Etsy, the Place of Dreams Deferred

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Photo: Bobby Doherty

Sometimes a garment haunts you. I have coveted so much clothing throughout the years that, for reasons of cost or practicality, I didn't buy when I had the opportunity — glittery Marc Jacobs mary janes; a kelly-green Tsumori Chisato frock; Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent sandals with little cherries on the toe. Among all those pieces, it's been a single item that I've thought about most: a white Nike T-shirt featuring Andre Agassi's dot-matrix silhouette frozen permanently in a passionate serve, accented with aqua, salmon, and lavender graphics. The T-shirt of my discontent. As a burgeoning tennis fan the moment I laid eyes upon it in — '92? '93? — I needed it, in the way that the newly teenaged with celebrity crushes need all the signature gear.

Prickly at age 13, I dragged my mother by her arm into the Foot Locker where the shirt hung, pristine on the rack, and begged. She was a single mother working triple shifts — it was pricey, no go. I understood, but I also sulked, cried, probably raged at some point, knowing my disposition then. Less than a year later, I gave up tennis altogether, moving on to more salient interests. In adulthood, however, I would revisit this moment often as I scrolled through Etsy, hoping to one day reunite with the Agassi shirt, reconciling our missed connection. It's not that the shirt is currently essential to my wardrobe, or even that I can detail the nuances of Andre Agassi's career, past the blip in '92 when I cared (and that time he married, then divorced, Brooke Shields). Rather, the T-shirt was a symbol of a certain kind of heartache, connected to both the struggles of high school — if I owned the shirt, I would have better fit in — and the way-more-real struggles of my mom and the jobs she held down back then.

Three weeks ago, I Googled the shirt. There it was, on Etsy, for $35 — affordable to me now, and just a $15 markup from its original 1992 price! The seller's description, in that perfectly conversational Etsy tone:

Ace of Heart's Andre Agassi in this SWEET and thrashed Nike tee. Excellent giant 90s style action graphic of Andre. This extra loved oversized piece has amazing one of a kind character. There are several holes, the sleeves and collar have fun wear all as pictured. All of which helps it win a grand slam in true vintage uniqueness :)   

I immediately copped this SWEET and thrashed Nike tee, and when it arrived in the mail, smelling of fabric softener, I called my mom.

My friend Michael calls Etsy a place of "dreams deferred" — a literal and philosophical site where adults rediscover the styles that they could not wear in their youths (cost, age, conservative upbringing, etc.) and finally actualize who they used to want to be. As a vintage marketplace, eBay is technically similar, but its vastness underscores that it is a locus of transactions, rather than intimacy. Etsy has also been a key player in '90s nostalgia (and now, as time soldiers on, early-2000s nostalgia) where, for several years and counting, vintage retailers who may well have been born in '91 display their goods with stylized photos of themselves or their friends wearing them, swathed in neon-green lipstick, septum piercings, and multiple-bun Björk hairdos against backdrops crafted with Blingee or similar remedial/retro computer art programs. In adulthood, Etsy allows us to live the youths we couldn't.

In the past several years, I've trawled Etsy to stock up my own throwback jams in a way that has, loosely, mirrored the overall cultural nostalgia for the '90s and '00s, for better or for worse. I spent much of 2011 plugging in "rave" as a search term, recalling the hologramlike vinyl skirts and the allover-white platform nurse shoes I was too shy to wear in '96 (despite spending a good amount of that era with my face pressed to subwoofers), hoping to catch the spirit through some combination of bass and strobes.

Etsy offered a trove of artifacts from that time — fuzzy cropped sweaters, smiley-face backpacks, towering platform Buffalo boots — and throughout 2012 those looks dominated Tumblr and my favorite young style icons, whether on digital artist Molly Soda, whose colorful ensembles befit the most dedicated candy-raver (à la '90s NASA parties at Club Shelter), to Harlem rapper Azealia Banks, a house-music belle whisked straight from Limelight (before it was a mall). Soda was born in '89 and Banks in '92, but we were all having the same, cyber-driven cultural moment, fueled by tactile fabrics and an internet-crafted quasi-memory of those being the days; one of Molly Soda's Treasury Lists — essentially the Etsy equivalent of a gift registry — is a shop called "▲▲ teen witches & alien babes & mermaid princesses▲▲," and its proprietor dedicates her goods "to all the babes on Tumblr." Etsy both reflects and fuels our collective nostalgia, making available painstakingly curated vintage clothing from thrift stores across the country, which cater to our current moods and spark our interest in trends that time, up until now, forgot.

Etsy's influence impacts retail, too. Not long after cool Tumblr/Etsy gals began snapping up Luichiny Club diva shoes, Jeremy Scott remade those hologramlike miniskirts I once so coveted, reissues of the original Buffalo boots became available on Solestruck, and other reasonable simulacra of original club-kid ensembles began popping up in the same shops that sold them originally — Spencer's Gifts, anyone?

Spend enough time on Etsy and it's possible to use it as an unscientific gauge for which nostalgic trends are on deck. It's a concentrated microcosm of the way people recycle their clothes, donating to thrift stores in 15- to 20-year cycles (that's empirical info gleaned from two decades of thrift shopping) — which shows up sartorially in subcultures. The 1990s had their '70s flared jeans and Studio 54 furs — though a few quintessential '90s icons warned us about that — while the 2010s are looking increasingly to the clean-lined, androgynous CK One era for inspiration. This is partially evidenced by the supply and demand of items from the late '90s and early 2000s currently for sale through the annals of Etsy: thrift-store gems filtering upward through careful curation.

I recently searched for "Spice Girls" and hit on over 1,000 items, including several Sporty Spice–style racing-stripe dresses of the same ilk as the one I purchased last year from Opening Ceremony. Mine was DKNY — a reissue. From '94.