Obsessive Nostalgia and the World Market: a project proposal

In this paper, I am going to examine the how a global marketplace of internet consignment retailers is redefining, manipulating, and exploiting the idea of “vintage.”

Fashion has long been a window into the values of an age (see Drew’s blog last week about the costumer) and the new niche market of internet consignment – especially in vintage fashion – is affecting every brand from the finest couturiers to Target’s house brands. And, like the gamut of haute couture to pret-a-porter, the various sites have their specific niches: some specializing in mid-range off the rack all the way up to hundred thousand dollar Birkin bags (on sale for only $75K).

Beginning with The Past is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal argues that nostalgia is the perfect vacation because we already know all the bad things that can happen, we have “taken the measure of it” (4). We know how to secure happily ever after in the past because it’s already done. Especially, I think for women who have been working toward greater rights, it is safe to go back because we approve of the forward movement. The past become a theme park (371-372) and the trappings of the past – the Vintage – becomes dress-up.

To bring in Anthony Giddens and his work Runaway World, the argument is made that we are nostalgic because by controlling the past “we can shape history for our own purposes” (20). He brings up the fascinating argument that the Enlightenment has betrayed us: “the influences that were supposed to make life more certain and predictable for us, including the progress of science and technology, often have quite the opposite effect … Science and technology are inevitably involved in our attempts to counter such risks, but they have also contributed to creating them in the first place” (20-21).

Giddens continues with the argument that traditions are something we make up as we go along, that “the idea of tradition, then, is itself a creation of modernity” (57), a sentiment backed up by Ben Schmidt’s discussion of anachronistic speech in Downton Abbey: “historians know that the ‘invention of tradition was rampant in Victorian England; the practice of happily talking abuot ‘more traditional’ and ‘less traditional’ outcomes is even more recent.”

So where do these ideas leave “Vintage?” Is it, as Giddens would ask, “heritage or kitch” (62)? And what signs of manipulation and exploitation are evident in the many layers of internet vintage resale?



word cloud

The word cloud above, produced by Voyant, shows what happens if you search “Vintage” in Tradesy and then sort by price high to low (and remove some articles: by, listed, of, the, and). Want is the biggest word because it appears in every post because that’s how you the purchaser indicate your interest in something, by clicking the “want” button.

It is my intention to crawl through both the supporting literature that bridges the gap between The Past is a Foreign Country and Runaway World and then to crawl through three websites to track trends at all levels of the market. I have chosen Tradesy for couture and high end pret-a-porter, Threadflip for the middle of the range, and Ebay, where you can buy anything. In addition to dissecting how each platform works, I am going to use Voyant analytic tools, especially word clouds, as above, to show how they define and describe “vintage” merchandise, and how they brand themselves as part of the trip to the theme park, I am going to attempt to find a few items that appear on all three sites to compare and contrast the way the item is pitched to the buying public by playing on and redefining what vintage is.

One Reply to “Obsessive Nostalgia and the World Market: a project proposal”

  1. I really love this idea. The topic is interesting, there is a lot of vintage stuff out there on the web and that seems to be of general interest. You do a nice job connecting the concept with Lowenthal and Giddens, which makes this both compelling as part of an ongoing discussion in public history scholarship and in a sociological perspective. I also liked, how you found a space to bring up the Schmidt piece from the course readings.

    As far as your method goes, I think it makes a lot of sense to look at the sites you’ve selected. I think it would be an open question if it would be best to use the text analysis tools to explore the terms broadly or if you would want to just do some work to read and categorize the items the old fashioned way. My first thought is that it would be best to just read a bunch of them and see if you end up with something worth doing some more large scale text analysis on.

    In this vein, you might want to think of doing some compare and contrast on the terms that related to the opposite of vintage. That is, what are the terms, styles and language that characterize things that are “vintage” or “classic” and what are the terms that relate to “contemporary” or “modern.” Part of me thinks you will see a clearer relief of the differences in these concepts when they are cast in relief against their presumed opposites.

    In that vein, I think you could very well go ahead and do other kinds of characterizations. Off the top of my head, something like “How often are vintage items in these sites actually old and how often are they old looking?”

    So those are some initial thoughts. To recap, I think you have hit on a very interesting topic that is clearly relevant to both public and digital history. If you were to go ahead with this, I think the trick would be to flesh out the methods you would undertake. With that said, I think the topic is rich enough that you could likely just come up with an approach to explore what vintage means in something like 5-10 different contexts and explore how the term is being used to different ends on the web.

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