I love vintage clothing. Always have. As a child, I was fascinated with my mother’s gorgeous 60s sheath dresses. I still dream about a pair of her shoes — rainbow-colored platform espadrilles which I used to reverently take out of their box and strap precariously to my little feet. As a teenager, I started buying my own vintage clothes on shopping trips to the local second-hand store. While my friends bought old jeans to turn into cutoffs, I loaded up on beaded sweater sets and a mint-condition, 40s bathing suit.
My style has evolved a lot since my teenage years (no more beads for one thing) but vintage pieces still take a prominent role in my wardrobe. Now as then, I’m particular about what I want in a vintage store. Ok, maybe I’m a downright snob.
This boxy, suede purse is one of my favorite vintage finds and always gets compliments whenever I carry it.
For starters, I like my vintage, well, old. I mean really old. Like, older than me old. Anything I might have worn at a previous time in my life doesn’t count (although I admit that this disqualifies an increasingly large amount of stuff). A rack full of 90s grunge plaid may be a fun trip down memory lane, but I want my vintage store to transport me back farther than a rifle through the castoffs at the bottom of my old closet in my mother’s house. In fact, this article about the author discovering the sports jerseys of his youth in a New York vintage store first got me
scoffing thinking about the meaning of vintage. No offense to the author, but I’m pretty sure that reliving one’s youth through clothing is a serious first step toward looking ridiculous. Also for the romantic in me, vintage is about clothing that represents a time when people put a lot of thought and effort into making, and wearing, beautiful clothing. And that means heading back before the days of “fast fashion” and flame-retardant fabrics.
Maybe spending several years in Santa Barbara spoiled me. More than the weather or the beaches or the fresh California produce, what I loved about Santa Barbara was the vintage stores. You might be surprised to find this out, but Santa Barbara is a hidden gem of vintage shops packed full of gorgeous clothes from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Apparently, there’s a whole bevvy of old ladies hiding up in the Santa Barbara Hills carefully guarding their hermetically sealed closets full of their youthful cocktail dresses, day suits, and pillbox hats.
So, when I’m on the hunt for vintage, I’m looking for beautiful, well made pieces that have seen more interesting times than I have. I’m looking for a floral, rayon 40s day dress. Or a neatly tailored 50s suit. Or a sexy LBD in early 60s wiggle dress form. And while I admit that 70s fashion is certifiable vintage, I just don’t think it’s a decade I need to revisit much. It’s getting uncomfortably close to “things I may have worn in the past” territory. Also, there’s simply too much chartreuse polyester in the world (also, see previous comment about flame retardant), and while it may never biodegrade, it should at least have the decency to remain at the bottom of long abandoned closets. I’d make an exception if I ever stumble across those rainbow, platform espadrilles (sadly, one of the few things my mother ever gave away).
My amazing 1930s wedding dress (photo courtesy of my beautiful, multi-talented maid of honor, Miss Leigh).
My favorite vintage finds of all time? Besides the 40s swimsuit, of course (which, by the way, I only wore once as part of a Halloween costume as a pin-up girl). A light blue wool 40s jacket with broad shoulders, a nipped-in waist, and matching blue applique down the front. A fire-engine red satin 50s swing dress. A blue suede, box-shaped evening bag with a gold, geometric clasp. The most amazing piece I ever found was my wedding dress — a champagne silk, bias cut, full-length gown from the late 30s with beautiful vertical pleating along the bodice and a daring V in back.
The second-most amazing piece I ever found was in a store in San Francisco (a town that beats even Santa Barbara for vintage shopping, hands down). It was a black Art Nouveau coat with pagoda sleeves with silk applique winding up their sides. I remember letting out a breath as I took the coat down, amazed that after so much time not a thread was out of place. When I tried it on, it fit perfectly. I admired myself in the mirror, wondering about the woman who had first worn this coat a hundred years ago. Then I put the coat back. Having survived from the dawn of the last century, the coat was now more art or history than clothing. I knew I’d be too terrified of damaging it to actually wear it. Maybe, as much as I want my vintage to have real history, there’s a point where it’s just a little too old.
What’s your approach to vintage? Your favorite vintage store? Your greatest vintage find?