Thursday, September 20, 2012

How the 80s got me hooked on second-hand and vintage.

Soon it will be time to return to the thrift stores.

It’s a fall kind of thing with me. A tradition that began 30 years ago, in 1982.

I was going to college in Lawrence and some friends introduced me to a vintage clothing store downtown. They shopped there ironically, combining Eisenhower-era styling with their post-punk sensibilities, and I was soon trying to doing the same. I had left my small, western Kansas town behind and was eager to hurl convention to the wind, like it was a sun-dried cow patty.

Dressing vintage was fun, because it was a way of embodying the culture of new wave, which seemed to pay homage to the post-war boom period, while also mocking it. MTV was brand new, but many of its videos evoked the past. In the video above, Split Enz, one of my fave 80's bands, sends the lead singer down a two-toned retro staircase into what might be a web of beatniks.

New wave video was also theatrical, sometimes painfully so, when New Romantics like Boy George and Adam Ant sashayed across the screen, dripping eyeliner. And sometimes it was just plain god-awful. But the message was: The siege is over. Disco is dead. At last, it's okay to be weird again.

I had been waiting for this liberation a long time, having been taught, back in my farming community, to hide any latent tendencies towards weirdness, lest it disturb the cattle and throw them off their feed.

 Now that I was free to be eccentric, I embraced vintage clothing, wearing beaded lambswool cardigans that harked from the early 1960's, and dresses that brought to mind Sandra Dee. But one of my best finds was a green wool army jacket that became my winter coat:

Not my every day look. I added the white-face for Halloween.

The way I saw it, shopping vintage was NOT the same thing as shopping for used clothes. It was an act of curation, requiring a level of discernment and good taste that had not been bestowed upon the masses, but rather granted to only a select few, like moi.

If I had any detractors, I dismissed them out of had. Certainly "typical people", which at the time was defined as anyone not in my insular cluster of art and drama school fops, did not have the eye or imagination to appreciate the conceptual wit of my vintage assemblages! Nor did they get that I wasn’t merely wearing “old clothes.”

There was only one problem. The vintage clothing store didn't turn around their inventory very quickly, and I was getting bored, rifling through the same loud polyester print blouses (that even I wouldn't wear) over and over again.

One Saturday close to Halloween, the autumn leaves falling and the wind feeling brisker, my friends and I ventured into the Salvation Army store, seeking costumes, and it was like a world of untold treasures opened up to me. Racks upon racks of cheap-ass clothes that, in the right context, could be made funky. There was a spiky-haired girl trying on hats and sport coats. This was not so she could be a hobo. This was just the way she liked to dress, and the Salvation Army happened to be a great place to find men's cast-off jackets. Browsing the shoe racks, I realized that second-hand could be a helping hand indeed. Where else could I find a pair of metallic gold flats and red pumps for only two dollars a pair?

Back in my small home-town, it would have been considered trashy to haunt Goodwill, but in Lawrence, it was not only acceptable, it was a sign of hipness.

I shopped the Salvation Army store every chance I got, and then some, even skipping out of a drawing class to do so. While the other students were bent over drawing pads, trying to render a precarious stack of cylinders and cubes, I gathered my things and told my instructor I just "couldn't be there." I felt reasonably sure that he, a fellow artist, understood the unpredictability of the artistic temperament. But I wasn't so sure he'd understand if he knew my plan that crisp November morning was to head straight downtown to the Salvation Army store, to see if they had in any new (old) shoes.

Many years have passed, but I still associate a chill in the air with thrift store shopping.

And yes, I still buy used shoes. Believe it or not, you can find some pretty amazing second-hand shoes in bang-spark condition! But NOT at the Salvation Army. You have to know where to look.

Stay tuned for my next blog post, when I take you on a tour of my shoe closet, where you'll see how nifty a thrifty foot can be!

In the meantime, enjoy this bonus video for the Split Enz song "Poor Boy", revealing their history as visual jesters, during which they resembled everything from escapees from a schizoid circus to beserk country-western performers, championing a playfulness that surely inspired many an 80's kid to head straight for the nearest thrift store.