A large part of my project is investigating retro and vintage fashion practices – that is, why people prefer the styles of the past over what's currently fashionable. 'Retro' and 'vintage' are often used interchangeably in mainstream culture; let me explain the differences I see between them.
I see 'vintage' as a specific retail fashion system that gleans original garments from past eras and sells them in boutiques, auctions, markets and fairs. For the shopper, the value of vintage is knowing the garment is authentically of a particular time, with a particular provenance. Similarly to the antiques market, the vintage fashion aims to capture and preserve past eras through the garments themselves.
Pardon my pun, but it's also a material culture, in that it's interested in a garment's industrial context – its fabrics, its labels, its designers, its manufacturers – that makes it representative of its time.
By contrast, 'retro' is an ethos as well as a retail logic. I argue that people who consume 'retro' are attracted to the overarching aesthetic of a past era – and an accompanying set of feelings and cultural associations – so authenticity is less important than semiotic fit.
If you're 'into retro', or a member of a retro-oriented subculture, you learn to seek out contemporary objects and experiences that look and feel like those of the era you love, even if they're not made the same way. While you ultimately prefer original stuff, reproduction stuff is okay too.
At the moment I'm interested in home sewing as an expression of these ideas. A vintage-oriented maker might be more likely to choose original clothing patterns, construction techniques, and fabrics and trims authentically of the right period. It would be very important to this maker to create a close replica of an authentic vintage garment.
On the other hand, a retro-oriented maker might be more likely to choose a contemporary pattern that just has a retro look, and more likely to alter it so it has a retro 'spirit' but is not entirely faithful to the way authentic vintage dresses would look.
Of course, these are just hypotheses at the moment. To make a start on excavating these issues, I've created a survey on size and fit in retro and vintage sewing. It only has ten questions and so is a very blunt tool, but I'm hoping it will lead me in directions that clarify my ideas, and will help direct my more in-depth interviews.
If you make your own clothes – either to vintage patterns, or to obtain a retro look – please help me out by completing the survey. And please feel free to forward the survey link to anyone you know who makes their own vintage or retro clothes. It's anonymous, but you have the option to leave your name so your comments can be credited in my finished book.