Category Archives: Shopping

Shopping with the Vintage Traveler: Southeast Tennessee

Sometimes I get a place that I’ve visited on my mind, and I just can’t shake it until I make another visit.  In the latest case of this shopper’s disease, I was thinking of some little towns in the southeast section of Tennessee.  The last time I’d been to these towns was in 2009, on a trip with my sister.  Perhaps that is the reason the area continues to have a special appeal.

So on a whim, I headed west, along with my non-antiques-obsessed but very patient husband.  Our first stop was the westernmost town in North Carolina, Murphy.  I knew of at least one good antiques mall in Murphy, and I was not disappointed.  Above are pictured a trio of 1920s  store displays of hosiery.  Can you guess which one was added to my collection?

We found another, smaller store in Murphy that had a great selection of antique and vintage photos and postcards.  I found some super sports related ones, including a 1915 illustrated postcard of a young woman bowling.

I’ve always loved shopping in Cleveland, TN, and I can’t believe it has taken me so long to return to this favorite little town.  There are several top-notch antique malls, and the photos came from three of them:  The Antiques Parlour, Mora’s, and Relics.  All had some seriously wonderful things, including the shoes above, which I bought.  Made from canvas with leather soles, I could not find a maker’s label.

After seeing Manus X Machina at the Met this summer, I’ve paid special attention to anything made with feathers.  There is a real art to working with feathers, to get the design to accentuate the structure of the feather.  I did not buy this hat, but I did appreciate the skill of the milliner.

These 1960s stretch lamé boots were never worn.  Could it be that the original buyer saw them and pictured herself as a swinging mod, but then lost courage?  I hope not.

If I were a collector of vintage children’s clothing, I’d have come home broke.  Almost every shop we visited had so much little cuteness!

I also found lots of very nice vintage patterns, but my vow is to buy none unless they are for my own use.  Still, these were hard to pass up, and almost made me wish I loved to be a pattern seller.

To prove a point, I do not buy every Scotty dog tchotchke that I run across.  I’d like to, but I do not.

Can you imagine a time when driving an automobile was so special that a series of books was written about it?  I need their hats and scarves.

And here’s a titillating look at a shapely ankle.

I didn’t buy this card, but I probably should have, as it really sums up our day.  “When he’s being obliging, don’t overtax him.”  It was time to head for the hotel, the pool, a cold drink and dinner.

We spent the night in Athens, TN.  I went off by myself to an old favorite antique mall in town only to find it had lost its lease and was closing.  That’s a real disappointment, but one I’m seeing more and more.

Is there anything more fun than a vintage button card?

The next day started in Sweetwater, TN, a very small town which has given over its downtown to sellers of antiques, vintage, and collectibles.  In other words, it is my kind of place.  The businesses in the town have changed a bit since my last trip with two of my favorites having disappeared, but there was still plenty to make me happy.  I found some 1970s Seventeen magazines, a wonderful little 1940s box handbag, and even Tim found a few things he just could not live without.

I loved this example of the 1970s nostalgia craze.

One store, Antiques at the Mill, had a nice selection of antique and vintage sewing machines, plus lots of patterns and other sewing stuff.  But even my eyes were beginning to glaze over from just the sheer volume of all of it.

Out next stop was Maryville, a town which I had fond memories of past finds.  But it was disappointing, with the best shops gone, and the others not really having any good fashion related material.  I did think this authentic vintage sign was interesting.  $695.

This was some seriously cute fish fabric that was backing a seriously ordinary 1950s quilt.

We finished the shopping in Townsend, TN, in two nice malls that were full, but not of stuff for me.  I have managed to avoid collecting these 1920s and 1930s sporty girl figurines.

We took the scenic route home, through the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  As a final treat, we got a fine view of a large herd of elk resting in a meadow.  No photos, unfortunately, as we were too caught up in the moment to pull out the cameras.

 

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Terminology

Our words are important.  This is true in politics and in fashion history.  I love people who have the strength to sell old clothes online because I know how much work it can be, but what I don’t like is how a garment can morph from its original purpose to something entirely different in the interest of selling that garment.

The garment shown above is a gymsuit.  Period.  It is not a playsuit.  It is not a romper. It is, despite what etsy listings would lead one to believe, a gymsuit.

This is a bathing suit by Tina Leser.  Period.  It is not a playsuit.  It is not a romper. It is, despite what etsy listings would lead one to believe, a bathing suit.

 

This is a 1911 bathing suit.  A similar suit is currently listed on etsy as a “1920’s Cotton Playsuit, Beach Romper, Athletic Wear,  Bloomers” but it too, is a bathing suit.  Nowhere in the description, nor in the tags, was the term bathing suit even used.  That would completely  eliminate that suit from the search I regularly do for older bathing suits.

But more importantly, things like this change the terminology of fashion and of clothing.  It’s like calling a short 1920s dress a “mini”, or a long 1930s dress a “maxi”.  These terms did not come into use until decades later, and so using them in an older context is incorrect.  I will agree that it is possible that some people might have referred to the Tina Leser type suit as a playsuit, but rompers were for toddlers, not for grown women.

As of this writing, there are 3125 listings for “playsuit” in the women’s vintage category on etsy.  Most of these are for 1950s and 1960s bathing suits.  Some are for 1980s jumpsuits.  And all are titled and tagged in a manner that a serious collector is never going to find them.

UPDATE: I know better than to make a statement so definite as ” rompers were for toddlers, not for grown women.”  A friend has emailed a photo of a 1920s sewing pattern of a one piece garment with legs for ladies, misses and girls, and the pattern refers to it as a romper.  Let me rephrase that to say that in my experience, rompers were worn by my little sister and cousins in the 1960s, and I wore culotte dresses in the 60s and jumpsuits in the 70s.

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Nashville: The Rest of the Story

Nashville is one of those cities that changes depending on where you are standing.  You can be on one corner and it is a completely different city two blocks over.  This is Honky Tonk Row, and I pretty much bet that anyone who has never been to Nashville would think this is what the city is all about.  Actually, this is only a little over two city blocks.  One block past this area is a park on the Cumberland River, and three blocks up the hill to the left and you are in the middle of the Tennessee state government.  A couple of miles to the southwest and you are at Vanderbilt University.

That said, this is what tourists go to Nashville for.  By late afternoon this area was bumper to bumper tourists.  Because the three sites we wanted to visit were in this area, we had to take in a honky tonk or two.

Every restaurant/bar/honky tonk had a live band, and the place was noisy.  It was also a lot of fun.

Besides the Tennessee State Museum and the Country Music Hall of Fame, we wanted to see the Johnny Cash Museum.  As you might imagine there was a lot of black suits, though many of them were far from plain, as you can see above.  Most of the stage costumes from Cash and his wife June Carter were from the 1970s , during the time he had a TV variety show.  As such, Carter’s costumes were, frankly a bit too polyester for my taste.

Interestingly, there were no clothing items from early in June Carter’s career.  The dress above is vintage early 1960s, but it was worn not by Carter, but by actress Reece Witherspoon when she portrayed Carter in the 2005 movie of the relationship of Cash and Carter, I Walk the Line.

I’ve been meaning to rewatch that film because of an interesting mend on the arms of the dress.  Can you tell that there are multiple rows of machine stitching?  I suppose a supporting fabric was put beneath and then the dress stitched to it.  There was no attempt to hide the mend, and I’ve got to wonder if the dress was damaged while filming.  Or perhaps, the film was cleverly edited to hide the mends.

Even Cash’s boots were black.  These were custom made boots from Acme Boots.  He was pictured in Acme ads in the early 1980s.

Between the Honky Tonks and cowboy boot stores, there are a few gift shops. When traveling to a new place I have to always go into at least one so I can find the “gift” that is unique to that city.  These cowboy boot socks might just be that unique item.

Or maybe these Elvis pajamas are the thing, but I’m betting you can also pick these up in Memphis.

But back to the real purpose of the trip – vintage clothing shopping.  I didn’t take many photos of the big sale I attended because I was too busy looking, and I have no idea how I got a photo without other buyers in it.  This was a tiny, tiny bit of this massive sale.  It had been a very long day (and wait) and so by the end of it I was exhausted.  I did find enough wonderful things to have made the trip worthwhile, and I’ll be sharing them from time to time.

There are some places we’ve traveled to that we return to again and again.  Nashville is not going to be one of them, that is unless another big sale comes along.

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Shopping: East Tennessee and Liberty Antiques Festival

Sometimes I think I ought to change “shopping” to “looking” because I do a lot more of the latter than of the former.  I tend to look on “shopping” as a learning experience whenever I find myself not able to find anything I actually want to spend money on.  And these days I’m finding less and less to buy, partly due to the fact that I’ve been collecting for a long time, and pieces of interest to me are getting harder to locate.

Basket bags were big in the late 60s and into the 70s.  You could buy the wooden basket, like the black one above, and then decorate it in any of the current fad crafts such as little painted daisies, or even better, a bit of fancy decoupage.  Daisies were big in the late 60s.  Was it Mary Quant’s fault?

This booth in an antique mall in Kingsport, Tennessee seems to have cornered the local market in this particular type of 1960s daisy luggage.  This was only part of it.

Kingsport has been a place I’ve enjoyed shopping over the past years.  Many of the downtown stores now house antique malls, and the town advertises itself as a sort of antiquers’ destination.  In my recent visits I have not found much to buy, and my favorite place has actually closed.

Still, there are treasures to be found, like this handcrafted Scottie towel that I somehow neglected to purchase.

Part of the problem today with antiques markets is that so much of what is in them is actually newer stuff.  This is a lovely vintage mannequin (dressed in paper and burlap) but all around her I’m seeing new items that would be more in place in a home decorating center.

To add to the mannequin theme, these too lovely ladies are in a mall in Greenville, Tennessee.  I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to buy the older one on the left, as it pains me to see her so poorly dressed.

And here’s a new entry in the “what to do with granddad’s old ties” contest.  If this is such a great idea, then why didn’t the maker put it in her home.

Sometimes the very best thing about a vintage book is the inside front cover.

The next photos are from the Liberty Antiques Festival, which is held twice a year in tiny Liberty, NC.  The festival advertises that no crafts or reproductions are allowed, and for the most part, the dealers comply.  The dealer above had six or seven big tubs of old clothes and textiles, and I started the morning by plowing through them all.  I was rewarded with two great sports caps, a North Carolina made silk chemise, and a pair of 1950s pedal pushers.

I loved these little guys, but my “Scottie wall” is almost filled.

Have I shown this straw bag in a past post?  I know I’ve seen it before.  That was probably a sign that I should have bought it.

I thought this box of embroidered emblems was interesting.  The ones in the middle are the standard patch one often sees on vintage middy blouses, but what about the radio ones?  Of course when these were new, the radio was terrifically new and high tech.

The part of me that still thinks an auto camping trip would be fun really wanted to buy this portable desk.  But then I started thinking about how my idea of roughing it is a Holiday Inn.

Here is where the saddest episode of the day occurred.  I spotted a 1920s black Jantzen swimsuit (nothing special, actually) displayed on a 1960s Jantzen hanging dress form.   The ticket read $$$ for Jantzen set.  I negotiated a bit of a discount, paid, and asked the seller to hold it for me. So I finished the market and went back.  She had the suit all wrapped up with a 1940s Jantzen ad, but had stowed away the form.  When I asked about it, she said that it was not included.  Nothing I said would induce her to sell it to me!  She did return my money for the suit, which was not what I was after to begin with.  Heartbreak!

And finally, this kid does not need me to tell him how cool he is in his Hoppy sweater.

 

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Responsible Shopping

When it comes to shopping more responsibly for clothing, there are a few truisms.  First, you generally have to pay more for clothing that pays workers a living wage.  Second, the more responsible a company is, the more information they provide consumers about how they source products.  And finally, smaller companies are doing a better job than the fashion giants at solving the social and environmental problems that clothing production entails.

Fast fashion simply cannot be sustainable.  The cheap prices and fast turnover of styles in the stores encourages over-production.  I’ve looked in a lot of Goodwill bins, and the great majority of clothing to be found in them is cheaply made, fast fashion from Forever 21, Walmart, and Old Navy.  While a high price tag cannot guarantee an ethical garment, an extremely low one almost guarantees that somewhere along the line there have been abuses, usually in the form of  low wages for workers.  I’ve got to wonder how Forever 21 owner Don Chang got to be a billionaire, but the same question can be asked about billionaire Ralph Lauren.  So price of the garment might be a hint as to practices, but it can’t be the only factor.

Many companies are working toward transparency in their supply chain.  I was amazed at the good job several companies I looked at were at telling consumers where their products were made.  Probably the best is Patagonia, who tells not only what country a product is made in, but tells and pictures the factories that provide materials.  The website has information about every supplier to Patagonia.  They also have an innovative repair and recycling program.  Not that you’ll ever need it.  I’m still wearing a pair of Patagonia hiking shorts I bought used about fifteen years ago.

Contrast that with what seems to be the industry standard of only revealing that a product is “imported.”

Another website that gives detailed sourcing information is Zady.  Zady is not so much a brand as it is an online store that sells multiple brands, though there are some Zady branded articles.  I’ve never bought from Zady, but I do have the site bookmarked to consider if any clothing need arises.

Probably the most ambitious company at the present in regards to sustainability is Eileen Fisher.  They have put into action a plan to correct the weaknesses in their supply chain, and they have the plan tied to a timeline.  For each item for sale on the website, there is information about how that garment is eco-friendly.

One thing that these three companies above have in common is size.  They aren’t tiny companies, but they are not the huge corporations that are so often tied to garment production and sales.  One of the most telling stories to come out of the Rana Plaza tragedy was that many of the companies that did business with the factories in Rana Plaza did not know their goods were being made there until the labels were found in the destroyed building.  The system of contracting and sub-contracting has become so huge and involved that the management of many big companies can’t tell who makes their clothes because even they do not know.

So it’s refreshing when mid-sized companies make it their business to know with whom they are working and are not ashamed to publicize their partners on their website.  Last week, after thousands of people began tweeting and instagramming companies asking who made their clothes, many companies began showing workers from all over the world.  What I noticed was that so many of these companies were small.  Topshop was too busy showing off photos of the new Beyonce line to comply, though Forever 21 did post a photo of a plant for Earth Day.  When H&M posted a cute message about their recycling program, they were quickly accused of “green-washing”.

There are lots of smaller companies who are beginning to show the inner workings of their industrial process, and I see that as a great sign.  A video on the Fresh Produce site takes the viewer through several of the manufacturers that work with them here in the US.  Okabashi shoes are made in the USA and their products are 100% recyclable, something you can do by returning the wornout sandals to the factory. These sandals are great for the beach, by the way. And in the UK, Peopletree also gives information on sustainability issues for each garment.

So, there are ways to buy new clothes in a responsible manner, but you do have to make a commitment to investigate companies and their practices.  And that is what the internet is for.

 

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Working Toward a Better Closet

This is a view into my closet.  Hanging here are 87 articles of clothing, about 65% of the clothes I own, the others now being in storage for the warm months.  I did a quick survey and I found:

  • 48 items were bought new
  • 20 items were bought used
  • 8 items were made by me from new materials
  • 11 items were made by me from used materials
  • 33 of the bought new items were made in the USA, Canada, or Europe
  • 21 of the ready made items were changed by me (hemming, repairs, button changes)
  • 8 of the bought new items were bought within the past year
  • 20 of the bought new items are over five years old

By looking at it this way, you get quite a bit of information about my buying habits.  To be honest, I was a bit surprised that over 50% of these items were bought new, as I consider myself to be a diligent thrift shopper and seamstress.  Taking a close look at the newer bought items, I realized that much of what I’ve bought in the past three years happened on trips to New York.  Somehow I can excuse myself for buying souvenirs of the big city.

Several of the new items have been bought this spring, as at 61 I’ve decided that my days of wearing shorts outside my immediate neighborhood or at the beach are over.  I’ve found that shorts with attached skirt (skort?  I hate that word) are a cool and comfortable substitute, and when I found a design I like that is made in the USA, I stocked up.

My closet is not perfect, and I can see what I can do in acquiring new items to make it more to my liking.  I want to make more of my own clothes, using fabrics that I already own.  I want to investigate brands that are making an effort to be more responsible in their practices.  And I want to be satisfied with what I already have, adding new pieces only as they are needed.

But while I can see a lot in my closet, there is much that I can’t see.  I’m good at choosing clothing that I feel is made in safe factories that pay a fair wage, but what about the fabric?  Most of my warm weather closet consists of cotton, which is notoriously bad for the environment.  Much cotton is grown in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan where the crop is picked by forced labor, much of it children.  Very few companies go so far as to tell consumers where their cotton is sourced.

So what is a consumer to do?  How can we do our best to ensure that as little harm as possible is done in the creation of our clothing and other textiles?  Over the next few days I’ll be looking at ways I’m going to make my closet  better.

Shop Secondhand

Probably the most obvious strategy is to buy less new and more secondhand and vintage.  By doing so you are not producing any new waste.  Shopping in vintage or consignment stores supports  local businesses.  And shopping in thrift stores supports charities.  Some people think that the thrift stores no longer produce treasures, but some of my favorite garments were thrifted:  a 1970s Bonnie Cashin coat, a stack full of vintage cashmere sweaters, a plaid Pendleton coat, and my favorite jeans.

If you are going to buy secondhand, it helps if you have basic sewing skills.  I’m always amazed at the number of great things I see in the Goodwill bins that are there simply because a button is missing or the hem is out.  Making basic repairs can greatly extend the life of a garment and prevent waste.  It’s also helpful if you can do a bit of altering.  I’m short, so I usually have to shorten pants, and even shirt sleeves.  I recently found a french-made Breton stripe shirt of hefty cotton, but it was two sizes too big and had wear at the neck.  Cutting it down to my size eliminated the damage, and was a quick and easy fix.

Shopping secondhand takes time and dedication.  One can’t just run down to the local thrift store to buy a size medium polo shirt in light green as one might do on a trip to Target.  But with time and a bit of luck, secondhand clothing can become a big part of your closet.

Next:  Some clothing companies that have got it right, and some others that are working on their social responsibility game.

 

 

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Window Shopping

Click to see Charleston Style in all its glory.

I used to love to shop retail.  I still love to window shop,  but I have so many clothes that I don’t do a lot of actual buying.  To me,  “shopping” means looking at what is new, and what works, and to be honest, what can I take from this to use in my own sewing.  Not that I do not buy – I do, but it has to be so great that I know I’ll be wearing it for years, maybe even the rest of my life.  But before I even go into a store, I have to be enticed by the windows.

Shop windows are fun.  You can tell so much from them.  Take the windows above.  They are in the shop of Joan Crosby, a locally owned store in Charleston, South Carolina, where I took all the photos for today’s post.  What I like about this particular store is that it is so very Charleston in style.  Charleston is a city, but it also has a resort vibe.  Think Lilly Pulitzer.  Charleston has a Lilly Pulitzer store, but this local shop is far more interesting.

The shops in Charleston are a mix of national brands and local stores.  Mall shoppers would feel at home on King Street (the main shopping street) but so would people looking for a more local experience..

Here is a national brand, Fresh Produce, that is using Charleston’s closeness to the beach in their appeal to passersby.  And isn’t that what a shop window is – an inducement to come in and shop?

So, who does it better, the locals or the chains?  It’s very much a mixed bag, with some local stores being totally uninspired, and others…

using their windows to attract the casual shopper.  Redefined is a consignment shop, and I didn’t get a chance to go in, but I loved the window.  And looking at so many varied windows made me stop and wonder why all stores don’t maximize the free advertising that is literally right in front of them.

One store that usually does a great job with windows is Louis Vuitton.  This time around I thought they were a bit uninspired, with large pastel niches that contained one product.  But on the other hand, they can always be counted on to showcase an antique piece or two.  This trunk dates to 1906.  It looks like it was never used.

Big companies like Louis Vuitton have designers who “do” the windows for all their stores, so the windows in Charleston must be very similar to what is in New York, and Nashville, and Chicago.

To show just how easy effective windows can be, here’s one from Kate Spade.  The ribbon streamers not only mirror the colors in the dress, they serve to focus the viwer’s attention on the dress and not on the clutter of the store.  It made me take a closer look, as this one window said much more about what was inside the store than any other window on the street.

I’m not a bit tempted by ice cream truck purses, but check out that Scotty dog key ring, and the little suitcase one as well.

I’m not going to name the store, but this top was in the window of a national mid-priced chain that caters to career women.  I took the photo because, frankly, I liked the top enough that I might someday make a version for myself.  And had the maker made an attempt to actually match the stripes, I’d have gone in and tried it on.  And if I had liked it, I would have bought it.  But instead, the wonkiness of it kept me from even going inside.

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