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.
I have been reminded lately that despite being creatures that crave stability and routine, most of us are still delighted by the unexpected. In my life, this plays out rather clearly in the realm of fashion. Though I can’t seem to get enough of the classics – straight leg trousers, dresses with sleeves, silk blouses, well-cut cotton shirts – I am endlessly inspired by the accidental. As someone who regularly seeks out vintage things, I am always on the lookout for that fortuitous one of a kind object. Most of my outfits follow a simple formula: tailored pants, vintage blouse and necklace, modest heels, vintage bag. Pulling together an outfit makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something for the day; making the effort to get dressed is imaginative. Getting dressed is an escape from reality and the inverse of escape; it’s a way to connect with other people.
It will come as no surprise, then, dear reader, when I say how dismayed I was to learn from one of my students, a fashionable woman in her early 60s, that my style reminded her of the J. Peterman look. As I am more likely to be inspired by Richard Avedon photos of iconic women than direct marketing catalog editorials, I really didn’t know what to make of such a comparison. And I hate to admit that until preparing to write this, I had no association with the whimsical clothing company outside of what I saw on the hit TV comedy Seinfeld in which Elaine worked for J. Peterman himself. The original J. Peterman Company, founded in 1987, sold merchandise through the use of elaborate narratives, accompanied by drawings instead of photographs. How could my vintage style reflect a catalog business that with the air of a Technicolor film or Harlequin romance, sums up each article of clothing in a few witty sentences?
In preparing to write this post, I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review in which John Peterman recounts how the company was born with the chance purchase of a cowboy duster in Jackson Hole, Wyoming “… it [the duster] said something about me that I wanted said. It said that I don’t need to wear something with a logo to show people who I am. It was romantic, different. I found when I wore it strangers seemed to give me approving glances. In airports people would try and meet my eye as I walked by them. And I thought, I like the way this feels, I wonder if there are others who would appreciate the feeling as well.” Reading these words, I recognized how similar my own thoughts are regarding vintage. How I am drawn to the illusion of the authentic and to the wondrous, to a connection with the past and to others. Vintage garments also have the romantic mystique of the incongruous. As much as I would like to be fully modern, I enjoy the dimensionality and outsider nature of mixing vintage items with the contemporary.
Anyone new to thrifting might find it intimidating and even overwhelming: not being able to find your size, not understanding the history of certain items, finding prices too high, struggling to pair vintage with your current wardrobe. But with the help of Ebay and the accessibility of secondhand stores across the country, vintage has never been easier to explore. In an odd contradiction, vintage keeps me anchored to the present; if it were to go, all that I hold dear in life might go.
And in the philosophy of J. Peterman, don’t people want things that make their lives the way they wish they were?
I wasn’t really prepared to buy a brooch this week, and it may have been impulsive on my part, as it comes on the heels of having purchased a charm bracelet last month. Though I love fashion jewelry, and regularly wear a necklace, I had never really thought about owning a brooch, or for that matter, a charm bracelet. The truth is I don’t know for how long I have wanted such a bracelet. Possibly since the 1980s, after seeing a Chanel perfume commercial in which Carole Bouquet sports an extravagant charm bracelet with a red suit. My attraction to brooches is recent, a desire born only a few years ago at a dinner party in Los Angeles. After meeting a woman of advanced style who wore a remarkable brooch against her simple black blazer, it suddenly occurred to me how wonderfully sophisticated owning a brooch would make me feel.
The fact that these traditional pieces of jewelry reveal divergent tastes doesn’t trouble me. On the one hand, there is the brooch, regal and glamorous, conjuring images of the Duchess of Windsor, impeccably dressed and groomed. And on the other, there is the charm bracelet, girlish and flirty. The bracelet I acquired last month is a Napier from the 1950s, the heyday of the charm bracelet before it fell out of fashion during the women’s movement. As soon as I saw it I knew it was the most perfect of things: constructed from pearlized Lucite and styrene beads in Easter egg colors that the Napier company called “moonstone pastels.” Completely impractical, a charm bracelet garners smiles as it clinks with each step you take, with each wave of your hand. It clangs brightly, keeping you company when you are home alone or out driving. As for the brooch, I discovered the ideal one on EBAY from a seller in Louisiana. A vintage Oscar de la Renta, it is resplendent with its faux pearls and center crystal.
Despite having written about fashion jewelry here, I neglected to mention that charm bracelets and brooches are the showboats of any outfit. Both are rich in historical connotation: the brooch dates as early as the Bronze Age when it was used as an indication of ethnicity and class, while from pre-historic times the charm bracelet was worn as an amulet to protect against the evil eye. Today, in an age obsessed with the practicality of the iPhone and the Apple Watch, to wear either a brooch or a charm bracelet is to be reminded of the joy that the quixotic still has the power to shower over us.
I have wondered why it is only now, in my middle years, that I am embracing the brooch and the charm bracelet. The only satisfactory answer I have come up with is that as the world accelerates its championing of all things utilitarian and technological, the more the antiquated and the superfluous – things lacking any real use value – rise in appeal. Vintage objects tell a story, their beauty is not impersonal. Beckoning from beyond, they help us to stay connected to an ever receding past.
Since the beginning of 2016 I have bought two new purses, one in Los Angeles at a favorite vintage shop and the other from an EBAY seller in Michigan. To tell the truth, the one from the vintage store was actually purchased with a gift certificate to which I only had to add $2.09. But whatever the mitigating circumstances may be, I am guilty of having wanted and of having purchased two new purses within the span of two months. Though friends may think otherwise, this recent shopping flurry strikes me as out of character. You see, dear reader, despite having written about my love of vintage Rodo bags here, I have never considered myself a “bag lady.”
Through the years I somehow managed to circumvent the trap of the “it bag,” and with the exception of my Rodo bag collection, I had successfully avoided purchasing bags in any color other than black. A handbag seemed to me a utilitarian necessity of the modern woman’s wardrobe, allowing her to travel comfortably out of the home to work, to the gym, or to dinner in a restaurant.
Despite having seen Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and “Marnie,” it never occurred to me that a purse could accrue anything more than simple use value. And though I am not completely convinced by Freud’s theory linking purses and vaginas, from the first moment I saw a particular cherry red vintage Gucci shoulder bag, I didn’t care that it wasn’t black or that it didn’t serve any real function other than being a thing of beauty. Purchased four years ago, it still makes me happy every time I carry it out. Over time my perspective on purses has shifted, allowing me to see how they personalize an outfit much in the same way as jewelry does. And so, emboldened by the Gucci purchase of a non-black bag, last year I bought a vintage Celine candy red purse, and just last week from the seller in Michigan, a navy blue one. When it comes to evening bags, of the two vintage cocktail purses I own, neither one of them fits a phone or for that matter, much more than a driver’s license and lipstick. Decidedly not modern, these bags are for going out with your husband, as they are ill-equipped for a set of house keys.
I realize that the most extravagant bag purchase happened in January, when I spent the entirety of my gift certificate on a wooden hand painted Timmy Woods purse: a reclining smiley Saint Bernard dog that stingily fits a photo ID, a credit card, a Kleenex, one key, and a lipstick. On the first day I took it out to dinner and placed it on the table, I remember the reaction of a child seated nearby. Little more than six years old, she pointed and exclaimed to her mother, “Look, Mommy, look!” On another occasion, while I was in line at the bank, a woman approached me and asked if she could touch my purse. I have never owned anything that elicited so much attention and frankly don’t know if I’m comfortable with that level of exposure.
How did I end up at the age of forty-five owning both a vintage Kelly bag and a vintage dog purse? There is an obvious contradiction here in desire. A love of the high and the low: the refinement and exclusivity of the Kelly alongside the cheerful silliness of the wooden Saint Bernard. Freud’s theory of purses aside, the common thread uniting these bags is that they are vintage. Though from time to time I may flirt with the idea of buying and owning a new designer bag, I never veer off course in my exclusive interest in vintage bags. In this, if not in anything else, at least I am consistent. I suppose it is the nostalgia for another time as much as the craft and quality that anchor me to vintage. And I have to admit that the joy of the pursuit means a great deal to me. It is as gratifying to search for a particular bag, as it is to wait for it to appear in unused condition and for the right price.
Even if some of you reading this are like me and don’t consider yourselves bag ladies, wouldn’t you agree a bright pink version of the navy blue Celine purse would make the perfect bag for spring?
I bought a vintage floral Rodo bag last Sunday and can’t wait to carry it out for dinner or drinks. As much as I’m hoping to expand my horizons by wearing it with tweed in the cooler months, I’m looking forward right now to pairing it with all black and gray. The nice thing about floral print objects is that even on gloomy days they will remind you of clear skies and warm breezes. And unlike real flowers with their fragile existence, my vintage floral bag, steadfastly alive, will be the repository of countless carefree memories.
When I was in my early twenties, I lived for a summer with my mother’s cousin in Tivoli, a medieval hill town on the outskirts of Rome. Newly graduated from college in the spring, and craving independence, I left behind my books and my husband – who at the time was the boyfriend I had just rented an apartment with – in New York City. My mother’s Italian cousin was married with two daughters, ten and fifteen years older than me. As sometimes happens in families, the sisters were opposite in every way. The older of the two, Milvia, a black haired tomboy, had her own apartment and a car. Luciana, a glamorous red head, lived at home and never showed the slightest inclination towards something as practical as driving. While Milvia was chatty and immersed in one community activity or another, Luciana was introspective with a girlish shyness. I admired both sisters for their Italian flair and wild long hair. But it was Luciana, though technically the younger in the family, who stood out in my eyes as the chic older sister. She had the style of a 70s movie star, the likes of Claudia Cardinale.
And so, on the hot Saturday afternoons of that summer, Luciana and I strolled through Tivoli window-shopping together. I had seen Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” enough times to know that Italians care about being well dressed and groomed; all the same, the afternoon walk – the passeggiata – was a revelation to me. I was amazed by the broad display of style. Up to that summer, my identity and self worth had been linked to school and to campus life, where aside from the occasional formal event, dressing well and looking put-together wasn’t a top priority. In sartorial matters, I was different from other young women my age. I appreciated and respected great style but it intimidated me. I didn’t feel I possessed the knack for dressing that society admires in a fashionable woman. Instead, I stuck with what felt safe: the all-American classics of sweatshirts, t-shirts, jeans and sneakers. Here walking along beside Luciana, seeing all the elegant women nearly brushing against us as we weaved in and out of shops, I was aloft in a setting far more sophisticated than any I had known before. Who would I become in the post college world I had newly entered? And more importantly, what would I wear?
It became plain that rather than being indebted to a particular designer label, Luciana owed her movie star appearance to the old fashioned virtues of mindfulness and self-control. She resisted fads and gravitated instinctively to brands that were in tune with her unique vision, personalizing each ensemble with jewelry or through the way she belted something or purposely chose to forgo a belt altogether. Most importantly, she looked confident and relaxed in her clothes.
And this perhaps was the greatest lesson of that summer: the difference between ease and comfort. For the first time in my life, I discovered that looking effortless is not the same as wearing shapeless or ill-fitting garments. Seeing the care Luciana took each day in composing an outfit, I realized style involves making a decided choice: discovering the right silhouette for your body and sticking with it regardless of trends. This in turn requires the difficult task of editing – sorting the unflattering cuts and colors from those that complement your body type. But being aware of your body and knowing the difference between the flattering clothes and the less than forgiving ones takes real skill. A skill Italians have in spades.
In his Renaissance advice manual, The Book of the Courtier, Baldessare Castiglione, a diplomat and writer, takes pains to outline the necessary physical and emotional attributes constituting the perfect courtier. He exhorts his readers, “to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura (nonchalance), so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” This then is the Italian creed Luciana had so generously let me in on: a faultless attention to detail in order to present to the world an unstudied elegance.
By August, as the end of the summer neared and the eve of my departure arrived, I had amassed a generous assortment of hand-me-downs from Luciana’s closet. Into my suitcase went an orange cotton fisherman’s sweater, a light summer jacket, a floral mini skirt, various long sleeve tops, a hairclip. But one item stood out among all the rest: a honey-colored laminated wicker bag with a gold chain strap. Stenciled on the lining in gold lettering was the word RODO, a Florentine company that began producing bags in the 50s and remains in production today. I had never before seen a purse so refined but completely practical and chic. It articulated all that I admired and all that I had learned about Italian style: that mixture of whimsy and deadly serious put togetherness. More than any other object I owned it was the embodiment of sprezzatura.
Back in New York City I stayed faithful to the Italian creed, dressing with care and carrying my RODO bag everywhere – to weekend brunches, to lunches, to cocktails and then on to dinner. I had the bag for years until one day the chain strap broke. I was entrenched in the mayhem of moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn and didn’t know anyone who could repair the strap. And so, in a fit of desperation, I packed up the RODO bag in a box of Salvation Army donations. I never saw another one again until a decade and a half later at a flea market in Los Angeles. It was only there, as I gazed upon a table full of RODO bags, that the loss of Luciana’s bag washed over me. And the joy: I had been reunited with an old friend after a lifetime of separation. Though it was without a gold chain strap, I purchased a honey-colored clutch from the vendor. With bag in hand I stood instantly reconnected not only to Luciana but to the lessons of that summer. I was united again with that long forgotten part of me: the adventurous young woman who left her boyfriend (if only for a short while) to live carefree and uncover her style in a medieval Italian town.
Of course by now, with the help of Ebay, I have collected many RODO bags in various shapes and colors. But each time the feeling is the same: when I swing the gold chain strap over my shoulder and head out the door, I’m swept up once more in the glamour of those Italian summer afternoons.