What does ‘Vintage’ actually mean, and why should I care?

By Shona Johnson

You’ve probably heard the term ‘vintage’ thrown around in relation to second-hand clothes and shabby furniture, but what does the word actually mean, and should it really be so widely used in terms of fashion?

When I googled the definition of ‘vintage’, four results came up. It is a term used to describe the place or time in which a high quality wine was produced, the time or place in which an item of quality was produced and a word relating to or denoting to a wine of high quality, or to an item from the past of high quality.

There seems to be somewhat of an emphasis on the term ‘high quality’.

Now, it may just be me – but I’ve found that there is some horrendously cheap junk out on the high street being marketed as ‘vintage’.

For example, I bought some lantern-shaped fairy lights from Primark that had been labelled as part of the ‘Vintage Romance’ range, and they broke within a week after the lanterns fell off of the bulbs when I tried to hang them above my mirror. Romantic? Probably. Vintage? Not so much.

Another example: New Look’s ‘men’s vintage jeans’ – shrunk in one wash (I followed the instructions on the label, my brother still moaned at me though.)

Now I’m not going to spend this entire article moaning about rubbish products I’ve bought from well-renowned low-quality shops, but it does make you think. What does the fashion world actually perceive ‘vintage’ to mean? It seems to me that the answer is simply ‘old-fashioned-looking’.

For example,  the skirts pictured below may be considered ‘vintage’ due to their imitation of the 1950’s style flared petticoat skirt.

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But if this is what we mean when we say ‘vintage’, then perhaps we should be using another term? The word ‘retro’ actually means ‘imitative of a style or fashion from the recent past’ – which is surely what shops like Primark and New Look are doing with regards to some of their clothes and interior lines? If you are buying an item of clothing that looks like something out of the 1960s, then it’s retro. If you are buying an item of clothing that is still in good condition and was made in the 1960s, then it is vintage.

Steven, a second year geography student with a penchant for second-hand bags says ‘It’s a word that has been misused so much. I didn’t know ‘vintage’ was as easy as badly painting my ikea deck chair pastel pink and chucking a doilie over it.’

A lot of the time, ‘vintage’ items are actually confused with those of the ‘shabby chic’ variety. Shabby chic is a form of interior design where furniture is chosen based on it’s appearance of age and signs of wear and tear, or where newly bought items are distressed in order to achieve the desired ‘shabby’ look – to appear as an antique. The terms have entirely separate meanings.

We live in a society where words are wrongly used constantly, and if you’re an english student like me it does your head in. ‘Vintage’ refers to an old item of high quality, not something you picked up from topshop that has polka-dots on it. But we should ask ourselves, does it really matter that much? Is it that big a deal that we are mixing these two vaguely important terms?

Yes. Of course it matters. Language is one of the most precious things we humans have as a species, don’t drag its good name in the dirt by deliberately getting words wrong for sake of ease. Now I’m going to get back to eating my ice-cream alone whilst arguing with people on the internet.