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Fashion on the fringe 

by Andrea Palpant

"I was reborn, as if the act of changing clothes were to force

me to live another life."

-- Pablo Neruda

A sway of skirt, a dash of hat, a tilt of belt on the hips. This is the art of dress -- art by the body, art in motion, progressing through the gesture and stride of people on the street. It begins with a thread and ends with an attitude.

Few other art forms find themselves so rooted and sustained in daily life, so routine and yet so unique. We get dressed at dawn, and all day long it declares our identity -- our vocation, our culture, even our politics and philosophy. Some of us have the luxury of choosing what we wear in the morning. What color fits my mood? What cut fits my body? What design fits my day? Some of us track with seasonal vogues, others dive in for old styles and fashion on the fringe. Here, vintage clothing takes its cue.

Well-worn Levi's. Polyester bell bottoms. Horse hide jackets or Hawaiian shirts. In Spokane, you bet you can find some funky old-school fashions by walking down the street and into one of a handful of eccentric style-making stores.

"There's something exciting about a piece of clothing with a previous history," says John Parks, a longtime vintage shopper. "What prom has it been to? What concert has it attended?"

The idea of clothing that was once fashionable being fashionable again really took hold in the era of love beads and bell-bottoms. "The hippie movement in the late '60s really changed everything and brought vintage into the fashion scene," says Jack Kendall of Funky Groovy Threads. His North Monroe storefront has been coloring the Spokane scene for nine years. With longstanding involvement and expertise in vintage, Kendall gained himself a name as the local "granddaddy of garb." Go into his store for a simple wardrobe addition and you get hip discourse on the history of your purchase, not to mention a full-dressed lesson on its context in Western pop culture.

"The hippies transformed fashion from the uniform to the funky by wearing old denim, old work clothes and military clothes. They had no money, so they created their own fashion and expressed their individualism with used clothing. It redefined fashion for this century."

What defines vintage? The line moves as years go by, but to most collectors anything two decades old or beyond is considered legitimate. Once the age of a piece passes a hundred years, it moves into the antique category. Carefully hand-picked from estate sales, thrift stores and garage sales, vintage merchandise also comes from individual in-store trading or selling.

"There's a saying by a guy named Cadillac Jack," says Paul Cosby of OBO (Or Best Offer) on west Riverside. "He wrote The Bible of Junk and said [collecting used merchandise] depends on the three Ds: death, divorce, division."

Although some raise a critical eyebrow over recycled attire, vintage fans span ages and occupations, from professional traders and designers to teens looking for a way to don a new attitude. For some, clothing is a way of asserting personality that's distinct. Others dress to imitate.

"When I was in high school, I saw old photos of my dad, of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle," says Tom, a longtime vintage enthusiast who got into '40s garb at Paraphernalia Galore, the first vintage store in Spokane, which opened during the early '70s. "I wanted to dress like them."

While clothing responds to culture, designers look to vintage for direction in their craft. As director of fabrics first for Brooks Brothers in New York and now Eddie Bauer in Seattle, Rise Harris understands the importance of classic fashions. She scouted recently in Spokane stores for inspiring vintage attire.

"When I look for ideas for fabrics and designs, I remember that in the development of the new there always needs to be something old that we can relate to," says Harris. "We gravitate to items that have an emotional attachment for us. They remind us of contented times, or excited times, or rebellious times, but also take us in a new direction. On another level, the people that enjoy vintage have the confidence to defy the mandates of Vogue magazine and maintain a greater sense of humor."

Laura Fromdahl, a junior at Coeur d' Alene Falls Christian Academy, recently discovered vintage clothing for the first time at Funky Groovy Threads.

"I've been looking for this all day," she says, holding up a pair of multi-colored polyester bell-bottoms. "I'm in love. You don't see treasures like this elsewhere. I go to a private school where everyone looks the same, so I'm going to wear these pants with a funky shirt so I can be unique."

Other factors, such as affordability and quality, attract shoppers as well. They say you can tell vintage apparel simply by picking up the piece. Is it heavy? It's probably vintage, made from well-woven, long-lasting fabric. Is it rich in color? It's probably vintage, dyed with vegetable instead of chemical dyes. A sense of singular beauty and unique design also drives the vintage scene.

"There's a rarity to it," says Heather Swanstrom, one of the owners of the new Shangri-La vintage store downtown on west Sprague. "Design these days has steered away from the unique piece -- it's mass production now, and only the rich can pay for the singular art piece. It's a cultural loss. Vintage provides everybody an affordable way to find that one-of-a-kind furry chair or neat jacket or whatever."

"Vintage clothing is original. It's high-quality," says Adrianne Elliot, who stops in at various local stores during her annual visits to Spokane. "Plus, there's great prices around here. I bought a pair of black '40s platforms for thirty bucks that I'd pay $200 for in San Diego."

The popularity of vintage -- dressing in the style of days gone by -- first started in the '70s with the '50s revival, says Kendall, and now it's a '70s revival in 2001. Although classic in retrospect, all vintage clothing was at one time the vogue of the moment, born and thread on the demands and ideas of a given era. The dictates of popular music play a big part.

"When something changes in music culture, fashion changes with it," says Kendall. "The Beatles in '64 brought tight pants, turtlenecks and Nehru jackets, and David Bowie in '72 popularized the glam-rocker androgynous look. The Sex Pistols brought black leather and chains to the late '70s. Then the '90s started the era of shooting back: pick the music and style of your favorite decade, and then dress like that."

Beyond its obvious dependence on surface and style, clothing goes more than skin-deep. It's economic. It's cultural. It's political. While all Western fashion is tied to capitalistic consumerism in some way or another, used clothing can be a means to decrying excess consumer waste, as well as a practical way to be frugal and creative with your wardrobe.

"I believe in recycling," says David Robinson, owner of Drop Yer Drawers out on Sprague. "We've used up enough resources already. If I can promote recycling through vintage, it's worth it."

"It's the whole non-consumerist idea," says Parks. "With vintage, you're not supporting multinational corporations -- you're supporting people in the community, so vintage shoppers often have strong ethical beliefs. They connect vintage to their whole belief system."

Still, despite ideals, there are practical threats and broader forces that drive business. The Japanese economy, for one, pushed some vintage retailers into the red back in 1997 when it fell and dropped the demand for vintage Levi's -- a major portion of the industry back then.

"Our market in Spokane is based on other international economies, whether we like it or not," says Maria Sturgeon of Llumination on Division.

Malls as well as national chain stores like Walmart have posed competition, and local revenue waned in part when the Internet dragged a portion of clothing retail into the abstract realm.

"We're losing hold of Americana," says Kendall. "With technology on the rise, things change and disappear. Globalization takes over. But maybe technology is more important than nostalgia."

So fads go in and out. Eras come and go. Economies rise and fall. Still, one way or the other, people move inside the texture of fabric, the turn of color, the cadence of carrying your body down the street and through the day in clothing that grasps the past in present threads.

"Dressing is an art form," says Kendall. "If you gave five people a paint brush and the same colors, each painting would come out different. With fashion, it's the same. People come up with their own creation -- an outfit with a whole unique personality and mood. In the end, that's what vintage is about."

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