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 asked in recent days why I prefer blouses and pants to dresses. Looking in my closet at the dozen or more vintage blouses that hang there expectantly, I realize the attraction has to do with the endless possibility for play which separates afford. And so two weeks ago, I purchased a 1980s silk Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche blouse from an Ebay seller in St. Louis. Though the blouse wasn’t my size, it was love at first sight. I had been looking for a blue blouse and was confident that my tailor would be able to alter the blouse to fit. My only hesitation was over whether or not to keep the tie-neck. Though the style is a popular trend at the moment, I felt the blouse would look more timeless without the bow. (When I buy a vintage blouse and alter it, I like to think I will wear it for many years to come). Because of the asymmetrical button placket, my tailor suggested simply shortening the bow into a fold over collar with hidden snaps at the side of the neck. As you can see in the after photo, the blouse retains the elegance of a tie-neck collar but with a sportier air, a perfect formula for modern vintage style.
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 just picked up the latest vintage alteration from my tailor. This YSL silk satin fuchsia blouse was a lucky find that had never been worn but was several sizes too big. It needed to be taken in and the shoulders had to be recut. Inspired by vintage Vogue Patterns of Yves Saint Laurent creations, I asked my tailor to create a thinner necktie from the wide necktie fabric. The after photo, I think, shows the difference good tailoring can make in updating a vintage garment and keeping it wearable for many more years.
A month ago I went downtown to A Current Affair, an impressive Los Angeles vintage fair, and came home with a vibrant purple Yves Saint Laurent blouse. It’s always risky going to vintage fairs where many dealers, both local and from around the country, congregate to offer up their collections. Because there is so much temptation and very little time to think, a vintage fair can be a day of mixed emotions: from the joyful high you feel coming away with that one of a kind item, to the sorrowful regret you experience over holding back and returning home empty-handed. In my case, the happiness I felt buying an Yves Saint Laurent garment, was slightly blunted by the fact that I would need to remove the necktie in order to make the blouse modern and wearable. And so, the day after the fair, I planned a visit to my tailor.
Though I’ve stood in my tailor’s studio many times over the years, contemplating what changes to make to a garment, this YSL blouse was different. Because of the removal of the necktie, a new neckline with a trim had to be constructed. Despite the fact that the necktie could still be worn as a type of scarf with the blouse and the original buttons and pleating remained intact, I felt a slight twinge of guilt at altering the 80s design. But through the process of disassembly, I came to see the blouse as something regenerated, a garment that enfolds the original while having a separate life from it. More than likely, in its original form, my blouse would have remained an inspiration garment for fashion designers, stored away in a studio – frozen in time without a chance at a second life in a new setting.
I don’t think I’m kidding myself when I say that Saint Laurent himself would have approved of the transformation process – his Rive Gauche line was fundamentally about experimentation and creativity. In a 1972 interview he explained his philosophy this way: “With ready-to-wear you can play around with the many parts of clothes and change them. In couture you can’t play with clothes.” After all, cutting and sewing is at heart about play and repurposing. Or put another way, it’s about the spirit of the idea taking flight.
A few months ago, my husband and I decided it was time to visit Italy again. Since booking the airline tickets and renting an apartment in Rome’s Centro Storico, I have been in a muted state of anxiety over what to pack. Despite the fact that I’ve been traveling to Italy on and off since childhood and am wildly excited to once again walk the streets of Rome, I feel bad about my vacation wardrobe. The truth is, since about my thirties, I always fly into a panic before a trip abroad. If you saw my wardrobe, you would politely say there was no need to panic. After all, it looks as if I have all the necessary basics. But that is just the problem: the basics. When it comes time to pack for a two-week trip, practicality retreats and fantasy takes over. In order to explore the streets of a European city, I suddenly feel guilty about choosing sensible outfits. It seems as if the least I can do is to make the effort to approximate through my clothes the mystique of the cities I will be visiting.
This, I find, is harder to do when you are a woman of a certain age. How to look casually glamorous in comfortable shoes for sightseeing and walking on cobblestones in ninety-degree heat? Today’s trends – the charming floral mini dresses, the sweeping boho skirts, the high-waisted, wide leg pants worn with a midriff t-shirt, the kimonos paired with cut off denim shorts are not tempting options. It seems in the words of Linda Wells, former editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, speaking with Cathy Horyn in 2007, “The choice is to wear something juvenile or be a total killjoy.” Despite the shift in trends and the fact that the options for women’s clothing have expanded exponentially over the years, Wells’ comment rings as true today as it did back in 2007. In refusing youth driven trends and low quality fast fashion chains, I sometimes feel like I am resorting to normcore by stubbornly adhering to my personal style. This, dear reader, is the reason why the last few days have found me craving the kind of clothes Audrey Hepburn wore while living in Rome with her second husband, the Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti.
That I turn to vintage photos in order to inspire my packing doesn’t greatly surprise me; just before sitting down to write this, I began going through photographs of Ingrid Bergman in the 1950s Rossellini films, Stromboli and Journey to Italy. In flicking through the film stills, I realize it is not just the glamour projected by these images of Bergman or the stylishness of the paparazzi shots of Hepburn that I am after. Rather, the images impress me with the ease and confidence of these women of a certain age. Instead of the typical girlish movie star photographs, these pictures document grown-up faces and experiences. When Bergman starred in Stromboli she was in her thirties and had just begun an affair with Rossellini that would cause a scandal in the United States for producing a child out of wedlock. The Roman photos of Hepburn reveal a woman in her forties, in her second marriage, raising her son from her first marriage; these are not the better-known Roman Holiday pictures of the ingenue in her twenties, floating about the ancient city in ballet flats. In a time when blogs and fashion magazines regularly preach to women about age appropriateness, the images of these two fashionable and graceful women make the claim for considering proper fit and quality before age. Maybe the focus should shift to what’s suitable for one’s body and lifestyle – ageless dressing – over what is age appropriate.
As I begin to pack, I comfort myself with fantasies of a new definition of basic: tailored, well-made clothes in durable fabrics that can be worn many times and personalized with accessories. (I’m thinking vintage and sustainable fashion here). Could it be what’s old is truly what’s new again?
Back from my tailor, a vintage Yves Saint Laurent blouse. I think the before and after photos really demonstrate that proper fit matters.
When I was a child I spent the summers in Italy and the winters in New England. While this may not sound like much of a significant formative experience, it set the course for how I feel about tailoring. It was the 1970s, and I had a doll named Emily who was better dressed than I was. Her clothes were custom made while mine were off-the-shelf. She had two tailors: my mother, who cut the fabric and operated the sewing machine, and my grandmother who finished the details by hand.
Summering in Italy and wintering in New England meant that Emily needed the right clothes. Her winter wardrobe focused on print dresses, pants, and long sleeve shirts, while her summer wardrobe included sundresses and the perfect red bathing suit for the beach. I grew up surrounded by the hum of my mother’s old Singer sewing machine, flanked on all sides by various baskets, heaped high with spools of thread and buttons and scraps of fabric. Despite my grandmother’s repeated attempts to teach me how to sew buttons and to stitch by hand, I never developed any real skill beyond threading a needle. My passion seemed to lie in the process of tailoring rather than in the actual mechanics of sewing. I loved choosing the fabrics for Emily’s clothes and watching the cloth take shape into a finished form.
If my mother and grandmother are to blame for my appreciation of tailoring, they are also to blame for my general state of rapture when it comes to vintage. As a teenager, I learned the pleasure of hunting through old clothes – a pleasure that was partly derived out of necessity – as my mother’s deep-seated thrift prohibited spending on designer items. Unlike today, when wearing vintage is considered both coolly sophisticated and environmentally conscience, donning secondhand clothing in the 1980s branded the wearer with a distinct air of the alternative. Those were the days of Laura Ashley and the Gap and Jessica McClintock. While it’s true, at least in the 80s, that vintage clothing became more socially acceptable through the influence of movies like Pretty in Pink and images of pop culture stars like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, it still wasn’t something that many teenagers and college students openly embraced.
Not too long ago, I read a quote by Diana Vreeland that really struck me. “I always say I hope to God I die in a town with a good tailor…” No one has taught me more about the transformative power of adapting clothing to the wearer’s specifications than my beloved tailor, Tatyana. Hailing from Kazakhstan, where her sartorial training included engineering, Tatyana has a fundamental knowledge of construction and a grave regard for fit. Although proper fit is generally acknowledged as the hallmark of notable style, most people would never buy anything secondhand that required alteration; for them it is too great a chore. But I am convinced there may be some readers who, like me, derive satisfaction from the process. The allure of vintage lies in its ability to speak to both memory and metamorphosis: you are able to quite literally take a garment that is too big and perhaps too evocative of another era (think mountainous Working Girl shoulders) and reshape it into something that harmonizes with the present. Rather than a destructive act, the tailoring process celebrates the past, and reincarnates it, washed free of any melancholic nostalgia.
I don’t think I am fooling myself when I say tailoring is my greatest luxury; the sea change it affords is deeply gratifying. As a daughter who has had a lifelong fraught relationship with her mother, the collaborative process of alteration is a means of staying connected to the happiest and most cherished times with my mother. Reconstruction of the vintage clothes I buy strikes me as an attempt at understanding, an attempt to control the outcome. It’s as if all the youthful hurt might be redeemed through this simple act of transformation.
Over the span of our twelve-year relationship Tatyana has altered countless vintage blouses and dresses. Each time the result is the same: I recapture both that childhood wonder at watching a garment transform under capable hands and the echo of the lost intimacy with my mother and grandmother. Maybe all along I have been chasing after the traces of this lost relationship, the cuttings and threads of maternal care, of maternal love. And the vintage fabric that is proof it all existed.
A few summers ago a stylish older acquaintance took me out to tea at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills and then invited me over to visit her closets. I got to look through a lifetime’s worth of vintage dresses, jackets, coats, feather boas, and boots. After I tried on some items she had pulled from a deep corner of one of her neatly organized walk-in closets, I came away with two vintage pieces by Thierry Mugler – a lipstick pink bolero jacket and a dusty rose ensemble: a jacket, with signature Mugler snaps, and a pair of matching short shorts. Despite never having worn the shorts, I regularly wear the jacket with casual pants and the bolero over sleeveless dresses. That afternoon ranks high in my memory for its treasure hunt aspect as much as it does for its display of generosity. I had never before seen such well-manicured closets; impressed by the experience, I vowed from that day on to cultivate the habit of regularly cleaning out my closet.
Even for someone who takes pride in having an edited wardrobe, it’s not an easy thing to dispose of one’s belongings; everything entering a closet puts down roots. Women’s fashion magazines are full of advice about getting organized for such a chore. Their recommendations usually break down into categories: items you’ve never worn and/or have forgotten owning, small sizes that you hope one day to fit into, trendy items in outlandish colors or prints, nostalgic pieces such as concert t-shirts or the cutoff shorts you cheerfully wore in your youth, and the bridesmaid dresses you were obliged to buy. Invariably, the verdict comes in in favor of dispensing with these groupings.
I’ve added over the years to the above categories the following shorthand criteria: selling the clothes I’ve grown out of, gifting others to friends, and passing along items to Goodwill. In a matter of hours, having satisfactorily completed the job of sorting, I could bask in my success at maintaining a functional wardrobe. Knowing what to store for future use is the most challenging aspect of closet cleaning. It’s difficult to part with a pair of shoes, once cherished, that have long since begun gathering dust, when you don’t know if in subsequent years you will want to wear them. Objects with purely sentimental value are far easier to handle, as they take hold of you, stubbornly defying every attempt to remove them with their continued promise of happiness.
Now, in my forties, burdened by the decision of what to disperse and what to keep, I find myself clinging to the items in my closet. This may in large measure be due to the fact that after years of being so careful about the things I have kept and the things I have disposed of, I’ve finally reached a point where each object has been so thoughtfully considered that the idea of letting go strikes me as impossible. It’s likely that there are people who don’t regularly clean out their closets and regard such an undertaking as cold hearted. How could anyone ever part with something that in the face of all reason they had at one time so desired?
In thinking it over, I can’t say I have ever regretted the things I’ve disposed of. Rather, it’s happened on more than one occasion that I’ve felt remorse over what I did not acquire. To me, regret lies in what we haven’t allowed ourselves to experience first hand, or what we haven’t given ourselves the freedom to know.
Parting with certain wardrobe items is akin to setting off on an unfamiliar path, one less encumbered by the past. I’m usually happy to see my things go to another home. I like to think I’m giving my possessions a chance to live on in a new setting, as my beloved Mugler jackets have come to experience an afterlife of sorts since arriving in my closet, one memorable summer afternoon.