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The Ideabook: Vintage Fashion and Feminism

Vintage Fashion and Feminism
When Katie Haegele finds a 1970s Ideabook at a yard sale, it unveils a world of meaning behind her own fashion choices and those of women in the past. 

Vintage clothing is a Post-Modern genre, "a highly visible way of acknowledging that its wearer’s identity has been shaped by decades of representational activity, and that no cultural project can ever 'start from zero.'"—Kaja Silverman, 'Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse'

One time at a yard sale I found this weird book called Ideabook. A child of the 1970s, I was drawn to this outrageous-looking thing like a moth to a lava lamp. On the cover was a photo of a smiling woman in full seventies regalia: long shining hair and big, round, yellow-tinted sunglasses, her head tilted glamorously to one side. She’s raking that healthy hair back from her face with one hand and smiling with all her teeth. In the background is her little brood, a rugged lumberjack-poet dude with a kid on his shoulders. The family is standing in a grassy field, but the photo’s color wash is so weirdly golden it looks like the Serengeti. I find this scene hideous and appealing to almost exactly the same degree, and if I could climb inside the book and inhabit it I would. Since I couldn’t do that I bought it, as I have bought so many old things that can no longer be used for their intended purpose.

Ideabook’s intended purpose was as a catalog, from which you could order S&H Green Stamps items. I didn’t know what Green Stamps were so I asked my mom. She told me that in the seventies (and for forty years or so before that) you could get these stamps when you bought certain foods at the grocery store. You then pasted the stamps into a booklet, and when you’d collected enough of them you could redeem them for household items and clothing. When she got married, my mom told me, her new mother-in-law gave her a stamp book with some of the stamps already in it, to put toward a vacuum cleaner.

My Ideabook, published in 1971, has tons of great-looking photos in it, all of them full to the brim with goofy “vintage” charm. There’s a picture of a few young guys playing guitars under a tree; you could order the guitars as well as any of the clothes the guys were wearing. There are pictures of little girls in knee socks, women lounging catlike on the floor to talk on phones, and the family from the cover walking toward a picnic lunch on the Serengeti, which was being served in clear Thermalene casserole dishes. You could order space-age table lamps, shaggy rugs, stereos and refrigerators, all of them pictured in super ugly rooms done in beige, orange, and avocado green. To my mother, though, the things in Ideabook do not look ugly or funny; she got a little misty, looking at them. To her I think they still represent a lush lifestyle that she and my dad could not afford in 1971, the year they got married.

So why do I love this stuff so much? And how about you, reader of a blog post about old catalogs and ladies’ fashion from the seventies? What do old things mean to you? I can tell you that I first learned to dress myself as a young teenager at the Salvation Army, where the few bucks I had in my pocket could buy me a whole outfit. It really opens up your imagination, looking at clothing from so many different decades. The thrift store was where I first learned to envision myself as one of many possible things: a tough girl in a leather jacket, a summertime hippie in a long skirt, a party girl in party dresses. Back then, in the nineties, my friends and I mostly came across polyester tops and bell bottoms from the seventies, but we sometimes found older things too, like the bead-encrusted cardigans from the fifties that had held up beautifully, even if the yellowed lining under the buttons showed the garment’s age. These were gorgeous, but they were funny too. We weren’t fifties ladies! We listened to Hole and gave people the finger! Sometimes we even found (and bought and wore) secondhand men’s clothes, like the gas station attendants’ jackets you used to be able to find with the employee’s name embroidered in cursive on the breast. Does anyone still wear those? Gosh they looked good.

Not too long ago I was reading an old issue of WORN, an indie fashion magazine from Toronto, Canada. WORN looks at clothing from a feminist perspective, and in one especially insightful essay author Emily Raine wonders if feminism can be practiced through fashion. Sometimes, she writes, and quotes scholar Kaja Silverman, who has argued that wearing vintage clothing is a positive feminist practice because wearing clothing that another woman once wore “plays up commonalities between women of different eras.”

That idea lit me up like a light bulb. What a good way to think of it! Some of the smart feminists I know have called out the nostalgists among us, reminding us that the good old days weren’t always good, that imagining a simpler time is reductive and inaccurate, and it’s unwise to romanticize the times when, for instance, Jim Crow laws were still in place and abortions were illegal and dangerous. They are right about that. But the clothing, oh, the clothing. There’s something electrifying about channeling the past by dressing up like it; by mimicking the women I have looked at in photos all my life, I get to be them for a minute. And why not? If it weren’t for fate or luck or whatever, I would have had a life like theirs, like anyone’s. The cat eye glasses of old family photos, a Donna Summer-looking sequined top, the punky, printed heels that put me to mind of a musical and cultural moment I dearly wish I’d lived through: filling my closet with clothing from different eras has allowed me to piece myself together into some version of today’s woman, which is a person who surely couldn’t exist without the women who went before her and is in some sense a pastiche of them all. If I thought I could pull off the Ideabook lady’s get-up I would wear those fugly sunglasses in a minute.

I once read a good zine with a funny name—I Love Vintage (but I wouldn’t want to live there)—by a writer named Holli Mintzer. In it Mintzer gives instructions on how to make a circle skirt from an old bedsheet, and she does a fabulous little deconstruction of the social meaning behind the clothing worn by a white female civil rights protestor in the mugshot that was taken after she was arrested for participating in a Mississippi Freedom Ride in 1961. But the things Mintzer wrote that had the biggest impact on me had to do with how she reconciled her aesthetics with her politics. On a checklist titled “Why Vintage?,” the bullet point “Because women should dress to suit their shape, not change their shape to suit the dictates of fashion” appears just before “Because I want to reclaim vintage styles without their racist, sexist, homophobic, patriarchal bullshit baggage.” How do you separate the old styles from their historical baggage? By mixing them up and wearing them knowingly, with a little wink (or “quotations marks,” as Silverman would have it) for whoever’s looking.

Finding the Ideabook made me feel closer to my mom, for sure. It gave her a reason to tell me about Green Stamps, which as far as I know she hadn’t thought about in years. I enjoy thinking about her setting up house and home with my dad —they also had a tiny pet turtle named Ted, and an injured blue jay they rescued and nursed back to health, called BJ— and even though I’m not married with kids like she was at my age, I care about vacuuming my place and keeping it nice, just like she did. She probably didn’t feel the need to dress up in costume to do it, but she wasn’t postmodern like me.

Katie Haegele is the author of White Elephants: On Yard Sales, Relationships, & Finding What Was Missing. Read more of her blog posts here. 

Image: "Parade Pattern Ad" from ionascloset, licensed under Creative Commons.