In the Beginning…

I couldn’t resist this Sotheby’s Belgravia catalog from 1981, as it was from a sale of Costumes and Textiles.  While most of this sale was for antique textiles, tapestries and embroideries, a good third of it was old clothes.  I thought it would be interesting to see what prices were being realized in 1981.

You have to remember that in 1981, the collecting and wearing of vintage clothing was a relatively new concept.  In the late 1960s, the Hippie Generation began wearing the castoffs of the past in their quest for anything that would make their parents cringe.   Stores selling old clothes with names like Aardvark’s Odd Ark in Los Angeles, Bizaare Bazaare in Oakland, and Jezebel in New York sprang up to feed the growing demand.

The first I remember reading about people buying and wearing old clothes was in 1975, with the Caterine Milinaire and Carol Troy book, Cheap Chic.  The book wasn’t just about old clothes, but the idea of searching through thrift stores and antique stores for wearable old clothes was one of the main points of Cheap Chic.  What is really interesting is that the authors don’t even use the phrase “vintage clothing” in their text at all.  I found those words one time in a listing of where to buy old clothes that was in the back of the book.  I suspect it was written by the shop owner who submitted their info for the book.

In a 1979 there was an article in Vanity Fair magazine about the new area of collecting, that of old clothing. Again, nowhere in the article will you find the phrase, “vintage clothing.”

In 1982, New York old clothing dealer Harriet Love released what was to my knowledge the first book about buying and wearing vintage clothing, Harriet Love’s Guide to Vintage Chic.  By that time, “old” clothing had become “vintage,”  and an industry was born.

At the same time, there was a new interest in collecting historic clothing.  Some people attribute this interest to the influence of Diana Vreeland and her showstopping exhibits at the Met’s Costume Institute.  Suddenly, under DV, old clothing wasn’t stuffy and dusty any more.

And there were a few people who had actually been collecting couture – people like Beverley Birks and Sandy Schreier who amassed incredible collections at a time when there was very little interest in old clothes.  Both of these collections are still pretty much intact, though Birks is a dealer.  Both women had their collections profiled in Architectural Digest, one in 1988, the other in 1989.  At those late dates, both collectors lamented that all the good stuff was either over-priced or impossible to find.

But it was a different story in 1981.  Prices were still reasonable, but they did appear to be rising.  The 1920s dress on the left was made in France, was pink and beaded.  The estimate was 40 to 60 pounds, but realized 110.  In today’s pound, that would be 371.80, or $583.  That seems to be about what a good beaded 1920s frock would bring today.

On the other hand, bargains were to be had.  This Balenciaga was only 26 years old, and it realized only 14 pounds.  That would be 47 pounds, or $74 today.  Perhaps the price would be a bit higher after Mrs. Vreeland’s 1973 show,  The World of Balenciaga.

The Balenciaga looks like even more of a bargain after looking at the very next lot, a cowboy hat that came from Dallas star Larry Hagman, probably as a publicity stunt.  The hat realized 190 pounds, or 642 pounds in 2012, or $1008!

As a side note, Architectural Digest for several years devoted the entire September issue to the homes of fashion designers and to the the collecting of fashion.  I know of 1988,1989 and 1994, but there may be others.  They are a marvelous resource.


Filed under Viewpoint, Vintage Clothing

9 responses to “In the Beginning…

  1. So interesting Lizzie. Thanks for sharing. I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts, and this one is super! Now if only I could only get my hands on a Balenciaga for £40!!! Sigh!


    • Susan

      Wow. Just wow.
      For the past few months I’ve been following Lizzie’s blogs somewhat religiously (but oddly, this is my first comment here. I’ve been lurking!)

      This is my favourite entry thus far though. Utterly fascinating..

      Now to get cracking on a time machine. Either to snap up those bargains or to have the foresight to know what will be the future Balenciaga…


  2. Lynne

    A fascinating post, Lizzie. I never thought about the origins of the label “vintage clothing,” but I found a reference to that in a 1948 article about finding period items for theatrical productions: “Local farms proved helpful to the costume committee as well, since one Kenosha County farm family turned out to house a veritable bonanza in vintage clothing.”


  3. Teresa

    This is absolutely fascinating Lizzie! Thanks so much for sharing.


  4. I remember writing an article in college about shopping with my friends at the nearby thrift store for ‘vintage fashions’ on our lunch breaks in the Village in NYC. That was in the mid 70s.


  5. You’ve done it again Lizzie – Great blog entry. I remember ‘Cheap Chic.’ In 1970 I was living in London and wearing nothing but ’40’s dresses. They were so easy to find then, and flattering with beautiful prints.


  6. Wow! Thanks so much for this well-documented historical retrospect. As always, you are THE source.


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