminals guilty of such clangers as ‘Yes, I need lots of plastic bags, please’, or ‘I’ll have the tuna’.

In a coffee shop the other day I overheard the following exchange between three women:

‘Is that a new top?’ asked the first.

‘Oh my God, don’t!’ said the second, in a guilty-but-proud voice. ‘Yes. It’s Stella McCartney. So naughty of me… but I couldn’t resist.’

‘I can’t believe you still buy designer clothes,’ sniffed the first woman. ‘It’s such a waste of money. I could get the exact same thing on the high street for fifty quid.’

‘High street!’ said the third, looking up from her text messaging. ‘Yuk. I mean, it’s fine if you don’t mind looking the same as everyone else. All my clothes are vintage.’ And with that, Designer and Sniff were silenced.

I was reminded of Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch (‘We used to have to live in the corridor!’ ‘Oh, we used to dream of living in a corridor!’), but this exchange in one-downmanship was not about economy (it’s a good deal cheaper to buy new clothes at Primark than old clothes at Oxfam) and it wasn’t really about rejecting uniformity (the three women were dressed pretty much alike). No, it was about rejecting consumption, and dressing with a clear conscience. ‘I recycle,’ says the wearer of the vintage piece, ‘I care about polar bears.’ Where once we rejoiced in our ‘buying power’, now we are disgusted by it. We are ashamed of our shopping habits, and afraid of a future in which the land will be smothered by T-shirts, and the rivers choked with flip-flops.

But however virtuous, a craze for vintage is not something that fashion magazines are likely to encourage. Vintage (although it is the name given by Kate Moss to one of her scents) is not a brand, it doesn’t advertise and is therefore not a source of revenue for the likes of Condé Nast. But not everyone has the time to forage for clothes in unlikely places, and some are horrified by the idea of secondhand clothes — ‘Someone might have died in it!’ — and so magazines can usefully recommend something neat, tidy and clean by comparison: the ‘vintage look’. You can buy the vintage look at Ralph Lauren for £2,000, or at Topshop for £20. The clothes will be new, you can try them on in a proper changing room, and they’ll come with a receipt. But — and here’s the kicker — you can still look as if you bought them in a jumble sale! Phew.

So does Wayne Hemingway intend to promote vintage to the masses, or protect it from the mainstream? Is he ‘vintage’? Or is he ‘vintage look’? After all, in the 1980s he was one of the designers who brought us designer clothes, helped to change the face of the high street and got us all shopping our socks off. Now he’s created a festival at which the toilets are not only attended but also flush, and what’s more they are signposted ‘lavatories’.

To my relief, on the day I was there, his festival had more in common with an eccentric English country wedding than the likes of Glastonbury. People were dressed in their best clothes and prepared to have a jolly time. There was a lot of tea, and much of it came in china cups. There were sleepy-making speeches given under wet canvas. There was music, dancing, and plenty of booze. I had no doubt that someone would drink too much, punch someone else and then pass out, weeping, on a straw bale; but even when they did I suspected that some ancient code would be adhered to, the punch-up would be resolved with a handshake, and in the morning everyone would be splendid friends.

In a dark green, ex-army canteen tent I sat on a folding chair with a cup of Darjeeling and listened to a woman describe ‘how to achieve the perfect 1940s red lip’. Her audience — of perhaps 60 — was quiet, all of us tranquillised by her voice and by the rain pattering on the canvas above our heads. But as the drizzle turned to a downpour something began to happen that might have upset Mr Hemingway. Out came shapeless cagoules, sludge-green anoraks, fluttering pac-a-macs and those cheap, folding umbrellas that only last the afternoon. The glorious carnival was gradually drained of colour. It’s not the economy, the high street, the endless magazines or the fashion business that makes us look identical, I reflected as I looked out at the torrential rain. It’s the weather.