Rhiannon Harries: 'Can we stop calling clothes you'd lost in your wardrobe 'vintage''

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In the great tradition of all female travellers experiencing a sartorial crisis at a UK transport hub, I found myself last month in the Heathrow branch of Accessorize. The strap on my handbag, I explained superfluously to the shop assistant, had broken, which had come as no surprise, as it was vintage. She asked if it had been very expensive. Not really, I told her, as I hoisted the defunct gold 1980s number on to the counter (although, considering the craftsmanship, a tenner was indeed quite pricey). Upon sight, she laughed like a drain and said, "Oh right, it's just old."

Indignation aside, she was right. These days, to describe something as vintage – "vint-ah-ge" if you're a member of the Grazia generation – means only that it has not hung on the rails at "Primark Jacobs" within the past week. Clothes you found in charity shops or the back of your mother's wardrobe are vintage. So are clothes found at the back of your own wardrobe. Anything you have bought from somewhere slightly dodgy will, if at all possible, be passed off as vintage should anyone ask. On several occasions I've clocked hipsters on street-style blogs claiming as vintage pieces that I recognise as two-seasons-old Zara. OK, close call on who's the more tragic there.

Vintage has exploded in the nine years since I bought a 1980s dress for my university ball, then instantly regretted it as I walked into a sea of Identikit strapless Monsoon numbers. Now there are vintage concessions everywhere from Topshop to Harvey Nicks, and popstrels such as Paloma Faith (below) come ready-made in thrift-store chic. Next month there is even a festival at Goodwood dedicated to music and fashion from the 1940s to the 1980s. At least they drew the line at the 1990s.

Handily, chucking on a few bits of vintage clobber atones for all sorts of sins. You might be carrying a £700 bag, but you can't be that shallow if you're willing to wear stuff that's been worn by a stranger. Ethical, too: it also takes the edge off that sweatshop bargain you're sporting.

But what once seemed aesthetically daring now looks depressingly unimaginative. There's plenty of stuff out there that it would be criminal to bin, but embracing wholesale anything that predates your last dental check-up is ridiculous. I'm in favour of an appellation contrôlée system where vintage really does mean the best of what an era had to offer. Stephen Bayley can oversee it. And if he can stage interventions for people buying gold handbags at inflated prices from trendy shops in Brick Lane, I for one would be grateful.

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