As much as we can appreciate and learn from the expertise of others, beware of the collectors and sellers who claim to know it all. For those who are truly immersed in vintage textiles and design, it is a never-ending learning curve. When we seriously delve into the arts, like many other vast topics – it will increase our awareness of how little we know. A stubborn superiority will do nothing to alleviate our ignorance.
There are thousands of different types of fabric. Rayon alone has fifty different types and descriptions. The difference between hand loomed and machine loomed requires knowledge and a close examination of the garment. Fabrics such as mock crochet and many of the silk satin blends used in vintage clothing are now obsolete. Historical textiles from Egypt, India and Japan, for instance – can be traced back two or three thousand years. One could study textiles alone for an entire lifetime and still not know it all.
The same goes for jewelry. For example, there are thousands of sterling silver markings. I believe Mexico alone has around twenty-five hundred. Jewelry is fairly easy to transport and save – therefore it is more likely to survive the test of time. The country of origin in both textiles and jewelry design shines through in the product. Mexican sterling silver is artistically superb – especially the early and mid-century Taxco. Scandinavian and Navajo sterling silver has a very different and distinctive look compared to Mexican sterling silver. Gemstones in the jewelry also reflect the country of origin, such as the old turquoise mines, gemstones in the particular location, various treatments, settings, and alloys used.
One of the big questions in vintage clothing is in the perceived authentication of designer pieces. I don’t dispute that the vintage clothing market is complex, because it is and always has been in a state of flux and change. It is easiest to see this once you compare the same brand from decade to decade. Louis Feraud clothing from the sixties is highly desirable and recognizable. The eighties Louis Feraud is not as distinctive or as creative, however some of the scarves and certain pieces are drop dead gorgeous regardless of the age.
In my opinion the primary way to authenticate a designer garment is twofold – one is by the labels. The other is by the fabric and design. The best designer vintage has all labels to include the brand, fabric and where it was made. Pre-seventies clothing will often not have fabric content because it was not a legal requirement to have the fabric and care labels until then. Experience does help with evaluating the authenticity of a garment. However, if that information cannot be passed onto the consumer logically and without the pretense of knowing something they don’t know – how is that fair to the consumer or to the industry?
The art and history surrounding fashion design and textiles is as vast as any field can be. We are studiers and stewards of things that came before us – things we ourselves did not create. As human beings we are prone to making mistakes. There are hundreds of little tricks to help us identify things. If you use a jeweler’s loupe to examine fabric, it helps differentiate types of embroidery, the warp and weft of the fabric, loomed versus printed, damask versus brocade, etc. Gradually more and more criteria gets added to the list in your head when evaluating vintage garments. Anything that has covered buttons and/or silk lining warrants a second look.
A jeweler’s loupe will also help identify hand painted versus transfer decal, because you can see the dot pattern in anything that is printed. To determine if cinnabar is real, you hold the loupe at an angle and look for the layers in the lacquering. There is a very strong intuitive sense one gets from certain things. In some cases I will know immediately if the item is authentic – without looking at any labels. I do not buy anything designer with a Made in China label with the exception of vintage and antique Chinese silk embroidered pieces and Chinese export porcelain (and mud men). A small percentage of things in the collection are made in Hong Kong.
In many cases with jewelry I cannot identify markings that are worn or too faded. Another example is that designer labels like Dries van Noten were originally made in Belgium. Now many of the luxury labels are made in India. Dries van Noten also has clothing made in Romania on newer items. My philosophy is to be honest and up front about where an item was made and price accordingly. I do not consider famous brands to be authentic unless they are made in the country of origin. It may be a purist attitude but that’s how I see it.
In reality vintage designer clothing has become the crème de la crème of high fashion. Certain iconic pieces by Versace, Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, Karl Lagerfeld, Rudy Gernreich, Christian Dior, Valentino, Courreges as just some examples – are now fetching prices between five and twenty-five thousand dollars per item. Some of the well-preserved dresses from the twenties are now listed on various sites for several thousand dollars each. I checked a textile auction in New York and saw that designer dresses with significant damage from the fifties and sixties sold for close to a thousand dollars each.
The clincher is that certain pieces by certain designers at specific times in their careers – are like original or limited edition art pieces. They represent the creative genius that drapes the human form – with rich colors, textiles, fluidity of movement and multi-dimensional ideas. The art in design has no room for know-it-alls. It is one big mirror room – both dazzling and dizzying in scope. A vintage clothing collection reflects the culture of a country. Online collections of vintage clothing from different locations are a unique representation of local talent as well as the migratory nature of things from faraway. I love to look at collections of vintage kimonos from Japan. The artistic elements of the Japanese kimonos surpass most textiles. A collection of vintage kaftans from Morocco would create an awesome and inspirational show.
We are all partakers of fashion to some degree. Some of us like to keep fanning the flames of fame for those with vision because they created beautiful things with lasting value. We pluck what we pluck for many reasons. I believe it is best to be dedicated to learning and willing to admit and correct mistakes. Why? Curiosity is a driving force. The field is sweeping and boundless. The biggest mistake is to get arrogant and convey to consumers that we know-it-all. It is completely acceptable to cite ones credentials – with specifics, not braggadocio hot air. We are more or less prone to filling in gaps with mere conjecture. I do accept and respect the knowledge of others, but it is not based on what they claim to be, more on what they are interested in and have experience with.
To create a division between “us and them” from those who declare to be experts – is the kind of limit the arts neither needs nor accepts. Just as in poetry, we get to pick and choose our words. That’s the beauty of art. Quite simply when it comes to vintage fashion and design – no one knows it all. The flow and finesse surrounding beauty and creativity in the arts contains a central hypothesis. Since it applies to almost all things requiring talent or knowledge – not only in the visual arts, but also in sports, literature, music, academia and technology. The bottom line is – show me your stuff. Don’t tell me how great you are. When it comes to vintage fashion – we are talking about material things. Besides all that – it is probably wise and a better reality check, to let those with less of a cognitive bias, be the ones to decide how great we are.
Copyright Valerie J. Hayes and Quiet West Vintage (2017). Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Valerie J. Hayes and Quiet West Vintage with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.