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The tag on a piece of vintage clothing can tell you a lot about it, from its size to its materials and care. But can it tell you its story?
Abraham Von August can. As the founder of thrifted and vintage clothing brand Trashpaca, Von August — who uses they/them pronouns — imagines stories for each piece of secondhand clothing listed in their Etsy shop, based on each piece’s “vibe” or “personality.”
There’s the plus-size black wool overcoat with batwing sleeves that Von August describes as perfect for someone who “never stops watching ‘What We Do in the Shadows’” and “wishes they lived in a cave with bats.”
Or the plaid flannel shirt with a color scheme that’s “classic horror feeling,” Von August writes, with “deep blues,” “bright yellow flashes” and “blood red” — perfect for a werewolf to rip off under a full moon, because “werewolves like fashion too, duh Dad.”
Von August’s emphasis on clothing’s aesthetic, feel and function ties into their unofficial mission for Trashpaca: to be a “very curated, non-gender-specific clothing brand with a fluid perspective on sizes.”
“I just hope that Trashpaca creates a space where it allows people to tap into what they feel when they’re wearing something, via a color or a piece of clothing, or whatever,” Von August said. “It gives them the opportunity to say, ‘Oh, I feel powerful or happy or creative or interesting in their piece,’ regardless of what someone else told them.”
Plus-size people are used to subtle (and overt) messaging that suggests their bodies don’t belong. The ways that race and gender identity intersect with being plus size can make such experiences even more nuanced. It’s a lot to contend with when you’re trying to get dressed in the morning.
Von August and fellow Salt Lake City fashion maven Jacqueline Whitmore draw from their own experiences with such intersections as they create and curate their own clothing collections. They hope to empower plus-size people to be proud of their racial and gender identities — and discover that identity in the first place.
Being ‘double aware’
The freedom to dress in a way that demonstrates who you are is directly tied to mental wellness for nonbinary, transgender and other gender-nonconforming people. Many struggle to access gender-affirming clothes, but being plus size as well can turn a simple shopping trip into an emotional ordeal.
Even at stores geared toward the queer community, Nick Arteaga, who works at the Utah Pride Center, said “they don’t really have sizes that fit.” Arteaga, who is originally from California but has lived in Utah for about a decade, is Latinx and uses the acronym “QTPOC” (pronounced “cutie-pock”) to describe himself: a queer, transgender person of color.
Trying to live in these overlapping spheres “is really hard,” Arteaga said. You have to grapple with “not being queer enough” for queer spaces or “not being white enough” to feel comfortable in other spaces — “which I feel like a lot of predominantly queer spots are, so that’s really awkward.”
Even if he does find something in his size, “it’s really ugly,” Arteaga said. “And it’s like, OK, well, I can wear a sheet that fits, or I can feel even more uncomfortable in my skin because clothes are already gendered.” (The fashion industry frequently overlooks plus-size men.)
Whitmore, owner of Copperhive Vintage in Salt Lake City, said she’s “double aware” of judgment for “being fat, and then being Mexican,” which she has experienced from strangers in public.
“I have had people at thrift stores being like, ‘Oh, here’s all the Mexicans grabbing stuff.’” At times, when she’s replied to such remarks, “then the ‘fat card’ just gets thrown at me,” she said.
Whitmore uses the word “fat” with intention, “as a word of reclamation,” she said.
“I’m confident enough in my body now, but there were times in my life that I would 100% choose what I wore based on the scenario that I was doing to inflict the least amount of attention on me, 100%,” she said. “And I’ve dealt a lot with covering up or minimizing myself or not standing out.”
When choosing an outfit, she said she would prioritize “other people’s comfort” over her own.
“I was definitely imagining this American idealized beauty,” she said. “And when I wore things that didn’t fit into it, it made me very uncomfortable, because I knew then I would stick out. And I could be subject to abuse, essentially someone saying something to me about how I shouldn’t exist like that.”
As a queer, mixed-race nonbinary person living in Salt Lake City, Abraham Von August knows that feeling too.
“You live in Utah for long enough, and people stare at you no matter what you do, even if you’re the slightest bit different than the norm — than the status quo,” they said.
Von August, whose dad is Black and whose mom is “white Mexican,” grew up in Murray “around a lot of white people,” they said. “But then there’s this expectation for you to still be Black, whatever that means, right? Like to live up to certain stereotypes.”
Wearing gold gave Von August a way to feel “connected to other people of color,” they said.
“And so I like wearing gold chains and I like wearing gold watches, and I like to wear certain clothes because they do help me feel a little bit more like a person of color,” they said.
Becoming happier humans
In the world of vintage style, there’s a common saying: “Vintage style, not vintage values.” Much of the clothing that Von August has been selling through Trashpaca in the last five years was made during or before the 1990s. That doesn’t mean they put any credence in the gendered fashion rules of decades past.
Gender is “a hokey concept,” they said. “I like wearing dresses; I like wearing skirts. And I think that there’s a lot of other people that feel like they can’t, or feel like that’s all they can wear. And I just want to create a space where that isn’t a boundary for people that want to get dressed.”
Many of their pieces are displayed on differently shaped bodies, so shoppers can imagine how clothing could look on them. A thinner person might wear a long dress completely buttoned up, but Von August said a larger person could wear that same dress unbuttoned as a duster-style coat.
Von August models most of the clothing along with their partner, local artist Squid Vishuss. One particular photo captures the wear-what-you-want attitude of Trashpaca: Von August flexing their biceps and slightly snarling, wearing a midcentury-modern tank dress splashed with big hibiscus flowers in red, white and hot pink.
“I don’t like to be stuck in a stereotype, regardless of how I identify, whether it’s race or gender,” Von August said. “… I don’t like when people get stuck in stereotypes. I think it’s important that people get the opportunity to explore their individuality.”
If Whitmore once felt compelled to hide instead of stand out, those days seem long gone. She lit up the Copperhive Vintage booth at the DIY Fest in August, wearing a 1970s-style dress printed with groovy flowers in yellow, orange and lime green.
For six years, Whitmore has been selling vintage clothing, housewares, furniture and ephemera out of her brick-and-mortar store at 2219 S. 700 East, which feels like the best of five attics all in one spot. She’s so well versed in the world of vintage that she once sold custom tote bags in her store that read: “I love dead people’s stuff.”
That’s why it might seem like a line of new clothing at Copperhive Vintage would be out of place.
Granted, Whitmore has sold some handmade items here and there in her store before. She said the masks she started making at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic “honestly saved our business.” And in the Copperhive Vintage store on Etsy, you can find clutch purses and prairie collars made with upcycled fabrics, as well as polymer statement earrings.
But the creations she has started sewing and selling under her house brand ChubbyDustBunny are meant to be the outfit, not the accessories. Each piece’s fabric and decorative elements are all vintage or secondhand, sourced by Whitmore — a self-described “fabric hoarder” — while out and about finding items for her shop.
Whitmore said she decided to launch her own line because she’s had a hard time finding clothes with the look she wants that fit.
“Vintage fashion is not inclusive for fat people,” she said. “I love the aesthetic so much — like I love super feminine dresses — but there really was no access for me to get it.” And if she did find something she liked, she’d usually end up having to pay extra due to the “fat tax” — a documented phenomenon where it costs more to be plus size than not.
She debuted her own comfortable clothes in September at the biannual pop-up Secondhand Market — where Von August also set up a Trashpaca booth.
Whitmore had three styles of tops available at the market, all designed to be “airy, flowy and easy to wear”: a billowy feminine blouse with puffy sleeves, a tank top, and a “boxy tee,” which is a gender-neutral style that can be worn “whether you have a chest or not.” Her clothing line will solely focus on plus sizes.
“Visibility was the first thing that changed my perception about my body and about my worth,” Whitmore said. “And I think that as long as there are other brands that continue to push for visibility in these niche markets that are accessible, then we’re going to be a lot happier as humans.”