I have been reminded lately that despite being creatures that crave stability and routine, most of us are still delighted by the unexpected. In my life, this plays out rather clearly in the realm of fashion. Though I can’t seem to get enough of the classics – straight leg trousers, dresses with sleeves, silk blouses, well-cut cotton shirts – I am endlessly inspired by the accidental. As someone who regularly seeks out vintage things, I am always on the lookout for that fortuitous one of a kind object. Most of my outfits follow a simple formula: tailored pants, vintage blouse and necklace, modest heels, vintage bag. Pulling together an outfit makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something for the day; making the effort to get dressed is imaginative. Getting dressed is an escape from reality and the inverse of escape; it’s a way to connect with other people.
It will come as no surprise, then, dear reader, when I say how dismayed I was to learn from one of my students, a fashionable woman in her early 60s, that my style reminded her of the J. Peterman look. As I am more likely to be inspired by Richard Avedon photos of iconic women than direct marketing catalog editorials, I really didn’t know what to make of such a comparison. And I hate to admit that until preparing to write this, I had no association with the whimsical clothing company outside of what I saw on the hit TV comedy Seinfeld in which Elaine worked for J. Peterman himself. The original J. Peterman Company, founded in 1987, sold merchandise through the use of elaborate narratives, accompanied by drawings instead of photographs. How could my vintage style reflect a catalog business that with the air of a Technicolor film or Harlequin romance, sums up each article of clothing in a few witty sentences?
In preparing to write this post, I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review in which John Peterman recounts how the company was born with the chance purchase of a cowboy duster in Jackson Hole, Wyoming “… it [the duster] said something about me that I wanted said. It said that I don’t need to wear something with a logo to show people who I am. It was romantic, different. I found when I wore it strangers seemed to give me approving glances. In airports people would try and meet my eye as I walked by them. And I thought, I like the way this feels, I wonder if there are others who would appreciate the feeling as well.” Reading these words, I recognized how similar my own thoughts are regarding vintage. How I am drawn to the illusion of the authentic and to the wondrous, to a connection with the past and to others. Vintage garments also have the romantic mystique of the incongruous. As much as I would like to be fully modern, I enjoy the dimensionality and outsider nature of mixing vintage items with the contemporary.
Anyone new to thrifting might find it intimidating and even overwhelming: not being able to find your size, not understanding the history of certain items, finding prices too high, struggling to pair vintage with your current wardrobe. But with the help of Ebay and the accessibility of secondhand stores across the country, vintage has never been easier to explore. In an odd contradiction, vintage keeps me anchored to the present; if it were to go, all that I hold dear in life might go.
And in the philosophy of J. Peterman, don’t people want things that make their lives the way they wish they were?