Vintage clothing shopping. Image via Getty.

When did popular culture start classifying certain clothes as “vintage” and therefore possessed of a certain cachet? Apparently it goes back to a 1950s fad for raccoon coats left over from the 1920s.

Today Racked has a fascinating piece on the history of “vintage.” Clothing has always been sold secondhand—there was an entire Victorian trade in used clothing, for instance, and in a financial pinch you could offload your Sunday best for cash—but it gradually acquired a certain disreputability, in part thanks to the rise of germ theory. Until, that is, new clothing became sufficiently affordable that used clothing could be repurposed. Racked’s Chelsea G. Summers spoke with Jennifer Le Zotte, author of Goodwill to Grunge, which tracks the transition:

“This idea of the raccoon coat craze, which led into the expansion of secondhand as collectible,” Le Zotte said in conversation with me, “starts with wanting to say, ‘I’m not part of this middle class. Everybody can afford to buy new clothing now. So I want to show that I’m more special.’” Looked at this way, “vintage clothing” might be broadly defined as garments that have enough age on them that they’re no longer au courant, yet have sufficient style to make them chic. Vintage clothing’s tie to age may seem to act like a historical category, but the elasticity around what precisely makes a garment “vintage” means that it’s a marketing strategy. After all, as Le Zotte shows in her work, no clothing was officially “vintage” until 1957, when a Lord & Taylor’s advertisement used the word to promote those tatty raccoon coats.

The best part is the 1957 New York Times article they dug up, covering the craze with exaggerated bewilderment. “Divinely seedy” coats, “one of the zaniest college fads since the goldfish-gulping days.” If only Nan could have seen into the future and its proliferation of tiny glasses.

Read the full piece at Racked and Le Zotte’s previous coverage at Smithsonian; unfortunately, I cannot tell you where to find your own raccoon coat in a state of “magnificent disrepair.”

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