Tory Varney donned the 80-year-old silk organdy gown replete with spaghetti straps and several dozen hook-and-eye closures cascading down the back moments after the vintage dress was unpacked by employees at the Way We Wore boutique in Los Angeles.
"I do really love this," said Varney, 23, a music studio manager who plans to wed her college sweetheart this fall. "I didn't say that about anything at David's Bridal."
She's right in step with other young women, who are keeping the vintage trend of the last few years going strong. Vintage clothing dealers, store owners and auctioneers report that teenagers and twentysomethings are scouring their collections in search of the right prom dress or wedding gown.
"There's a treasure hunter in every one of us," said Doris Raymond, owner of the Way We Wore. "You really get more bang for your buck when you buy vintage because to replicate what you're buying in today's world with the quality of the fabrics would cost you anywhere from three to 50 times what you're paying."
For customers such as Varney — who bought the organdy gown for $920 after a seamstress mended torn white floral appliqués ringing the form-fitting skirt — vintage doesn't mean musty old castoffs from their grandmothers' closets. Instead, the term is associated with well-made, timeless pieces that defy today's speeded-up throwaway fashion cycle — a Chanel bag from the 1950s, perhaps, or a handmade silk nightgown from the 1930s.
But as vintage has grown more popular, what it is also has grown murky.
Retailers, for instance, are seeking to capitalize on vintage's rising popularity among fashionable young women in their advertising campaigns.
A banner ad on Lucky Brand's website — floating behind models wearing jeans from its spring collection — touted "The New Vintage." J. Crew stamped the word onto the neckline of aqua, peach and brick-colored $19.99 cotton V-neck tees. Just before Easter, Sur La Table tacked up life-sized posters in its front windows that screamed "Introducing Vintage Aprons."
Vintage dealers worry that this co-opting of the term by mainstream retailers as a branding tool for new clothes is diluting its power as a longtime moniker for classic garments created at least a generation ago. And with vintage becoming more mainstream — buoyed in part by well-heeled celebrities such as Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts and Winona Ryder wearing it on the red carpet — the lines between traditional vintage and more mundane secondhand clothing stores are starting to blur.
"There is a perception on the part of the industry that vintage sells," said Melissa Leventon, a principal of Curatrix Group, which appraises textiles, and a vintage shoe collector. "People have a perception, rather rightly or wrongly, that vintage can be equated with quality."
A barometer of the resale clothing market can be found in revenue figures reported to NARTS: The Assn. of Resale Professionals. Goodwill Industries, for instance, generated $2.8 billion in retail sales in 2009, while thrift store operator Buffalo Exchange now has 39 stores in 14 states.
Vintage dealers say these stores sell mostly secondhand clothes that are anywhere from a month to 5 years old with very little classic vintage thrown in. Many of them, however, call themselves vintage shops.
The emerging ambiguity between the old and the new can also be seen in stores and on the websites of retailers such as Urban Outfitters and Free People, who sell authentic vintage items alongside trendy new pieces.
The interest in vintage is also prompting ateliers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel and retailers including Gap and Levi Strauss to turn to vintage clothing for inspiration, as well as to reach into their archives to revitalize old styles into new looks. When supermodel Kate Moss married rocker Jamie Hince over the Fourth of July weekend, her gown by John Galliano was "vintage inspired."
"So much of fashion in this decade has been recycling ideas of the recent past," said Daniel James Cole, a professor of fashion history at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.
The phenomena of wearing true vintage clothing began in the late 1960s, Leventon said, when hippies started buying antique togs from Goodwill and Salvation Army. The trend prompted Yves Saint Laurent to revisit collections from the 1940s, spurring other designers to dip into their pasts.
In the 1980s, J. Peterman designed vintage-inspired clothing and sold it in catalogues, often displayed next to the original piece that inspired the knockoff. Companies continue this push, with Garnet Hill recently advertising a white cotton floral lace Lilly Pulitzer shift dress as vintage-inspired.
Also driving vintage's current popularity is the environmentally conscious movement toward less waste echoed in clothing swaps on college campuses in lieu of binges on cheap clothing at the local mall.
With the "vintage" label becoming more ubiquitous, designers, clothing dealers and retailers may find they need a new term to describe clothing that truly is several decades old and made with fabrics, handwork and other processes that are now too expensive to replicate.
"Sooner or later it will stop meaning what it has meant over the last 15 or 20 years and start meaning something else," said Leventon, the textiles appraiser. "People who are selling clothes that date from 30, 40 and 50 years ago will have to find something else to call them."