Dressing in the Past
April 1, 2022 @ 9:00am
Buying vintage came to me on a whim. I’ve always been a nostalgist, loving the styles of Audrey Hepburn in “Charade” and “Funny Face,” Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief” and the entire world of “The Great Gatsby.” But I never really thought much about owning any.
Then one sunny Saturday, my friend and I popped into Elsewhere Vintage in Orange County, California where I grew up. I had no idea what I was doing but I’d had a few brunch mimosas, was feeling curious and found myself surrounded by pieces of wearable art — clothing that had survived decades; handmade, intricately-detailed coats, frocks, skirts, blouses. Equally good? The spot was having a sale.
So, I purchased a leopard print topper I was (and still am) obsessed with. I wore it shortly after to a showing of “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. And when I moved across the country to D.C. some years later, I toted that hat with me — along with the small but growing number of vintage dresses, pants and tops I’d begun collecting.
Since then, I’ve amassed even more goods — many from the West Coast-based sellers I still follow on Etsy and Instagram (I can’t help it) — but others from around the world, including the Philly area where I work and the DMV. Buying local is ideal; not only am I supporting small businesses but the prices are often more affordable than what I see in California. And I have the glory of actually being able to try on items before buying — always a good idea but even more so with older apparel. Vintage people must’ve worn vintage sizes.
Fueling my addiction are shops like Speak Vintage DC, which I initially discovered on Etsy before realizing my former colleague was friends with founder Casandra Strafer. Based in Arlington, the appointment-only studio has given me, among other things, an incredible pair of 1930s-era men’s tuxedo pants and vest that makes a statement when sported among a sea of dresses. And on a recent visit, I snapped up a Julius Garfinckel & Co. skirt suit with a fur trim collar that looked like it could’ve been worn by Jackie O. (I’ll get to my thoughts on fur later.) The first time I wore it was on Halloween and it was a hit on Instagram and IRL: Old Town Alexandria passersby praised the getup.
From Amalgamated Costume & Design Studio, an appointment-only warehouse in Arlington run by vintage queen Shelley White — who has costumed celebrities for period flicks — came a 1930s lace dress with fur trim. I finally found a slip to wear underneath, so I’ll be debuting that baby soon.
From Vintage Dress Company, two pill-box hats and two cloches, including one with an original by Dwayne label — purchased a few days before the former brick-and-mortar in Pentagon City closed. (It’s currently online.)
And from Bottle of Bread in Baltimore, a circa-1940s brown skirt suit with the sweetest nipped waist and pockets. I’m still on the hunt for the perfect 1970s bell bottoms and crop top, but I’ll get there in time.
That’s the thing about vintage: I’ve learned to be patient. You have to know you aren’t going to find that 1920s flapper dress you’ve been dreaming about on your first or second try — maybe it’ll be too small, pricey or damaged to wear.
I’m no expert (perhaps a refined dabbler) but I’ve learned a few other things, too. Keep your eyes open and be ready — even if you’re simply out shopping for antiques or at a consignment store. I wasn’t expecting to find a Berger et Cie Rue Cambon Paris (potentially early Chanel) handbag at Evolution Home in Alexandria, which I visit for eclectic furnishings. (I went back and bought it while writing this article.) The same can be said for Lucketts Store in Leesburg. I was delighted when my husband and I ascended to the top floor to find a collection of attire from the past. (I’m going back just for clothing next time.)
Shopping online? The competition is stiff, particularly for labels with a larger following. Take Xtabay Vintage out of Portland, Oregon. Items are released on [IG] stories and sold within frustrating seconds. Another reason to turn to D.C. sellers: They’re more accessible. Even when you’re virtually browsing Los Gitanos’ store, there’s a much larger chance that 1980s dress will still be there tomorrow. But don’t wait too long — I did once on a sequined number and it was gone before I’d made up my mind.
To that end: Know the time periods that move you. For me, it’s the 1920s to the ’70s. The heaviness of these beautifully beaded Jazz Age flapper dresses — their actual weight and the gravity of the wearer who pushed boundaries with bold attire — just entices me. The silk day dresses of the 1940s are so breezy. And my passion for the ’50s and ’60s has grown stronger thanks to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Mad Men.” As for the ’70s? Again, those bell bottoms are wild.
Occasionally other eras will draw my eye — like the 1980s, the decade of my birth. But I can’t consider the 1990s vintage. Perhaps that’s because it would mean I’m vintage: I wore Mary Janes, plaid skirts, chokers and butterfly clips as a middle schooler and early teen. (Folks have told me to get over this. Maybe I will someday.)
Not all of my purchases have been successful, like a tennis dress that looks terrible on me (it fits like a bag) and a Lilli Diamond fishnet cocktail dress that I adore — but the breast area doesn’t match mine and the netting puffs out a bit too much. The one that breaks my heart is a 1930s silk navy dress with a floral skirt. I wore it one summer in Paris and Provence and it was intact upon return. It was a little sweaty, so I took it to the dry cleaner who destroyed it. There are little tears all over the fabric. Needless to say, I now have a different dry cleaner.
I reached out to White of Amalgamated for advice — I didn’t buy the dress from her but trust her judgment — and she suggested ironing soft pellon on the inside. I’m going to try it. (Wish me luck.)
For the other two pieces? I’ll try selling them. Bottle of Bread, for instance, buys vintage for cash or trade.
But that’s what makes vintage beautiful: While a certain piece may not be a fit for me, it might be for you. So it’ll live on with another owner through another time. Yes, vintage is the OG in sustainability.
And that leads me to fur, with which I have a complicated relationship. While I can’t condone buying anything with fur in modern times, I clearly can’t say I’m opposed when it comes to vintage goods. To me, it comes down to the future of these delicate pieces of our past. These dresses, skirts, jackets, pants, tops — whatever — have outlasted the trends, been worn by different people in various places through events and occasions we only know through history books. And they nod to how style has changed in both negative (fast fashion) and positive (conscious consumption) ways, whether there’s a fur trim or not.
I won’t try to change your mind and I respect whether that statement may evoke strong opinions. Like I said, I struggle with it, too. But no matter how you feel, I hope you find beauty in vintage — and perhaps try picking up a few pieces, too.
Amalgamated: amalgamated-clothing.com // @amalgamatedshop
Bottle of Bread: 216 W Read St. Baltimore, MD; shopbottleofbread.com // @bottleofbread
Elsewhere Vintage: 105 W Chapman Ave. Orange, CA; @elsewherevintage
Evolution Home: 6239 Shields Ave. Alexandria, VA; evolution-home.com // @evolutionhome
Los Gitanos: @losgitanosvintage
Lucketts Store: 42350 Lucketts Rd. Leesburg, VA; luckettstore.com // @luckettstore
Speak Vintage DC: @speakvintagefashion
Xtabay Vintage: 2515 SE Clinton St. Portland, OR; shopxtabay.com // @xtabayvintage