Bakåt/Framåt and the Vintage Question

This weekend we are headed to Stockholm to visit one of the renowned “mässor”, or trade exhibitions. The company Bakåt/Framåt (Backward/Forward) organizes some of the best-attended and hippest of these: they organize one for food, one that celebrates the LP, a “retro” show of furniture and home furnishings, and this weekend is one of their vintage clothing exhibitions, which is the one we will stand in line for!

Wares offered at last year's Vintagemässan. From the Bakåt/Framåt website. Photo: unknown.

I’ve never been before, so I can’t tell you what I’m expecting. But it does bring up some questions about the role of vintage clothing in our lives. This, of course, is a topic that can barely be breached in one small post, but here I will look at an exhibition of and about vintage clothing that was held last year at Livrustkammaren in Stockholm.

Almost everything in my closet is from second-hand and vintage stores or the wardrobes of my female relatives, some of which are worn often, some of which have never been worn by me, and probably never will be. Interested in collections, I am glad to have my own, but feel a museum employee’s guilt in leaving some of these dresses hanging when they should be lying flat, for example, or wearing the older or more fragile dresses. Every piece was acquired with the intention of gentle, respectful, but inevitably somewhat sweaty and perfumed use. Our relationships with clothing are personal and passionate, but this subject has also become a respected academic question, museum ticket-office hit, and lucrative business: both private and very public.

A few of my favorite things, 2012. Photo: Arianna E. Funk.

Wearing clothing that was fashionable decades before the present day  is hardly a new phenomenon, but you might agree that interest in “vintage” clothing it is growing the same way many interests and hobbies are these days: by WordPress leaps and Facebook bounds, to say nothing of period dramas that have flooded our televisions. It’s fantastic!

But can we define “vintage”, or should we? Etsy, an internet marketplace where entrepreneurs can theoretically only sell items that they have made or vintage items, defines vintage as “before 1993”, which raised some eyebrows.

The Royal Armoury, Livrustkammaren, held an exhibition last year that displayed the dresses of four twentieth-century royal women, under the title, “Kunglig Vintage” (Royal Vintage). A few of the outfits were grand ball gowns, but most were for daily use or less formal occasions; this was not an idolatrous look at glamourous lives, but a survey of popular styles and silhouettes across the decades–with a royal twist. The subtle “red thread” throughout the exhibition was: what is our perception of “vintage”–the word, the objects, the social construct?

The first room of "Kunglig Vintage" at Livrustkammaren, which closed January 29, 2012. Note the background, which is Stockholm city at night, c. 2010. Photo: Arianna E. Funk.

Livrustkammaren exhibits clothing in the cellar of the Royal Palace in Stockholm, and the dark, underground atmosphere and the stonework walls are a dramatic backdrop for showing collections, especially the permanent historic clothing collections and armor on their ground floor. The exhibition designers for Kunglig Vintage chose to create their own space, using large photographic murals of modern scenes to set off the dresses, which were arranged by a combination of color and mood.

The Blue room in the exhibition, "Kunglig Vintage". The 18th century-inspired gown in the corner is from the late 1890s, juxtaposed with some long and lean 1970s silhouettes. Photo: Arianna E. Funk

There was a lot going on; a little too much for me, but the aim of a multi-sensory understanding of this clothing might have been appreciated by those who were less focused on analyzing and more on experiencing the objects. Each of the four rooms had not only historic clothing, dating from the late 1890s to the 1970s, but also one piece by a modern Swedish designer that was “inspired by” the vintage pieces around it.

Three non-clothing aspects: museum text in English and Swedish, smelling stations (the cylinders), and highlighted details. From the White room of "Kunglig Vintage". Photo: Arianna E. Funk.

Plaques at the edge of the balcony separated the exhibition from the permanent collection below, and suggested word associations with each color and mood.  Smelling stations asked visitors to think of colors they identified with various scents. As a reminder at the exit of each room, there was a small panel on the environmental impact of buying new clothing.

For me, this miljövänlig (environmentally friendly) concern was the strongest connection to exploring the role of vintage clothing in our contemporary lives, as it is one of the many reasons I and many other buy old clothes and avoid the new. The royal clothing on view was not worn as vintage clothing, but as part of the wardrobes of very public figures, some are more fashion-forward, some conservatively “of the period”. It is our perception and viewing of this clothing in 2012 that suggests the objects’ classification as “vintage”. I enjoyed the range of silhouettes within each color group, and the princesses were of various sizes and ages when they wore these dresses, which is well-represented here–a rare sight.

A few selections from the Black room of "Kunglig Vintage". Photo: Arianna E. Funk.

Another strong point was a small corner where they installed a vintage outfit from the closets of well-known contemporary Swedish personage, accompanied by a personal statement. When I was there the first time, it was a long green dress from the 1940s owned by blogger and personal shopper Elsa Billgren. The continuing legacy and history of every clothing object was here at its best, that dress being a replacement for another beloved floor-length green dress from the 1940s, which was irreparably ruined.

This exhibition helped inform the public’s growing interest in vintage clothing. The designer of each dress was treated as a minor detail here, generally overlooked except where nationally significant, acknowledging Swedish designers and houses such as Märthaskolan and Augusta Lundin and their importance in shaping the royal body.

Livrustkammaren, as Royal Armoury, has a distinct mission of collecting only royal and related garments. But this exhibition made me think about what museums with broader missions choose to collect and show, especially when it comes to the famously (apocryphally?) democratic and mass-produced American twentieth century. The role and responsibilities of the private collector or the enthusiast is one that inspires spirited debate; a video of Courtney Love smoking in her closet full of vintage clothes led to some distressed comments on the Costume Society of America’s Facebook page a few weeks back, among other online communities.

Throughout this winter, I wore a short cape of dark green wool with a velvet collar, big silver buttons and a tag that reads, “Original Lanz”; I felt a pang of guilt when I saw a contemporaneous example safely housed and conserved in the FIDM collections, an indication of a continuing faith in museums as the most appropriate place for clothing “of a certain age.”

What constitutes museum quality, or what makes a clothing object worthy of being in these institutions, some of which are forced to make strict decisions based on collections space and budgets? Do you think museum exhibitions inspire people to buy similar clothing for their personal use, or continue to uphold the aura of exclusivity?

What is the role of the private collector, and what are his or her responsibilities to owned objects? Is it wrong to wear vintage clothing? Would you put “age” restrictions on your decision, i.e. nothing made before 1920?

I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts and personal experiences in the comments section, I’ll surely be thinking about it all this weekend!


Further reading/viewing:

Andersson, Fredrik, ed. Kunglig Vintage. Stockholm: Livrustkammaren, 2011.

A slideshow of the dresses include in the exhibit, photographed in a more neutral environment, but also arranged by color.

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