Spend some time perusing the profiles of vintage fashion influencers on Instagram, and you’ll see a lot of lovely styles – elegant floral dresses, billowy sleeves, classy silk gloves, and pillbox hats.
The clothing is classy, inspiring, and tasteful. But you may also notice that some of the women who curate feeds of beautiful vintage garb will also periodically make sure to declare in their captions: “Vintage clothes, not vintage values!” There’s even an Instagram hashtag for this phrase.
The sad thing is that people who insist “vintage clothing doesn’t mean vintage values” can’t see how traditional values like modesty and an appreciation for the natural female form informed the creation of the fashion and beauty styles they so admire.
Vintage Fashion Was Made To Show Virtue
The fashion styles popular in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s are timeless and classy – that’s why they’re still so beloved by women today. The cuts and patterns will never go out of style and look good on almost anyone, no matter their body type. The fashion of that era was characterized by sophisticated and formalized glamour – A-line dresses, nipped-in waists, and full-skirted silhouettes.
It was balanced and feminine, featuring long, swirling dresses, sweetheart tops, and cuts always tilted toward sophistication rather than showiness. Absent from the fashion of that era are the trashy and revealing features that are so popular in modern clothing today – skintight spandex, plunging necklines, overly ripped denim, crop tops, cage bras.
So why did the vintage era produce such vastly different clothing than what’s popular today? In short, because the two eras contain wildly different cultural values.
Vintage fashion was developed during a time when propriety and selectivity were considered pinnacles of feminine virtue and allure. Aesthetics and values are linked – one reflects the other. The fashion of the past was meant for women who embodied certain values. Women were expected to refine their behavior and personalities to become graceful, sweet, temperate, chaste, compassionate, family-focused, and self-controlled people.
Aesthetics and values are linked – one reflects the other.
These styles were made for women who thought differently about sexuality too. It was made for women who understood that skimpy dress attracts bad men, women who knew it was important to not present themselves sexually if they wanted to be taken seriously as they broke into male-dominated fields of work. It was made for women who demanded men to be of a certain moral character – commitment-minded, virtuous, and protective – before they’d be with them. The belief that outward looks reflected inward character has been all but discarded in the era of body positivity.
Modern Clothing Reflects a Degraded Culture
Fast forward to today, and the degradation of traditional values shows in our fashion. It’s why modern styles are either shapeless or overly revealing, and vintage styles and silhouettes are way outside of the norm. In a world of hookup culture, shallow connections, and a "you do you" mentality, young women’s fashion seems to be more about showing off the latest trend than showing off the beauty of our womanly figures and our femininity. This is seen as liberating, while it’s anything but.
To understand why fashion has gone from classy to trashy, look no further than our cultural values and messaging. The modern culture of feel-good self-indulgence tells women we’re perfect the way we are – “love yourself,” “practice self-care," “you are enough.” Furthermore, we’re told to be sexually liberated and not to let people tell us how we should be or act. The message is essentially that we’re done developing, that we don’t need to grow in virtue and restraint. Traditional values are seen as backwards and outdated precisely because they placed constraints on us and challenged us to aspire to something higher. Today, any sort of constraint is seen as oppressive. Women are told to be liberated, to do whatever we want – and the resulting character and behavior are often not of high value.
Vintage fashion was actually borne from higher cultural standards of behavior.
Yet vintage fashion influencers on Instagram reassure us that just because they appreciate and dress in traditional ways, of course, they would never dare to think of embodying or advocating for traditional values such as modesty or support for monogamy and marriage. These influencers signal hollow progressivism because even though they’re drawn to traditional aesthetics, they don’t want to be seen as out of lockstep with the modern age. They want to enjoy vintage fashion without contemplating what type of cultural values contributed to the creation of the clothing they love. If they did, they might discover that those values were actually good – then they’d be challenged to embrace, embody, and advocate for them.
We live in an era where discernment is often mistaken for cruel or oppressive judgment. People who advocate for traditional values are often seen as oppressing others, when really they’re just being discerning about what’s good and bad, right and wrong.
In a world that’s pushing for the erosion of virtue, going against the grain and embracing traditional values can be scary. But those who take the plunge may realize it’s worth it.
Fashion Communicates Who We Are
It’s not a popular idea these days to insist that fashion and the perception people have about your inner world are linked, but they absolutely are.
Fashion is communicative. While feminists repeatedly state that women should be able to wear whatever they want and always be properly understood and well thought of, it’s just not true that our fashion does nothing to communicate our values. Fashion speaks to who we are. It commands how people will think of and treat us. That’s because human beings use visual cues to create mental shortcuts. On some level, we all know this when we get dressed in the morning. That’s why if we put on a blazer, it’s because we want people to think we’re mature and professional and to treat us as such. If we wear a studded leather jacket, we want to appear tough and hardened. If we wear a cottagecore dress, we want people to think we’re feminine and soft. And so on.
Vintage clothing used to reflect the mindset of the wearer too – a generation of women who were highly selective of men, willing to develop their character to become sweet and virtuous, and oriented toward womanly virtues like motherhood.
Perhaps our love for vintage clothing should inspire us to embody these traits rather than to shun them.
Women who adore traditional clothing should consider what cultural values contributed to their creation. They may discover that far from being all about pretty silhouettes and quality fabrics, the fashion of that age was actually borne from higher cultural standards of behavior. These classy outfits should inspire us to be internally worthy of them. Instead of just embracing the fashion, perhaps we should also embrace the values.
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