Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Vintage Taiwan No. 3: Friends (and some thoughts)

Lady with a flower in her hair

Me and my bunny


Two friends
I love this because the girl on the left is wearing a western-style sundress and her companion has on a traditional qipao

No wonder it's eroding

Here are a few more vintage photos I bought from an antique store in Taipei -- including one in color! The stone formation is called the Queen's Head (女王頭), a very famous landmark in Yehliu on the north coast of Taiwan. It's slowly eroding, so I bet tourists aren't allowed to casually lean against it anymore.

After I posted my first series of vintage Taiwan photographs, Threadbared included my blog post in a collection of writings by different bloggers on vintage fashion, race and politics. That entry was re-posted on Racialicious and picked up by Jezebel (Fashion for Writers' Jenny also wrote her own insightful and moving post on the subject).

I was surprised by some of the comments on Racialicious (which I am a fan of) and Jezebel -- many were dismissive of the issues that the other bloggers and I raised. Many commenters basically said, "what's the big deal?" or "I like vintage because it's pretty and I don't think it's worth politicizing."

I feel those responses missed the point of our posts (Julia at à l'allure garçonnière wrote a very thoughtful response). The main reason I enjoy vintage clothing is because it is pretty and different from what I can find in mainstream stores. It's not like race and identity politics are foremost on my mind when I go vintage shopping. But being able to take pleasure in the lush folds of a 1950s dress or a shimmery 1960s evening sheath doesn't mean I can't also devote brain space to thinking about the more difficult issues vintage collecting brings up. The two aren't mutually exclusive. In my case, I'm taking advantage of the opportunity to be mindful about the injustices dealt to Asian Americans and other minorities in the US during the last century, as well the more difficult aspects of Taiwan's social and political history.

I am absolutely not saying vintage enthusiasts who don't think about those issues are shallow; my passion for vintage fashion and design just happens to intersect with my interest in social history. I'm grateful for that because it makes the past come alive in a very immediate way.

On a semi-related topic -- I post these photos because they are novel to me. I rarely see photos of Asian people from before the 1980s doing "everyday" things (i.e. not posing with a dragon or giant pair of chopsticks in an advertisement or something). My family's old photographs are scattered among various relatives, so even those are hard for me to get ahold of. Whenever I stumble upon photos like the ones above, I feel a certain sense of glee -- and relief -- that's hard to put into words.

But I am also cognizant of idealizing the people in the photos. I try to remind myself that they were more than just the cute clothes they are wearing (that I want in my own closet). I know nothing about these people, just that for one moment they posed for a photo that somehow ended up in my hands. I'm planning to re-read "On Photography" by Susan Sontag and "Camera Lucida" by Roland Barthes so I can better articulate my feelings on this issue.

Any thoughts on either of these topics (vintage clothing and politics/race or collecting vintage photographs)? I'd love to hear your feedback.


  1. This is really wonderful, especially since I also was annoyed by many of the dismissive comments at Jezebel and Racialicious. I think some of them come from a place of believing that fashion in particular, and clothing in general, are frivolous and personal, rather than civilizational (that is, distributing humanity unevenly) and political. And yes, I can take pleasure in both aesthetics and tactility and in thinking critically. More later.

  2. These pictures are beautiful, my favourite is the ballerinas! And I love both of the dresses on the girls in the second from bottom picture.

    Oh, and we don't have H&M here either. I bought that skirt in Europe! (But I do wish we did!)

  3. Clara-Thanks!

    threadbared-Thanks for your comment! I was surprised by the general tone of the comments on both sites because they have audiences who are especially attuned to issues of politics, race and feminism in popular culture. I think you are right -- part of that attitude stems from the idea that style is something that is inherently frivolous, belongs solely in the personal sphere and therefore isn't worth having a dialogue about.

    piglet: We occasionally get H&M in Taipei, but it's all imported by individual dealers and costs $$$!

  4. Hey Catherine--

    Thanks for posting this (words + pictures!) It is unnerving how often people have a 'oh c'mon the get heck over it, it's just clothes or [insert whatever issue is at hand]' attitude. Or worse, the 'get over yourself and your liberal education!' retorts. Ahhh, and my stunning ability to think of what to say to that, but it's all good because I have your blog to read!


  5. these photos are so beautiful. i know what you mean about the rarity of photos like these; when i started getting into vintage culture online i was shocked at the lack of diversity. i live in québec city so when i thrift, 100% of the vintage photographs i stumble upon are of white people.

    discover black heritage on flickr is a great source:

    and i totally recommend re-reading both of those amazing books! i just re-read on photography in november and am still reeling, and am in the middle of camera obscura. great food for thought.

    thanks so much for linking to me; some of your kind readers have already commented and have made me pretty happy these conversations are continuing.

  6. Jenny: Thanks for your comment! Even when I was at a liberal arts college (Sarah Lawrence, where our ONLY major was liberal arts), people told me I "think too much" when I brought up topics like this. My philosophy is that it's better to overthink then underthink (especially if the topic at hand is vintage clothes!).

    Julia: I'm so glad to see the new comments over at your blog! It's good to know there are other collectors who feel like this is a topic worth delving deeper into.