Tag Archives: Vintage Clothing

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

Monica D. Murgia – A Guest Perspective on Vintage Shopping

Variety is the spice of life, is it not, so today I’m mixing things up with a guest post from Monica Murgia.  Monica is one of those happy internet finds, another kindred spirit with which to chat on twitter and to admire her own lovely blog, Monica D. Murgia. As she posted there:

“As a fashion lover and professor of fashion history, it’s no surprise that I have a passion for vintage.  It’s a logical progression that since my working hours are dedicated  to looking at art, fashion, and interiors from past eras that my enthusiasm for history often spills over into my free time.  I’m an avid eBay shopper.  American Pickers is my favorite show.  Digging through flea markets and thrift stores is my idea of a modern-day treasure hunt. ”

So a big thanks to a fellow treasure hunter and vintage fashion fan, Monica:

My real love of vintage began long before I even knew what vintage was.  Both my mother and grandmother were avid vintage shoppers.  They took me to countless auctions, rummage sales, estate sales, and thrift stores.  Some of this was because they had seen harsher economic times when they were children.  When forced to be thrifty, they were really surprised to see that there was an almost limitless supply of garments and accessories that had either never been used or worn a handful of times.

As a child, I was absolutely bored out of my mind as my mom would comb through racks of garments in search of that one, pristine piece.  So, like any antsy child who’s mother is occupied, I’d wander around and amuse myself close by.  These semi-supervised vintage extravaganzas served as my initiation to become a fashion connoisseur.

Picture of me as a child in front of mirror, trying on a jumper

As my indifference grew to interest, I learned from the expert: my mom.  She trained me how to identify good quality fabrics, interesting silhouettes, and unique accessories.  Of course the journey was filled with trials and errors. Not everything I purchased was good.  But as time progressed, finding vintage that worked for me became easier.

Picture of my mom holding me.  She looks like the 1980s poster girl! 

The Vintage Traveler is focused on all of Lizzie’s amazing finds, which I love!  So I was delighted to share a few of mine, along with my strategies for vintage shopping:

1) Enter with an open mind.  This is a general rule of thumb for any shopping trip.  It seems that whenever you are looking for something specific, you can’t find it.  You box yourself in by looking for one idea, and loose the ability to find alternatives.  Going to an estate sale, vintage boutique, or thrift store is unpredictable.  There is simply no way of knowing what is there.  It can be hit or miss.  So the more flexible you are with your approach, the happier (and more successful) you will be.

2) If you like it, pick it up. Go through the store or sale, and gather everything that catches your eye.  It’s much easier to edit your treasures down once they are in the same place.  But if you don’t snatch it off the rack or shelf immediately, chances are it won’t be there when you’ve made up your mind.

3) Evaluate the quality of the item.   Always look for stains, holes, tears, missing buttons, and odors.  Tears and holes can be fixed, but you need to think about how much it will cost to repair the item.  Also check to see if zippers function.  Other things to evaluate are fabric content and fit.  Is the fabric a good quality? Is the fit flattering?  How does the color look on you?  I found an jacket in a gorgeous shade of yellow that just spoke to me.  The buttons were intact, but there were a few small holes along the seam.  I was able to hand-stitch the areas back together easily.  It was fully lined, and made in America from English wool.  Which leads me to my next tip . . .

4) Read labels.  Check the garment to look for distinguishing labels.  Some garments might be homemade, which is always a nice find.  Finding an old Made in America union label is also a treat.   But once in a while, you’ll come across something you’ve never heard of.  This happened to me several weeks ago.  I found a stunning dress, and the label said Futurama Modes.  It was a ready-to-wear line made in Paris, but I still haven’t uncovered anything about the brand.  Now I have a great dress and a research project.  What fun!

5) Ask around.  Once you start shopping vintage, you’ll surely get hooked.  Start asking around about good boutiques, expos, and stores.  A little internet research goes a long way.  That’s how I found Cheeky Vintage in Houston.  And I found two lovely dresses there.  One is blue with a tiki and floral print and has a matching bolero.  The other is white with pink roses.  Every time I wear it, I feel like Charlotte York from Sex in the City.  If you are traveling, read up on the area and plan vintage shopping into your itinerary. Or consult The Vintage Traveler for some good recommendations!


Filed under Collecting, Shopping

What I Didn’t Buy – 1930s Velvet Evening Jacket

There are lots of reasons for not buying something I like, but the biggest one has to be that the condition of the item is just not up to standard.  Not that I won’t buy a fixer-upper, because I do, but the fixes have to justify the amount of time invested, and be countered by the fact that the item is very special.

I know these photos are not the best, but you can get a look at this pretty 1930s evening jacket.  When I took the photos, I was still considering the purchase.  The price was quite reasonable, and I just liked the overall look of it with the bell-shaped sleeves and the big ruched collar.

The first sign of trouble was that before I even got the jacket off the rack, bits of shattered silk lining were fluttering to the floor.  That in itself is not a deal-breaker though.  I can live with a bit of shattered silk, and I can even make that false promise that I’ll get around to replacing it one day.

The thing that changed my mind was the condition of the velvet, especially in the area of the collar.  There is just no way to make the jacket look like anything except what it is – a much-loved, worn out little coat.  I can see this in someone’s perfectly styled “shabby” boudoir, but it was just too far gone for me to consider it.

I did just buy another item with some serious issues.  The difference is that this item – a 1920s black satin robe – can be stabilized and beautifully displayed.  And it matches a chemise I already had.  And, I hate to admit this, but it cost about 75 cents.


Filed under Collecting, I Didn't Buy...

Flea Market Shopping Strategies

I know that I posted my yearly flea market shopping post last week, but after spending a day at my favorite antique flea, it occurred to me that there are a few more words that need to be said about looking for vintage clothing.

First, many people who deal in vintage clothing don’t like to take it to an outdoor sale.  And sometimes they take it, but if it is rainy or windy, they don’t put it out.  If you spot a dealer that has other “girl stuff”, it does not hurt to ask if they also have some clothing stuck aside.

Also, never pass by a box or heap of old linens without looking through it.   You may not be interested in old tablecloths, but crammed into that box with the calendar towels and the woven potholder there just might be a great piece of clothing.  I found my 1950s luggage border print skirt that way.

The same goes for other boxes of things that are related to clothing, but are not of interest to you.  At Liberty last week, one seller had a big box of little boys’ shoes from the 1940s or so.  In the very bottom was one pair of very nice, mint condition, very inexpensive, 1920s pumps.

The 1930s nautical themed print dress in my illustrations was found in a box of old Odd Fellows costumes, which was stuck under the dealer’s table, totally neglected.  Don’t be afraid to look in odd corners of a booth, but ask if if looks like a box is intentional hidden.  You may have discovered that seller’s shopping finds!


Filed under Shopping

Guess the Vintage Item

We all like a good guessing game, right?  Here’s a little one for you to think about.  The object is a sort of dickey, but I’m wanting specifics.  Can you guess the garment this was meant to be worn with?  Actually, there are two correct answers, but the garments in question are very similar.  The teacher in me says you get extra credit for naming both garments.

I’ll reveal the answer tomorrow with vintage photos and drawings showing this item in sartorial context.


Filed under Vintage Clothing

The Fashion Copying Issue

I’ve talked about copying in the past, in the case of Tammis Keefe, and Vested Gentress and even the designs in the last of the Harry Potter movies.  Today the issue is back in the news, prompted by the sharp eyes and double twitpic of Jane Keltner deValle, the  fashion news editor of Teen Vogue.  She remembered one of the dresses in Rachel Zoe’s new line as being identical to one she had used in a photo shoot in 2007.  Turns out she was right, and she posted a double picture showing the original magazine page side by side with the dress in question.  Stylistically, the dresses look identical to me, except the new one is a bit shorter.

According to people who know, Zoe bought the dress from the vintage store credited by the magazine and wore it at least once.  Does being the owner of the dress give her the right to reproduce it and call it her design?

As I’ve said before, there are no copyrights on fashion designs in the US, so legally she does have the right.  So why is this a matter of so much discussion?  I think is is because people somehow feel cheated when they learn that a designer’s work is not his or her creative idea.  When you stop and think about Zoe’s real job – that of fashion stylist – you can see how this might have played out.  She is used to looking at lots of dresses and separating the wheat from the chaff.  Her job is to select what looks good, to recognize great design.  I think it would be interesting to see the “inspiration” behind the other pieces in her collection.

So do I think it is wrong?  I’m not really sure, but I do wish she had been more forthcoming as to the original of the piece.  We all know that J. Peterman buys vintage pieces and then makes faithful copies, but they proudly proclaim the vintage originals of their designs.  And even Kate Moss let Vogue watch her “design” her line, which pretty much consisted of her picking her favorites among vintage pieces presented by her assistants.  But we don’t consider either J. Peterman, nor Kate Moss to be designers, and that is the point.  In order to be taken seriously as a designer, you have to have more than a point of view and a good eye.

And not referring specifically to Zoe, but can we not just admit now that not everyone and her brother are cut out to be designers?  What’s wrong with being happy knowing you are a great stylist, or a great model, or a great actress?



Filed under Viewpoint

Currently Reading: Vintage Fashion Knitwear

The book above, Vintage Fashion Knitwear: Collecting and Wearing Designer Classics, miraculously appeared in my mailbox a few days ago.  I was pretty sure I had not ordered it; my memory is not what it used to be, but still I’d have remembered  something like ordering a book from the UK.  There was no note, no invoice.  So I sat down to look through it and there it was – a full page photo of a Helen Bond Carruthers sweater from my collection.

Suddenly it came to me.  I’d been contacted some time ago about using photos I’d posted here of this sweater, to be used in an up-coming book on knitwear.  I get these requests from time to time, and I always agree, with the understanding that along with the proper credit, I get a copy of the book.

In this case, I really am glad that I got the free copy, because it’s not likely I’d have bought this one unless I ran across it in an actual bookstore.  And the reason is because the title of the book is no indication of what the actual contents are.  Regardless of the title, this is not a collector’s guide, but rather, is a history of 20th century knitwear.

I have nothing against collector’s guides, and in fact I have VFG friends who have written some very excellent ones.  But collector’s guides are geared toward beginning collectors, and I’ve been buying vintage clothing since the 1970s.  What I look for in a book is not how to buy or how to collect.  I’m wanting historic and design information.  Interestingly, that is exactly what this book delivers.

In the past few years there have been quite a few books written on specific types of garments.  There are great books on shoes and hats, on sportswear and couture.  And I love books like this, written by experts who know their topic and are eager to share what they have learned through years of collecting and research.

Though I have not finished reading this one, there are several things I really like about it.  First, it has a variety of illustrations that include vintage photos, period advertisements and other print media, and modern photographs of actual garments.  It really helps to see how the garments were portrayed during the period, but also how the actual garments look.

I also like the fact that the book is arranged chronologically.  To me, this is a no-brainer, but I have quite a few books on clothing that are arranged by topic, rather than by era.  A shoe book might be arranged in chapters on sandals, pumps, boots, and slippers, with these types being from all eras.

Another big plus is that there are lots of label photos, something that can be very useful in dating garments.

There is a bit of technical knitting language used, and I’ve run across several terms and processes with which I’m not familiar.  It really seems to be a case of too much information, as not understanding how the knit object was created does not take much from the enjoyment of learning about the garment itself.

Posted by Amanda in Vermont:

First – Do you still have that sweater (swoon) and … second – You sold me on the book. Interestingly – on Amazon – the new copies are $6 less than the lowest used copy!

Thursday, October 7th 2010 @ 4:24 AM

Posted by Lizzie:

Yes, I do still have the sweater. It’s too pretty to ever think about selling!I have the UK version, but I assume the books are pretty much the same. That is an excellent price!

Thursday, October 7th 2010 @ 5:01 AM

Posted by Ali B.:

Sounds like a great book! I’m a big Kaffe Fassett fan, so even a foreword by him is a selling point. Are the pictures scanned from the book or ones that you took of your sweater?

Thursday, October 7th 2010 @ 9:32 AM

Posted by Sarsaparilla:

What a wonderful sweater – I’m so glad you haven’t sold it! And how fun it must be to see it highlighted in a book! This looks like a book I would enjoy too. Thanks for the review.
– Susan

Thursday, October 7th 2010 @ 9:02 PM

Posted by Lizzie:

These photos are not the exact same ones that are in the book, but they are very similar. I had to retake the shots in a high resolution for the book. And even though the photos in the book are mine, I did not ask for permission to reprint the page, so I took the easy way and posted the originals!

Friday, October 8th 2010 @ 8:59 AM

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Filed under Currently Reading, Designers, Vintage Clothing