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A Case For Vintage Clothing

By Guan Tan

Racks of carefully curated clothes and bags from the 1950s to 1990s at Dustbunny Vintage.
 
Felicia Yap
Racks of carefully curated clothes and bags from the 1950s to 1990s at Dustbunny Vintage.

Here in Singapore, we aren't into the habit of recycling clothes. Look at 2016 waste figures – we generated 139,800 tonnes of textiles and leather waste, of which 10,900 were recycled, which makes for a paltry 7 percent recycling rate – either repurposed into other products or resold in charity shops. 

The predicament is not merely brought on by our obsession with fast-fashion and blog shops, but also a negative perception of second-hand clothes. "Singapore is not ready for recycling. They see it as dirty," Pia Chew, founder of Dustbunny Vintage notes. 

"Customers are not so exposed [to vintage apparel, there are not many vintage clothing stores here. I don't really understand why. But maybe [we've lost] the precision for better things," Kelly Yeo, founder of Deja Vu Vintage considers. 

Vintage clothing stores are scant here in Singapore, but only because the demand is ever dwindling. When Jasmine Chee, owner of Dark Horse Vintage, moved back to Singapore after spending three years in London in 2006, she went on an arduous search for vintage stores in Singapore. "There's none in Singapore... I came back and there's nothing vintage," she recalls. 

Felicia YapFrom left: Dresses from the 1970s Flower Power decade; a 1960s Capriccio by Roter of London flamingo dress Jasmine Chee scored from a London vintage dealer.
From left: Dresses from the 1970s Flower Power decade; a 1960s Capriccio by Roter of London flamingo dress Jasmine Chee scored from a London vintage dealer.

Vintage clothing, specifically clothes made in the post-war period, were hand-made immaculately by machinists. Liberation from the wars saw fashion houses indulging in good quality fabrics, alongside new textile technologies such as nylon in 1935 and polyester in 1941. "Things were made to last, so it was good quality. That's why vintage clothes still survive," Chee continues.

"Now [clothes are] all mass-manufactured and from blog shops, lacking quality... After you wash a T-shirt, it goes out of shape. Products need to go up so fast, they are badly cut and finished. The buttons drop off after two washes. Sometimes when you wear a knitted top and skirt, they go out of shape. I would say these [vintage garments] lasted 20 to 30 years, then you know the quality is there!"

It's only apparent why there's a small but growing number of vintage aficionados who are turning to clothes from the past. Like the regulars at Dustbunny Vintage, who pick out blouses, skirts, and dresses from the 1960s, and come back for several fittings and alterations. It's an investment of time and money, but these people appreciate an expert cut, impeccable tailoring techniques and beautiful fabrics. "All these clothes are very well-tailored. The fabric is [of] good quality – a bit difficult to find that now," Pia Chew explains.
 

Felicia YapTwo 1960s dresses. On the far right, a yellow and white dress with a pointy bust point – made to accommodate the bullet bras women wore back then.
Two 1960s dresses. On the far right, a yellow and white dress with a pointy bust point – made to accommodate the bullet bras women wore back then.

All three owners, Kelly Yeo, Jasmine Chee and Pia Chew go on annual buying and sourcing trips to the United States, United Kingdom, and Japan. They browse through and scrutinise pieces from vintage dealers – looking for technical details that guarantee the legitimacy of the garments. 

"It's the sewing style, material, and down to the nitty-gritty like the parts of hardware like zips," Chew continues to search out a yellow empire cut gown. It's cut with a sharp bust point, to accommodate the pointy bullet bras women used to wear.

Felicia YapFrom left: At Dark Horse Vintage, a pair of high-waisted 1980s Moschino denim jeans; a 1950s Lebanese Alfred Shaheen tunic.
From left: At Dark Horse Vintage, a pair of high-waisted 1980s Moschino denim jeans; a 1950s Lebanese Alfred Shaheen tunic.

At Jasmine Chee's place, she picked out shirt-dress from Lebanese textile designer, Alfred Shaheen for example. When sourcing, Chee will first flip the garments inside out to study the seams – none should be overlocked (the messy criss-cross seams that you find in the made in China clothes). She's realised that in the 1950s, hems were finished beautifully with a discreet zig-zag seam. Where the hem stitches are, you'll even find a graceful ribbon of Chantilly lace enveloping the seams. 

The buttons, Chee says, should be metal-back and not made from plastic like those we find now. Another telling element is the buttonhole. While we often see machine-made, thread-bound eyelet buttonholes these days, in the past they were made self-bound (if you were to Google it, it's infamously challenging). "This takes a lot of time to do. It's small and fine," Chee adds. 

Felicia YapA 1980s Chanel Jumbo bag with chains made from real gold.
A 1980s Chanel Jumbo bag with chains made from real gold.

With vintage designer bags, Pia Chew realised "what goes into making the bags are different now. We discovered it quite early on." She pulls out a Chanel Jumbo bag, "This is from the 1980s... the chain is very yellow, not like the ones they use currently. [Back then] they used a percentage of gold to make the metal alloy... There are care booklets that came with the bag... It says that metal parts of the bag are made with 22 or 24 carat gold... The later bags down the road are not made from gold." 

Felicia YapFrom left: A 1980s-1990s Louis Vuitton Butterfly Papillon bag. It was first seen in the 1960s. A 1997 Hermès Kelly bag.
From left: A 1980s-1990s Louis Vuitton Butterfly Papillon bag. It was first seen in the 1960s. A 1997 Hermès Kelly bag.

Apart from the indulgent materials that went into the making of bags and leather goods in the late 1900s, Chew thinks they are an investment – these bags will bring financial returns in time to come.

But even as the three ladies invest plough money and effort into bringing the best vintage clothes, bags, and shoes to Singapore, the consumer market at-large isn't responding.

Felicia YapFrom left: At Deja vu Vintage, a 1980s pink Yves Saint Laurent dress; a 1980s silk-satin evening dress by Texan designer Victor Costa.
From left: At Deja vu Vintage, a 1980s pink Yves Saint Laurent dress; a 1980s silk-satin evening dress by Texan designer Victor Costa.

It's a sentiment shared across all three owners, "Years ago, it was very difficult. No one understood [vintage], then the trend broke." Echoing Kelly Yeo's thought, Jasmine Chee notes that Singaporeans haven't grasped the concept of vintage. "[They'll come and say,] 'Oh I want to do a retro party!' When you say 'retro' everyone will think it's headbands, plastic earrings, polka dots or stripes. But vintage is beyond polka dots – there are so many decades to vintage!" 

It the end, there must be merit in vintage clothing for it to be an enduring culture in other cities. And the eye that appreciates vintage clothing is perhaps like Kelly Yeo said, an eye that recognises good things.