Each year in December A Current Affair brings together in downtown Los Angeles some of the best vintage dealers from around the country. The pop up vintage marketplace is a fun way to spend a few hours browsing vintage clothing and accessories from various eras. It’s a great place to shop for gifts or for an outfit for upcoming holiday parties. And if you love vintage like I do, it’s an opportunity to find that special piece to round out your collection of vintage accessories. I think the best thing about the show is the fact that you see women of all ages who are interested in buying and wearing vintage.
In the classic Hollywood movies I watched growing up, the blouse was the wardrobe staple of the heroine. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the clothing I saw on film. Even if my life in a small New England town didn’t bear any resemblance to the lives of the stars, my plan in closely observing the heroine was to learn how to dress like one. And so, when my sisters and I would go shopping at the designer discount chain T.J.Maxx, more often than not, I gravitated to the racks of blouses. Tucked into a skirt or worn with pants, long-sleeved or sleeveless, the blouse managed to look both elegant and cool.
In high school, I participated in regional and state student council, and as secretary, I thought wearing a blouse would be the best way to convey my competence. For an after school job, I worked at the local bank, where many of the female executives arrived dressed in skirt suits, paired with white or jewel-tone satin blouses. While reading the employee manual one day, I decided the blouse fit the description of “professional attire” and was the ideal choice for my part-time position as a teller.
I have little doubt that my attraction to the blouse as an emblem of sophistication is due in large measure to Lauren Bacall. What strikes me most in considering those images of her in a blouse is how self-possessed and capable she looked. In her many roles as the heroine, Bacall projected a heady seductiveness that famously blended outspokenness with ironic humor. She was the kind of heroine who made me believe that in speaking her mind, a woman could be both tough and sexy. This projection of strong femininity seems as glamorous to me now as it did when I was a young woman, just beginning to experiment with fashion.
Of course, my hometown in Central Massachusetts was a far cry from the settings that Bacall’s heroines found themselves in. And the silk blouses I owned in the 1980s, with their towering shoulder pads and full sleeves, didn’t fit impeccably like those the iconic actress wore. Even though I currently live in Los Angeles (not too far from Hollywood) nothing’s changed: I still gravitate to 80s blouses when I go vintage shopping in whatever city I happen to find myself in. But now I have a tailor. She snips out the pads and reshapes the sleeves to give me the look of a modern day heroine.
Each year around this time my thoughts turn to those wardrobe items that land squarely outside of the staples. I start to long for capes and feathers, or for the combination of the two. Three years ago, I came home from a vintage expo with a burgundy feather scarf. Last year, I bought a 1950s black ostrich feather cape at my favorite vintage shop in Burbank, Playclothes. When I set eyes on it I knew it would be my closet’s version of the jean jacket: a timeless classic with attitude. Over my life I’ve owned three wool capes. The first, a brightly colored plaid number, a childhood favorite; the second, earth-tone plaid and trimmed in leather; the third, light grey, baby doll style, with three large silver buttons running down the front. I purchased the latter two in my mid-thirties when I was out on one of my first excursions in Los Angeles. Though some years have passed since I owned these wool capes (they were long ago routed from my closet) today was no different: I fell in love with a charcoal grey cape.
I had first made my way around the local consignment shop called Recess, looking through the orderly racks of shoes, tops, pants, dresses and coats, while chatting with the owner, Marie Monsod, a vintage dealer with a particular love of Japanese designers. When it comes to dressing, I’ve long admired the overlapping of the old with the new. The mixture of vintage items with contemporary clothing lends an outfit a thread of the familiar. What makes vintage special in my eyes is the ease and steadiness of old objects. A walk through Recess brings you into contact with the best vintage pieces at modest prices. These pieces hang comfortably alongside sharply discounted, gently worn contemporary designers like McQueen, YSL and Celine.
After spotting the cape, I settled on a green print Balenciaga sweater to try on. It seemed the more sensible choice of the two items. I’d certainly get greater use out of it, I reckoned. But I kept coming back to the cape and was soon building a narrative: I would wear it out in the evenings over my many vintage blouses and cigarette pants, I could wear it casually on road trips up the coast to the beach. I imagined strolling with my husband along the boardwalk, protected from the wind in my cape as we looked at the stars. I envisioned the fabric swinging elegantly with each step.
Marie pointed out that the cape, by a contemporary designer, had never been worn and still had the original price tag attached. A consignment shop is a dangerous place if a person is looking to avoid adding to their possessions, and the truth is, I came close to returning home with the cape. After all, it was the perfect example of something new needing to find a home surrounded by the past.
Ten years ago my husband came home from work one day and asked me how I felt about California. I wasn’t surprised. He’d been looking for a new job in academia, a word defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the scholastic life.” The new job he wanted was at UCLA in the Art History Department. But he didn’t necessarily want to move out of New York. At the time, he couldn’t imagine living in any other city, and friends warned about the West Coast with its dizzying temperate climate. I couldn’t wait to move. I wanted to experience swimming outdoors in the sunshine year round, and the lack of any need for pantyhose. “But how can you be sure you want to move?” my husband cautioned. “You’ve never visited California and are a product of the East Coast. You don’t even know how to drive.”
It’s true: after college I moved to New York City, living there for years with my husband. When we first arrived together in the early nineties we lived in SoHo. We had a railroad apartment on the fifth floor of a five-floor walk up. In the summer the one bedroom apartment baked under the black-tarred roof from where we had a view of the water towers. You could see the corner of 6th Avenue from the living room.
I won’t lie. I didn’t drive, never really needed to. All the same, I was happy to move. Moving felt right: the right time of my life to relocate to a new and exciting city, the right time to change all my familiar habits and routines, the right time to become a brighter version of myself. One of the biggest challenges was a sartorial one. It required redefining how I saw the seasons – getting used to the idea of fall as a hot and dry season rather than as a cool and breezy one, experiencing winter and spring with lots of sunlight, and early summer as cool and cloudy.
Ten years after moving to Los Angeles, I have my own car, but what’s more, I’ve mastered the skill of dressing for the seasons. It’s officially fall so I’m wearing a light cotton fabric for day and adding a heavier cotton layer for night. I couldn’t be more pleased with the move to California.