Vintage - an offbeat history

Fashion's coin may turn on the new, but vintage clothing springs eternal. All time is the right time to wear vintage.

Racoon fur is how it started. Vintage is rare in its account, it is one of the few modes of fashion that can pinpoint its conception in time, even fewer can be quite as precise with its beginnings - vintage was born at a dinner party in Greenwich Village, late December 1956. Bohemian socialite Sue Salzman was bemoaning a missed opportunity to score a 1920s racoon fur when a fellow dinner guest shared that his father-in-law had a storehouse full (quite literally), so an excursion was organised, and soon enough Sue - and 13 of her fellow bohemian dinner guests - swathed themselves in a musty fur coat each. Vintage fashion was thus born.

The Racoon fur coat had originally flourished in the glamour of the 1920s. As the cheapest and most plentiful of animal skin this fur fast became the symbol of the new democratic ideal of consumer luxury, but it still represented an emblem of wealth with its £4000 price tag (adjusted for inflation). These heavy, lush coats were initially popular among Ivy League college boys, but became increasingly common by the late 20s as the fad was propelled by sports and movie stars alike. After the the stock market crashed in 1929, the extravagant furs rapidly lost their appeal as a fiscally lean new decade loomed, the stores were unable to shift the coats and as such they were resigned to storehouses.

Fast forward to 1955 and the soaring popularity of the television show Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. Department stores across the US flurried to repurpose old fur coats in an attempt to recreate the frontier cap worn by the lead character, the one that masses of enamoured boys now desperately wanted to own. And once again, the humble racoon fur became the symbol of a generation, in the wake of the "American Century" it came to represent the popular idea of rugged American individualism.

It was in fact the supply of the racoon fur coats to make the frontier caps that had sparked the conversation at the dinner party in Greenwich Village, December 1956. The Village had long been a bohemian stronghold, but gentrification had pushed many a starving artist to more affordable areas, and only the wealthy remained - including Sue Salzman and her successful architect husband, Stanley. The hunt for Sue's fur coat was born from her love of the 1920s style, and she unintentionally became a walking ad for its revival, soon after her storehouse adventure she had people asking after her 'new coat'. Sue and Stanley thus went into the fur coat business with immediate success, by the following spring they are said to have acquired and sold over 400 of them. The romanticised idea of these coats spread, and by the summer of 1957 the Salzman's were supplying a major retailer of the time, Lord & Taylor, who advertised: "the vintage racoon coats" in a promised

"state of magnificent disrepair"

Unfortunately for them, the Salzman's supply quickly dried up as phone call after phone call they found that department stores had hacked up their coats during the peak of Davy Crockett-mania. Reproductions were of course marched out, but they didn't hold the same appeal as the originals from the Lost Generation, and so the racoon fur trend subsided. In it's wake was a new mode of fashion: vintage. The word vintage had previously been reserved for the description of older cars and furnishings, and originally came from winemaking, but it now epitomised the the best of fashion, the pieces that lived on past a single season. In the decades that have followed the, vintage fashion has become increasingly creative and distinctive, with its broad appeal attracting a variety of consumers with myriad political, aesthetic, economical and ecological motives for their alternative shopping choices, and it all started with one fur coat.


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