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Where Do Black Women Fit Into the Vintage-Clothing Revolution?

Dipping into decades past for a new look is cooler than ever, but for many of us it’s always been a part of building a fresh wardrobe.

Growing up in the 1990s, my teen fashion was a mix of baggy, brightly colored jeans, baby tees, embroidered 1970s varsity jackets, and headwraps pulled from my mom's closet, kept from her youth. Thanks to Marc Jacobs' pioneering efforts splashing grunge across Perry Ellis' high fashion runway, I learned to compliment rather than match and mix recognizable brands with random-but-carefully-selected secondhand pieces. This approach works because, like time in the pandemic, fashion is an artful but flat circle; it shuttles us around a ferris wheel of styles that resurface again and again through the decades. 

However, if that Yves Saint Laurent gown was pricey back then, it's probably going to be even more exclusive this go around because inflation, baby! 

This truth is why Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth Carter — who built her career dressing actors like Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's period piece Malcolm X and Chadwick Boseman in the afrofuturistic Black Panther — knows vintage shopping is both a treat and a necessity for women who don't have Rihanna's fashion budget. 

"We've always been defining personal style with vintage" - Ruth E. Carter, Oscar-Winning Costume Designer

"I think we've always been defining personal style with vintage," says Carter of Black women. "I remember Joie Lee walking onto the set of Do The Right Thing, and she had on a vintage 1950s casual cotton dress, and I thought, 'Oh, that's so perfect.' She really stood out from the pack."

Contemporary fashion is a mix of high and low, and the most celebrated looks are old and juxtaposed with something that doesn't seem like it should match at all. Rare finds are the crown jewel of Carter's work, especially when she's digging up garments from bygone eras, like the luxurious mink coat she put on Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What's Love Got To Do With It, or when she rifled through the basement of an Italian men's store in Brooklyn, to find long-collared shirts for Delroy Lindo — father of that everlasting 2020 meme —  in Crooklyn, Lee's 1970s coming-of-age story. This ability to tell a story through clothing is part of why Carter is currently serving as an ambassador for the Black woman-owned online platform Thrilling, a connector for vintage stores across the country, to share their inventory with television and film costume designers. She dug through those shirt mountains so we don't have to. 

"I'm so excited to partner with Thrilling, because it aligns with who I was," says Carter, of her knack for finding sartorial needles in haystacks. "For Malcolm X, I traveled to Chicago and bought coats from a vintage collector's old warehouse where there were piles and piles of coats [just for] that scene where Denzel comes out of the movie theater in a zoot suit." In her Thrilling edit, you can shop an abstract '90s poncho (a trend that's firmly on the comeback), Gucci sneakers, vintage Louboutin pumps, and earrings representing pretty much any decade you'd want to recall, with items starting at $15 and cruising up through the triple digits. 

In Carter's line of work, era-specific clothing is often needed to tell a story, but vintage is enjoying a popular celebrity moment too. It girls like Zoe Kravitz and Zendaya are leading the charge and the latter's frequent stylist Law Roach touts a deep personal vintage collection. In 2021, Roach dressed the Euphoria star in a haute couture YSL gown formerly owned by Eunice Johnson, the founder of Ebony Fashion Fair cosmetics and took the night at the Essence Black Women In Hollywood event. For the Euphoria premiere this January, Zendaya wore a strapless, black-and-white striped Valentino jumpsuit (pictured at top) first worn by Linda Evangelista in 1992 — a resounding yes.

She wears vintage onscreen, too; eagle-eyed fans spotted vintage Jean-Paul Gaultier in an early Season 2 episode when her character, Rue, casually appears in a silk vest. Rue is a perfect example of someone who'd wear something vintage specifically because it's unique, offbeat, and not at all like the sexy twinsets and cutout dresses her classmates were wearing. Something she found, randomly, for a deal or in her mom's closet. Something that wasn't factory-produced to fit one aesthetic we're all drowning in thanks to TikTok.

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Carter's no stranger to the homogeneity that can happen when fashion folks keep referencing one-another in an endless loop. "Everything looks the same, you know?" she muses. "There's so much bad stuff out there. Once they decide that fuchsia is the color for spring, everything is fuchsia, and it's annoying."

Instead, if you see a mint condition 1990s No Limit Records jersey long enough to be a dress and feel it would go well without pants along with sparkly, strappy Amina Muaddi stilettos and a Goyard bag in the dead of winter, then congratulations, you have successfully tapped into Mya's 2000 "Get The Best of Me" look and elevated it. Also congratulations for being literal Rihanna in this recent temperature-defying going-out outfit. Like Zendaya's red carpet moments attest, an outfit that reaches back to a pop culture moment and pushes it to another level is stylish brilliance. If inspired to try your own hand at this, check out BLK MKT Vintage, an all-encompassing vintage experience that brings Black culture to the fore through archival pieces, clothing, interior decoration, even prop and set design and, yes, they're Black-owned.

"We take things that aren't seen as high fashion or desirable and we make them fly"

An obvious upside to crate-digging for clothes is doing your own small part to reduce waste, but there's also something decentralizing about the rise of vintage shopping and styling. While there are well-reported fashion trends like the 1990s resurgence, including my favorite shade of quirky Daria green, integrating gently used clothing opens up one's imagination. It allows you to circumvent, to quote the Devil Wears Prada, "the people in this room," and do your own thing.

That's what Black and brown people have been doing for ages, whether through our fashion, music, art, food, you name it — think Jean-Michel Basquiat painting on actual garbage. We take things that aren't seen as high fashion or desirable and make it fly, so fly that the world chases us for the goods (mass-produces them, and then ruins the fly thing, so we move on to something else). Consider nameplate jewelry, a style popularized on the necks of Black and brown women, which are now central to a slew of Instagram brands that respond in long-winded nos when customers like me ask if their company is Black- or brown-owned. Fashion, like time in this pandemic, is a flat circle.   

So, while most of us are not dressing Tessa Thompson or Lupita Nyong'o for a glamorous movie or gleefully creating an uncolonized Africa, as Ruth E. Carter does with her vintage finds, the second-hand draw is no less strong in everyday life. It's finding the perfect piece that no one else could, for less, an elusive item that proves your style is timeless and it is your own; you supersede brand name and lookbook arrangement — you bring your style to the clothes and not the other way around. It's taking what you see on the runways every February and September, digesting the callbacks to a bygone era, and finding the original for one-third of the price. It is a victory, every time.

"For those of us who don't have the money to go to Gucci and buy clothing that costs thousands of dollars, we feel comfortable going the vintage route," says Carter. "Everything is cyclical. You can look back and see where the ideas came from and put a look together that's completely now, smarter and fresher, using vintage." Completely now, smarter, and fresher? Sounds about right. 

The State of the Arts is InStyle's biannual celebration of the Black creativity and excellence driving fashion, beauty, self-care, and the culture at large.

Credits:

Creative Director: Jenna Brillhart
Art Director: Sarah Maiden
Illustrator: Kaitlyn Collins
Visuals Editor: Kelly Chiello
Associate Photo Editor: Amanda Lauro
Editorial Director: Laura Norkin