From the high street’s colossal carbon footprint to the pressure and prejudice still rife on catwalks, billboards and magazine pages, we're hearing a lot just now about fashion being broken. But what about the good stuff? There are times when clothes feel like a lifeline, or a coded language to help us better express who we are.
In BBC Sounds’ new podcast, Fashion Fix, model and activist Charli Howard unpicks the seams of modern fashion to find out more about the people changing the industry – and our wardrobes – for the better. Episode four brings us Bella McFadden, better known as @InternetGirl, the vintage trader, YouTuber and Depopper with more than half a million followers (and potential customers) hanging on her every outfit. A sustainable fashion advocate, more emo worrier than eco-warrior, McFadden specialises in 'bundles' of preowned and deadstock clothes and accessories to fit each buyer’s measurements and style brief. Want to be a "CEO goth freak"? A "glam pixie nymph" or "Early 00s sk8er girl"? She’s got you.
Internet Girl’s personal aesthetic is part cyber punk, part Manga cartoon, part teen witch and entirely Y2K cool. While those of us old enough to have craved lace-up hipster jeans, knee socks and vinyl corsets the first time around (ahem) might find the whole look a little too déjà vu, it’s pretty thrilling to know that the clothes we thought were fresh two decades ago are still going strong, long after our mum’s stockpile of millennium bug rations ran out. Many things are uncertain in this world, but here’s something you can rely on: fashion repeats itself. Cool kids will always pillage from the wardrobes of the past. And as time goes on, with fashion moving at the pace it currently does, there are more and more clothes to reclaim.
McFadden’s taste for secondhand garms didn’t spring out of nowhere. As she explains on Fashion Fix, it was the result of a lonely adolescence, struggling with mental illness and feeling isolated among her preppy peers.
"I didn’t really have a friend group and was very alienated," McFadden says. "Until you find people who pick you up and make you feel good about yourself, it’s better to ride solo." In lieu of those mates, she found fashion. "Clothes definitely changed my life. I always had clothes when I didn’t even have friends or anyone to rely on," she tells Howard. "I would go to the thrift store and find something I loved when I didn’t have anyone to relate to in my real life." It’s an age-old tale: the misfit kid seeking solace in the musty embrace of the thrift store or spinning themselves a new identity on a sewing machine. There’s a rich seam of these adorable fashion nerds running through popular culture. Think of Andie in Pretty in Pink, pining for Blane in her granny blouses and upcycled prom dress; Enid in Ghost World, with her comic book T-shirt and kitschy barrettes; and The Baby-Sitters Club's Claudia Kishi, with her homemade parrot earrings. And me in the mid '00s, cripplingly self-conscious in so many ways yet determined to rock up to sixth form in a pillbox hat with a veil.
Like Bella, old clothes were my everything, growing up. From provincial charity shops to musty vintage warehouses to the finest '70s polyester eBay had to offer, I would wear anything as long as it looked like I’d stepped out of a Jackie annual. Little did I know that in trying so hard to look different, I was joining a long tradition of sartorial refuseniks. The enigmatic social outcasts, the angsty bedroom poets, the misunderstood teens who hate everything except anachronistic tailoring – it’s a trope that defies trends and transcends decades. And it’s a paradox. If you feel like you don’t fit in, why would you choose clothes to make you stand out more?
"I sort of felt that if I was going to stick out anyway, then I could at least really go for it and make sure I was sticking out on my own terms," says Misha, 27, who used to base her outfit choices on whatever elicited the loudest "what are you wearing?" from her family. "As a teenager in Coventry, pre-internet shopping, secondhand was the cheapest and easiest way to do that. It made me feel like I was being my own kind of cool."
"I think the appeal of vintage for me as a teenager was that it set me apart from my peers," agrees journalist Rosalind Jana. "I found it comforting to have this whole other sartorial persona outside of school."
Creating a whole other persona, or multiple different personas, has to be one of the biggest reasons vintage clothes so often become a refuge for the teenage misfit. While your classmates are top-to-toe in identikit high street, rocking up at the party dressed as 'Paulette, dolly bird with a dark side' or 'Margot, androgynous electro-jazz glockenspielist and possible Cold War spy' might turn heads, but it can also be a shield to deflect comments and a disguise to bolster confidence. It’s not me they’re whispering about, it’s 'Debbie does Disco' in her lurex catsuit!
Adolescence is full of these contradictions. You love everything, and nothing. You long to be popular, even as you hate everything the popular kids stand for. You’re desperate to be noticed even as you wish no one would ever look at you again. "Oi, it’s 2006 not 1966!" a boy on a bike once yelled at me as I walked home through suburbia in a modette minidress, too-big pixie boots padded out with my dad’s hiking socks, and a skewwhiff beehive. I’ve never been simultaneously so ashamed and so proud.
"I was a tiny, dorky teenager. Vintage wasn't cool when I started wearing '70s denim bell-bottoms at 13, and everyone else aped the mons pubis-scraping waistbands of Christina and Britney," says Alice, 31, who was in it as much for the bargains as the bravado. "The thrill of the hunt held kudos and, most importantly, it was cheap. I was hooked on setting the eBay search filters to 99p and seeing what got dredged up."
When your budget doesn’t match that of your friends, fashion can be both curse and blessing. Fashion Fix’s second episode focuses on Emmanuel Enemokwu, founder of cult streetwear label JEHU-CAL. He launched the label when he was only 19, after a bullied adolescence at an affluent school, spent lusting after clothes he couldn’t afford. "When I was in high school I got picked on quite a lot and laughed at," he tells Howard. But like every good teen movie, his underdog story has a satisfying ending. "A lot of the guys making jokes back then are now the ones that are buying my clothes," he says. "So that’s a confidence boost, right there."
We can’t all start a label from our bedroom, but that didn’t stop plenty of us trying. Like mine, Jana’s teen thrifting was virtually an extracurricular art project. "I loved teaching myself about all of the different decades and styles. It was a great way to also give myself some amateur expertise," she says. "Every outfit was this weirdly meticulous arrangement of, like, five different layers of fabrics, complete with some costume jewellery on top."
Those outfits were never just about an image. When you’re putting the time and energy into snaffling out vintage treasures, dusting off deadstock or crafting your own designer one-offs, it becomes about so much more than just getting dressed; it’s a hobby. And everyone needs a hobby. A labour of love that yields its own creative rewards, whatever the world thinks of your outfit. As McFadden puts it in Fashion Fix: "It’s really important to find what you feel passionate about. When you’re feeling down, you should focus that energy on something positive rather than being self-destructive."
Perhaps we could use a bit more of that adolescent energy as adults. All too often it feels like we’re bound to a treadmill of trends, perpetually shopping to keep up with the cool girls in our offices and on our Instagram feeds. At what point did we let clothes become a prescription instead of a passion? When did sartorial weirdness stop being a point of pride?
I look back at teen me, in her tweed men’s waistcoat, paisley cravat and skirt made from old curtains with lyrics appliquéd around the hem (oh yes) and I envy her courage and conviction. She may not have known quite who she was yet, but she had so much fun figuring it out.