As with everything in life, I discovered the wonders of vintage shopping later than everyone else. I remember reading about it in fashion mags from the US and the UK and seeing friends with amazing purchases from St Vinnies and the like, but I’d never bought anything second-hand before.
It was when my friend decided to throw a 60s themed hen’s party that I felt compelled to seek out vintage dresses. I decided to head over to the Drum and Bell Tower avenue, Beijing’s vintage central, to see if I could buy something appropriate to wear for the party at a vintage market held in a dinghy nightclub frequented by teenagers and twenty-somethings. Having shopped most of my life in brightly lit malls and boutiques, it was squinting at random clothing with no sizing information, hung haphazardly on racks with no visible price tags.
It was a very hot summer day, the air conditioner didn’t seem to be working and there were no windows in the club. After a mere 15 minutes, I wanted to leave the place but I was also determined not to leave empty-handed. I pulled out a couple of dresses and asked the male stall owner if I could try them on. In typical Chinese efficiency, he took one look at me, proclaimed that the dresses wouldn’t fit me, and proceeded to pull three dresses from his rack at light speed. He shoved the dresses at me and said these were the only dresses he had that would fit me. I didn’t particularly like any of the dresses he gave me, but chose the one I disliked the least, paid whatever he asked for it, which was probably about US$10 and left the market as quickly as my legs would take me. I never tried the dress on.
I found out afterwards that I couldn’t actually make it to the hen’s night after all. So my first vintage purchase was relegated to the back of my wardrobe, as I waited for an occasion to wear it to.
18 months passed. I was rummaging through my wardrobe looking for something to wear to work on a warm spring day when I chanced upon my first vintage purchase. On a whim, I decided to try it on to see if it actually fit me. It did, like it was made for me. The dark brown silk dress with an orangey red leaf pattern that looked dowdy to my untrained eye was instantly transformed once I put it on. It gave me a waist, flattened my tummy and made me stand straighter, taller.
I wore the dress to work and became the envy of my female colleagues, especially when I told them how much I paid for it.
From that day onwards, I became a vintage junkie. I went to so many vintage markets, I was recognised by sellers who’d give me and my friends exclusive discounts. I became so accustomed to buying silk dresses for less than 100 yuan (about US$15) apiece, I began to see paying 79 yuan for a tank top at Uniqlo as a luxury. Wearing a well-tailored, one-of-a-kind dress with a history just seems so much more fun than wearing a brand new dress churned out by the hundreds and worn by as many others, not to mention the waste created.
I’ve enjoyed watching the attitudes of the local Chinese slowly thaw towards vintage clothing, especially in light of their deeply ingrained belief to always buy new things. Friends in Beijing, I look forward to see you at the next vintage market.