on vintage

or: can we look forward and backward at once?

Last week, I went to an absinthe party. In the pre-pandemic days, Green Fairy — as it is called — was a monthly event, equal parts boozy gathering, burlesque show, absinthe-history lecture and vintage dress-up event, taking place on the first Thursday of every month in a converted speakeasy in the East Village with a piano, a bathtub, and mirrored walls. I have been going to Green Fairy a long time; I was there at the first one in autumn 2016; there, too, at the last Green Fairy before the pandemic, in March 2020; there, again, at its reopening in August. When it began, I knew nearly everyone there — fellow-travelers, all, from New York’s eclectic vintage clothing community. Now, after so many people have left the city, after so many of us have left vintage behind, as so many more breathless Zoomers (post-Millennials) discover it, I know far fewer people there that I once did.

When I started going to Green Fairy, which arose from the ashes of another vintage event called Wit’s End (every party, after all, has its season), I thought of myself resolutely as a vintage person. I dressed, even when it was impractical or nonsensical, in clothing scavenged from the 20s and 30s and 40s, both at events like this one and in my everyday life. Most of the people I was close to, likewise, dressed similarly; we were all, we thought then, against the age, albeit in some nebulous way, although we never had anything so ideologically concrete as a manifesto. At the time I would described us all as Bohemians, or as eccentric artists, seeking authenticity in an inauthentic age, although it was an uncomfortable truth of our shared life that we were also extremely online, and that our whirlwind anti-worldiness also manifested itself as a kind of personal branding on Instagram. In my case, at least, it was both true that I wanted to revolt against what I inchoately thought of as the sclerotic modern world, and that I also wanted to be pretty on Instagram, and have other people tell me I was pretty on Instagram, which is as sclerotic as it comes.

Returning to the event after a pandemic spent largely in athleisure, returning a little bit older, a little bit more jaded, I started wondering what it was, exactly, about vintage, that I loved then, and what it was that I love, can still love, now. 

There are, of course, certain obvious criticisms of idolatry of the past. There is the fair-leveled critique that the fantasy of the past involves glorifying a time when only certain kinds of people wore silks and ostrich feathers; there is, too, the equally fair riposte that vintage now represents an empowering democratization of that glamor, where anyone, regardless of race or class or gender identity, can look like Jean Harlow for a night. A common progressive refrain, popularized by a slogan pin common in the community is vintage style, not vintage values.

But I wonder — are there vintage values, a sense of and love for The Past, that can and should be reclaimed, in spaces like Green Fairy? Are we simply contemporary people, with contemporary — and, in many ways, preferable — moral and political values? (And, if so, how does the world of Green Fairy differ from, say, the neoliberal funhouse mirror of an Instagram influencer convention, other than the fact that everybody’s dresses are bias-cut?) Does The Past matter now?

I think it does. Not because things were better then, but because the sheer strangeness of alienation engendered by vintage nostalgia sets us usefully apart from the present, allows us to critique it (no less than the eras we wear) from the vantage point of people ill-at-ease in any single time, precisely because we love too many. After all, the vintage world offered by many of these events, not unlike the Austro-Hungarian sachertorte-pastiche Kakania of Robert Musil, is less a particular place or a particular time than a general mood. It is 30s glamor and 20s frivolity and also 20s freneticism and 30s disillusionment; it is the rebellion of beauty against the backdrop of a world that — in the 20s and 30s of the last century no less than this one — seems committed to making us into machines. 

One of my favorite aspects of vintage clothing is its fragility. Aware of my own tendency to clumsiness, I rarely spend money on vintage clothes considered ‘deadstock’, that is, in otherwise good condition. Rather, I seek out those dresses — often much cheaper on eBay — with only a few uses left in them, dresses that have already had Prosecco spilled on them, that people have danced or cavorted or kissed in. I prefer their imperfections. I prefer that I can dance in them — knowing that they’re meant to be worn until they can no longer be worn. In wearing them I often feel like I am getting to the lees of life. Once they shatter or split, they can be repurposed. A beaded Edwardian dress, bought from a dealer in upstate New York and that I wore for a book event in 2018, is no longer wearable, but has become instead a collection of beaded headscarves. The dress itself is in tatters; its beauty will abide a while longer.

The spirit of the Good Vintage Party, of which I have always counted Green Fairy one, is the spirit not of an age, as such, but of those wanderers who never feel quite at home anywhere, who want to break free of so much of the past and yet are afraid of the future, who want to hold onto so much of what was good and yet cannot stand to be shackled by it. It does not take from the past in the sense of utility — mixing and matching for the purposes of an Instagram photo — but rather tries, desperately, to hold fast to whatever was, or is, good: shoring up fragments against ruin. At its best it is eclectic, disorganized — a few lines of poems that still affect us even when we cannot countenance the politics of the poet, a love of the promise of ephemerality, of distinctness in a fraying velvet gown even when we know they are not commonly worn. It is a storehouse of the beautiful, over-stuffed in the hopes that one day we will usefully sort through it to decide which parts of the beautiful are also good. I love vintage, in the end, because I love beauty, and because I believe that beauty matters, and because I believe that standing at a distance from the present is as useful as standing at a distance from the past. 

I do not, I hope, glamorize one particular vanished age; at the same time, I admit that I glamorize the pastiche of The Vanished Age, the place where all the things worth holding onto reside, the place that every Bright Young Thing, or fin de siècle dandy, was nostalgic for, which never in fact existed, and yet whose pull keeps us going forward as well as back. It’s the place anyone who has ever feared the apocalypse of the coming modern world, for any value of the coming modern world, has retreated to. It’s the object of Sehnsucht — homesickness for a place that never in fact existed. 

The nineteenth century iteration of this — the nostalgia found in the French decadent novels of writers like Joris-Karl Huysmans and Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam — links nostalgia, specifically, to a fear of modern mechanization: a world where, say, mass-produced robots can imitate women or where the essence of a human being can (as in one passage in Husymans’ En Rade) be transformed into edible whipped cream. The world they long for is a world, where people, where things, where objets d’art are all irreducible, irreproducible. They locate it in the Medieval era; perhaps it never existed there either. But it is a world I long for, as well.

One of my favorite songs they play at such parties is Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is? The nihilistic narrator repeatedly asks this question about life’s great mysteries — flames, love, death. But for me, vintage has always been about a firm and resounding no to that question. It has been the discovery of places, of music, of poems, of friends as lost and as alienated as I am. And it has been, too, a space where — at its best — we can stand apart, for just a little while, from a world that tells us that nothing is so sacred that it cannot be reproduced indefinitely for profit. There is, in this, I think, value worth preserving.