Last November, I was fortunate enough to spend five days in Florence. I hadn’t visited the city since I was a child and was completely captivated. Each morning, I, would get up, drink Italian coffee, walk to the nearby church of Santa Trinita and spend five minutes staring at a beautiful Ghirlandaio’s fresco. I was in Florence as a delegate at the third bi-annual conference of the Costume Colloquium, ‘Past Dress Future Fashion’. The conference was informative as were the wonderful museums we were given private tours of.
Most memorable was the fascinating talk given by dress historian and conservator, Thessy Schoenholzer Nichols and the discovery of the extraordinary shop, Ceri Vintage. In her presentation entitled, ‘Recycle, Readapt and Reuse in the Past: To Smarten Up or to Extend Wear?’ Schoenholzer Nichols talked us through some of her preliminary findings in her official work, researching the funeral robes of the ‘mummies’ of Monsampolo del Tronto. The bodies of which date from roughly the late 16th century to the very early 19th century. The owners of the funeral robes were very poor agricultural workers. Sumptuary laws forbade these peasant farmers to buy clothes, which meant that all their garments had to be constructed from woven wool and hemp generally grown on their own land. Their funeral robes were their only clothes, their everyday clothes. The analysed garments were now thick with repairs and overlaid with layer upon layers of patches. It is probable that the majority of the people living at that time in that region, only had one garment, which had to last them their whole adult life.
Body ‘21’ was dated to the 18th century. She was an old woman of probably about 60 years. She was buried in a shirt with an overdress. The dress was divided on the bust line with the upper bodice constructed from a different, softer fabric to the lower skirt of the dress. The bodice was decorated with a bobbin lace that on analysis was dated to the second half of 16th century. Sewn to this lace was an 18thcentury lace indicating a possible repair to the 16th century lace? Additionally, the dress was embellished with a braid that was created using a loop manipulation technique primarily used in the 16th and 17th centuries. The braid was dated and thought to have been constructed some 250 years before the woman’s birth. There was evidence of there once being a back opening to the dress, similar to a style seen in Renaissance paintings. The bodice had been slashed and enlarged many times allowing the dress to go through many body/life changes including pregnancy and nursing. The dress, in its present form, has an unusual side opening. As she was an elderly woman when she died, this could indicate that it had been re-adapted to make it easier for her dress and undress, particularly if she lived alone.
This extraordinary re-use of materials and decoration from centuries before indicates that not only was no textile wasted but demonstrates that even amongst this modest agricultural community a respectable and pleasing appearance played an important part of their daily lives.
This leads me on to Ceri Vintage, a most unusual store. This shop was unlike any other vintage store I have visited. Everything they sold was not just second hand it was well worn, patched, darned and many of the items full of holes. Some of the clothing was so damaged that in another context, I am sure they would have been shredded for recycling or more likely sent to landfill.
Image 1: Vintage jumper on display in ‘Ceri Vintage’ in Florence.
What fascinated me was that this store saw the tears, the patches and the darning as a form of embellishment. It was slightly unnerving that none of these clothes had been customized. This is how they looked when they were last worn. "People were very, very poor,” commented the shop manager, referring to the state of the garments. A conscious, decision based on design and aesthetics was made when deciding to sell this clothing. It is likely that, the previous owners, due to poverty and circumstance, may have once felt ashamed of wearing garments in such a state. These clothes may have been their only clothes. Now they were now being sold as exclusive vintage items.
The layout of the shop was minimalist and clean, big and open with wooden floors and grey galvanized rails. Visually, it was very clever. The manager told me a story. A few weeks ago she had assembled a display of children's clothing and baby wear on the sidewall of the shop. She was not confident of the display as she felt there was something rather sinister or creepy about it; three rows of vacant, lifeless, tattered children’s garments pinned to a white wall.
Image 2: Darned wool, socks on sale in ‘Ceri Vintage’ Florence.
Not long after, a visiting gent from America entered the shop. He was so impressed with this display of ‘visual merchandising’; he purchased each item off the wall. He then went on to arrange to have the pieces individually framed with the intention of replicating her exact display permanently on the wall of his Los Angeles shop. These now tattered, worn garments were to become decorative works of art to be hung on a wall far, from their place origin. This metamorphosis, could read like a structuralist myth. Each textile having multiple and competing narratives, connected to one and other by a process of interpretation and re-interpretation.
The garments from the Monsampolo and Ceri Vintage demonstrate the resilience, creativity and resourcefulness of people in times of hardship and need. By inserting these garments into our present day culture they can not only be recontectualised as successful and historic examples of ‘slow fashion’ or ‘upcycling’ but valued as beautiful, unique garments worthy of celebrating within their own right. Or, as in the case of the vintage items, to be worn again as exclusive fashionable 21stcentury dress.
Image 3: Coat on sale in ‘Ceri Vintage’ Florence.