As I admired my reflection in the mirror, a salesperson told me that the dress I was trying on was a very popular choice among store customers, but most left the store disappointed. He wouldn’t go around the bust. Having finally found some merit in my small chest that seems unchanged from the age of 15, as the rest of my body gets bigger and bigger, I made a commitment.
I found the dress at the vintage clothing store in Sydneys St James Arcade while filling in the time between lectures at a university in the city. It was a bright ’70s maxi, with folk floral details on that fitted bust, a full, flowing skirt, and the kind of voluminous sleeves that would make a Zimmermann devotee swoon.
The woman was wrapping it in cloth when she informed me it was a Norman Hartnell, but I was too concerned about the feeling of breaking a rule to be remotely excited about the name. It wasn’t until later that I found out that the designer had once made many royal family dresses, including the wedding gown of Queen Elizabeth II.
Behind the closed locker room doors, I fantasized about how I would wear the dress with bohemian hair and my tan See by Chlo platforms. But now, about 18 months later, it’s still hanging in my mostly unworn wardrobe; a mark of transgression against an unspoken cultural rule. And I blame my family for it.
I grew up in a migrant home, always aware that we were a little different. The way we ate, celebrated rituals and spoke went against the norm. But it never occurred to me that the way we shop was different too, until I was 23 and came home with a vintage top. My parents insisted that I get rid of it. My mother warned that it could contain all kinds of bacteria and dirt; my dad begged me to take some money and buy something new.
If you ever need anything, tell me, he insisted, squeezing a wad of $ 50 bills into my hand. Don’t go and buy anything second-hand.
Back then I had a hard time expressing how strange it all sounded, but now I understand. I had subconsciously despised them and the hard work they put in to provide for my siblings and me. Everything from my access to higher education to my ability to travel and enjoy good restaurants was something they had deprived themselves of so that I never had to struggle.
Buying vintage or pre-likes, at least for them, was the domain of those who struggled. Op-shops and second-hand stores were where your undesirable things are gone. They didn’t have the kind of places to go if you needed something, unless you were desperate. My purchase from the op-shops was seen as a failure on their part, and I couldn’t bear to be complicit in their failures, however fictitious they sounded.
I know that I am not the only one. Conversations with friends who also grew up in working-class migrant households revealed similar apprehensions about vintage shopping. In my community in western Sydney, people spend their money: on cars, on professionally decorated functions like weddings, christenings and children’s birthdays, and especially on clothing. If you buy used, you are not doing well enough, and shame is on your family as well as yours.
I’m older and with my own family now, but still have mixed feelings. These days, part of that is being complicit in gentrification of something that was once associated with under-resourced communities.
Likewise, the suburbs where Sydneys migrants initially settled have become unrecognizable due to the arrival of upper-middle-class white millennials, buying vintage now looks very different. Instagram and online stores are full of pre-loved clothes that cost a lot more than an op-shop, leaving only scraps for those who buy used out of necessity, rather than sartorial choice.
On the rare occasion that I have visited my local Vinnies to browse for bargain second hand books, or to acquire the kind of vintage tableware that makes food stylists drool, I have been careful not to approach members of my community. I once waded through men’s clothes racks like a spy, waiting for a distant aunt to pass. I had a job and a mortgage and was there for props, but her situation was very different from mine. I saved her the embarrassment of being seen.
These days, I walk into vintage stores with a little less discomfort. I feel more empowered to make choices for the sake of the environment and in recognition that many new garments still don’t rank well enough in terms of ethical manufacturing.
But my ’70s dress is still hanging in my wardrobe, a visual reminder that even though I’ve come a long way, there is so much more to unbox. I inherited my own version of the migrant struggle, and wearing this story will always be more of a statement than any dress, designer or otherwise.
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