Being Modern: Vintage

Once upon a time, clothes and objets from another era were a signifier of one's social status. Only the very poor or the very privileged would embrace hand-me-downs or jumble sales (the former out of necessity; the latter because "old" is no stigma when your crumbling pile is stuffed with priceless antiques).

Those in between, as Jilly Cooper wrote in her 1979 demographic critique Class, wouldn't touch the stuff. As her middle-class character Jen Teale says: "You never know who's worn it." Quite. But these were the dark, unsophisticated days when "vintage" meant expensive wine. Nowadays "vintage" – anything more than 15 years old or at least £15 overpriced – is no longer about unsavoury rag rummaging. Vintage is cool.

Partly it's cool because the fashionistas who run those east London vintage boutiques sell only pre-rummaged – and hygienically steam-cleaned – wares. Meanwhile, the chicest interiors, as Kirstie Allsopp will tell anyone, are studded with ancient "treasures".

But the journey has been long. The 1960s were too tinged with post-war thrift; in the 1970s, youth culture's bent for recycling fashions hadn't had time to kick in; and the excessive 1980s were all about throwing out old stuff in order to spend more money. But as the 1990s approached, Bros changed everything.

As the twin pop stars strode out in unashamedly second-hand Levi's, a generation of middle-class teens warmed to the idea of wearing someone else's trews. Next thing you know, we're all flocking to our local Oxfam for cast-off Bruce Oldfield frocks. The trend soon extended to our homes courtesy of terms such as "shabby chic" (old stuff artfully arranged) and "distressed" (new stuff bashed up to look old).

Today, vintage is in the mainstream: there's a themed festival at Goodwood and Mad Men has made us mad for mid-century modern. Even jumble sales – or "pop-up vintage stores" as we must call them – have lost their stigma. But in this age of austerity, perhaps we should be grateful. Now if only those jumble sales would lower their prices.

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