Vintage Vs Second-hand: Why Getting The Semantics Correct Matters

By Dan Ahwa
Pre-loved fashion from the archives, 2015. Photo / Babiche Martens

There’s a distinction between vintage fashion and second-hand clothes. As mass retailers cotton on to the greenwashing tactics of offering second-hand clothes marketed as vintage treasures, Dan Ahwa offers a simple guide for separating the wheat from the chaff.

If you head to any mass retailer these days, you’ll discover

Part of that public-facing messaging also relies on the idea that chain stores are committed to a circular economy which for a business model predicated on churning out new clothes on a weekly basis, is a total contradiction to the core values of sustainability.

The only real way fashion brands can ever truly be sustainable is to consider how many new clothes they’re creating, because herein lies the vicious cycle of fashion.

No matter how invested brands are in ensuring their carbon footprint is low or how much time and money is placed into research and development of certified, ethical fabrics, the change can be slow if nothing is done to recalibrate the way new clothes are being communicated to their customers.

This is why old clothes are having a resurgence of sorts not that they ever went anywhere, particularly here in New Zealand where our love of trawling charity shops in small towns up and down Aotearoa is an eternally treasured pastime.

But in recent times, the resale economy has had a notable uptake post-pandemic as Gen Z tries to find some semblance of the world through the lens of nostalgic fashion, and designers continue to cling to the familiarity of archival pieces in the hopes of finding common ground with their future customer.

So the time is right to relook at people’s unabashed use of the term ‘vintage’, particularly when the offering is used as another greenwashing ploy. Take, for example, the term ‘pre-loved’, another example of a marketing buzzword employed as a way to make the term ‘second-hand’ sound sexier than it actually is.

Chain stores like Glassons include descriptions of ‘vintage’ finds as being “handpicked by our team who travelled to LA to get the coolest vintage styles for you”. The offering of pre-loved clothes is incongruous with the fast turnaround of its mainline collections.

But should these common selections of predominantly T-shirts and jeans be considered vintage? It’s all subjective, of course.

The word vintage is derived from two French words: vin (wine) and age (age), signifying that like all good wine vintages, the drop should improve with time. Here is a good measure for using the word in relation to pre-loved fashion.

Vintage is not the casual band tees or ripped denim that often circulates the vintage stores of LA, or a Zara or H&M top that’s five seasons old. Vintage is the hard-to-find designer gems that you’ll sometimes find at places like Scotties Recycle or the designer racks at Tatty’s, and at some of our beloved independent vintage boutiques where owners painstakingly and lovingly source and curate their finds with a focus on ‘vintage’ quality garments that adhere to specific criteria.

In short, you could consider vintage to be more design or fashion-focused, while second-hand adheres to everyday clothes.

“It is easy to dilute the term ‘vintage’ when marketing second-hand, re-imagined, pre-loved and thrift or, simply ‘used clothing’ in today’s world,” says Painted Bird Vintage stylist and founder Stephanie King. “It is also difficult to be passionate about keeping the words used for pre-loved clothing and what they conjure to society very separate from vintage. When, in the end, sustainability and circularity are so desperately needed in the fashion space. Using it all and re-using it all should be the aim.”

Stephanie continues: “At Painted Bird Vintage, garments were designed, created, and then worn from the 1940s to the early 1980s. We curate true vintage that is 50+ years old, worn and unworn (deadstock), and this constitutes what we believe to be true ‘vintage clothing’. Anything else is retro, second-hand, thrift or pre-loved.”

With several op-shops and second-hand emporiums in New Zealand featuring a motley of fast fashion and rare treasures, it takes an eagle eye to filter through and find pieces that can be considered special vintage pieces among everyday second-hand goods, like a Nina Ricci skirt suit from the 80s or a pair of Versace pinstripe trousers that I came across on a recent trip to Savemart. To a discerning eye, these finds are what make hunting through pre-loved racks of clothes part of the fun.

While second-hand items are easily found on the market, the key feature that constitutes a vintage garment is quality. These vintage garments will often cost more than purchasing a brand-new item from the same brand. In many cases, the vintage item from the same brand can cost up to double, even triple the price.

Like art, vintage designer garments often increase in value over time. In an era where the increasing cost of creating a garment is forcing designers to look at much lower-quality textiles, pieces from past collections are becoming even more desirable.

A rare vintage Victor Costa dress from Painted Bird Vintage, featured in volume six of Viva Magazine, in 2021. Photo / Mara Sommer
A rare vintage Victor Costa dress from Painted Bird Vintage, featured in volume six of Viva Magazine, in 2021. Photo / Mara Sommer

Here are remnants of a time in manufacturing when premium fabrics and unique trims were readily available, these older styles immediately inheriting the cachet of exclusivity that makes them unique. This is true vintage in its purest form.

“I believe that the value and artistic appreciation of an authentic vintage garment is denied its importance by lumping it in with newly made clothing less than 50 years old,” adds Stephanie.

“The craftsmanship, fabric and detailing in design of these original pieces is unable to be recreated in today’s fast world without significant cost. Giving due respect to deserving original designers and the way they have paved the way for clothing worn today is important. Second-hand clothing has a long way to go to get the coolness kudos that true vintage offers — if that Shein top even makes it through more than five washes.”

Want to shop for vintage and pre-loved clothes? Keep your carbon footprint top of mind in your closet with our guide to some of the best treasure troves across Aotearoa and beyond.

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