Flea Market Ethics


In the six months leading up to December 2009, indie-femme magazine Frankie recorded the biggest growth in magazine circulation in Australia. It seems that the mag’s mix of "art, fashion, music, craft, life" to the tune of cute jackets, short thoughts and autumnal-pastel design hit a chord with a breed of urban culturati. Frankie serves those who like to rehash and remix the size charts, dress patterns and slow bakes of old. I believe my second-hand cardigan collection permits me to speak as one of them. 

Frankie is a bimonthly magazine and has a regularly updated website which houses forum discussions between hundreds of participants — it is something of a container for the cultures that run through it. These cultures are marked by practices such as collecting vintage fashion and homewares, op-shopping, market stall-ing, thrifting, baking, dressmaking and other such crafting. Us indie chicks have shown ourselves to be quite enamoured of such pursuits. You’ll find us at the Finders Keepers Markets, on Etsy, at a Stitch ‘n’ Bitch group or indeed at a bake sale where we will almost certainly be rocking an apron that we upcycled from 60s printed placemats.

This is the thriving assemblage of practices and products that we might loosely call "vintage", defined by one eBay-er recently as referring to items or activities that date from "about the 20-year mark" and further back. Value is attached to vintage objects according to its "aura of time and place". That is, "it should evoke something of the period from which it was created". If it’s clothing, the item should still be in a condition that makes it "wearable now".

For Frankie, this can mean talking up replica Australiana tea towels, sewing machines for little girls and afternoon tea "at homes". The look is porcelain skin, house-dresses that nip in at the waist and glossy, blunt bangs. This month, Frankie is, indeed, drooling over the women of the HBO series Mad Men — the exemplary current pop culture platform for the vintage aesthetic.

North American feministas Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards use the term "Girlie" in their 2000 book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future to explain the collection of lifeways of which vintage is a part.

This concept brackets the many ways in which contemporary empowered young women reclaim "traditional" femininity. Girlies, they note, are more enabled than their grandmas to wield the tools of gendered culture. They can choose how they are feminine, rather than being told how by either patriarchy or feminism. Indeed, in doing so they may affirm the oft-ignored economic and social power of domestic goddessness and beauty queenery. They may also, yes, be exhibiting that most Generation X of qualities: ironic re-appropriation, re-upholstering meaning in a world desperate for originality.

Against this background, the antipodean Girlie of the noughties seeks out cut cloth and anodised accessories — not to mention sweetly coloured and collared frocks. As we amass the buttons, brooches, cupcakes and coiffes, though, how can we make sure we are upcycling the values of thankfully bygone eras as well as the products? Outside of any deliverance offered by context and irony, do we need an ethics of flea marketeering?

The vintage aesthetic that is so popular hails from 1950s and ’60s Australia, when abortion was illegal and Indigenous people were classified as flora and fauna. Back then, a Hey Hey-style minstrel show would not have attracted a whisper of condemnation. Women were heavily restricted in their career choices and the welfare state was in its infancy. If you were an unemployed gent in those prosperous times, the feeling was that you probably deserved it. Further, the gentle arts of sewing, knitting and baking were economic necessities for many women in the one-income household; not to mention a source of power and pride in a straitened sphere of influence.

The values and attitudes associated with this kind of race, class and gender set-up were represented in the artefacts of the day such as the vast ephemera of household decorations featuring stylised Indigenous people, as Tony Albert’s contemporary artworks make clear.

Brand spanking new whitegoods were also a fetish item in the middle-class family arsenal. Indeed, at this zenith of domestic economic aspiration, second hand (or just plain old) goods were a mark of poverty and pre-modernity, something to be ashamed of.

That we in 2010 have acquired a passion for things that in another context or time marked the curtailing of women’s lives, the treatment of economic hardship as moral deficiency and the cheerful endorsement of non-white people’s inferiority thus bears thinking carefully about as we wander craft markets and vintage frock shops.

I’m not calling for a boycott of vintage markets — that’d be way too ’80s of me — nor am I suggesting that a desire for the housewife look is somehow a bobby-socks-and-all reflection of our status as Howard’s children (no matter how covetable Janette’s twin sets were). What I am suggesting, for starters, is that Mr Golly brooches are completely unacceptable.

To be sure, there are Frankie boys as well as girls, queer women are celebrated in its pages and Australian border paranoia is critiqued. Further afield in Girlie-land, women run the markets and websites and/or write content and produce photo shoots. In all of these ways and more, the form of the uptake serves to detach the vintage ethos from the patriarchal and white-imperialist ideologies of old. However, as these ideologies persist in our contemporary world, it follows that those who would resist sexism and racism are compelled to consume and create in a consistent fashion.

As the magazine’s regular articles on the subject demonstrate, Frankie folk operate in a culture of remixing, upcycling and backstitching. We can choose what stays in the blend and this is where a new ethics might come in handy. For, in designing our own blend, we still risk perpetuating the symbols of social oppression by overlooking them in our zeal to replicate an era’s features. We also risk not recognising the politics of what we’re putting in to the mix.

So it doesn’t hurt to engage in thoughtful sartorialism, such as that of lady bloggers Julia Caron, Minh-Ha T. Pham and Mimi Thi Nguyen. As the vintage-loving Caron writes, the current "prevalence of pretty" could do with some more "savvy substance".

To riff off an unlikely remix of French philosopher Jacques Derrida and American social activist Fran Peavey: we are destined to repeat culture with a difference, and we can make choices about just what kind of differences are involved. We can be vigilant voyeurs of vintage by keeping as sharp an eye on the socially just future as we do on the frockin’ fabulous past.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.