Sunday, 15 November 2009

Upcycling, recycling, remaking, reusing

hand made antique dolly peg
hand made antique dolly peg, originally uploaded by Trevira. This is made of a strip cut from an old tin, wound round a split stick.

In principal its ALL good, but having recently joined Etsy I've had reason to give it some more thought.

There's a lot of people busily remaking new garments out of vintage ones, and some of them are remarkably inventive and stylish. But I do have qualms about using, and drastically altering, vintage items that are perfectly wearable and undamaged as they are.

In their original state, they are authentic survivors of their era, and often have some value as collector's items or potential museum pieces. Once they have undergone such alterations, they are no longer authentic, and have lost that intrinsic value accrued by age, rarity and desirability - but on the other hand, they may have gained in appeal for the modern buyer who isn't the least bit interested in history or authenticity.

Of course, reusing and remaking clothing is nothing new. For centuries, people have plundered old, secondhand garments - unpicked silk dresses to remake the valuable fabric into something new; removed lace collars and trimmings to adorn another blouse or dress; snipped off buttons and saved them for the next suitable sewing project.

As fashions changed, garments might be altered to conform to the newest styles. When paisley cashmere shawls fell out of favour in the nineteenth century, for example, some of them ended up as neat little jackets or mantles. Here's a late example from the 1920s, held at the Gallery of Costume, Manchester.

In the days before 'vintage' became the lucrative marketing term it is today (something I've discussed rather pompously here), nobody was sentimental about secondhand clothing, regarding it as raw material to be used as they saw fit.

So perhaps I shouldn't be bothered. But the historian in me can't help but mourn the loss of items that have survived the years intact, only to be destroyed at the hands of some unsympathetic maker who is perhaps blind to its merits. (There is a case to be made, I suppose, that the 'new' items made from old ones become authentic artefacts of the current era).

That said, I find it hard to care about mass produced 1980s garments - they're not that old, they're plentiful and most of them are pretty dreadful (I'm being unforgivably subjective here!). Perhaps in twenty years I might feel differently.

My parameters for justified reuse are: badly damaged and/or worn out garments - or ones less than twenty years old - that have no particular qualities, uniqueness or style to them are fair game.

Admittedly, this is probably still ridiculously irrational and sentimental of me. Especially since I have quite a number of vintage clothes in my wardrobe that I wear on a regular basis and will eventually wear out and (effectively) destroy myself!

The era most associated with reusing and remaking garments is that of the Second World War - when 'make do and mend' was an imperative that no-one could afford to ignore. Goodness knows how many potentially valuable 'vintage' items ended up chopped up or altered (like my first ever vintage dress, which got off relatively lightly) during that time.

Anne Edwards, fashion editor of Woman magazine, provides some ingenious tips on how to decimate your poor husband's wardrobe while he is off fighting the war, in this 1942 British Pathé clip (this film might account for the relative scarcity of 1930s menswear!):


Even women's wardrobes weren't safe from the scissors! An evening dress is transformed into a becoming day dress (and turban):


And finally, "great grandma's priceless old lace" is turned into some attractive household decor items:

LACE (issue title is GIVE AND TAKE)


fauxbrit13 said...

Another wonderful article! Brings back memories of rummaging through my grandmother's closets & boxes to find wonderful old garments! Then listening to all the War & Great Depression rationing stories. I would beg my grandmother to tell me about "the olden days" and how everyone had to salvage & remake due to shortages of EVERYTHING! I still have some of her "stashes" that were kept for recycling: old bits of trim, lace, thread, textile squares, buttons, etc., as well as linens/clothes made from flour sacks and recycled garments! It all made me realize how lucky (and wasteful & spoiled)we were in more "modern" & "prosperous times! Now I am trying to follow my grandmother's example in the UK...hard to fill such "big shoes"!!

Thanks for inspiring these warm memories!

xox bb

TinTrunk said...

Your grandma sounds so inspiring, bb!

There's so much we can learn from that generation. I don't think being thrifty was just about necessity (although that was a big part of it!) - it was just natural common sense not to waste a single thing.

I think people are getting more receptive to these ideas now, as they finally realise that the world's resources are finite and the recession bites harder. They've even republished the classic Make Do And Mend wartime pamphlet!