Granny Chic: Why Old is Gold

It occurred to me today as the lady who squeezed in beside me at the half-off 80’s shirt rack was mumbling the same senseless phrase over and over like a deranged rosary chant, that vintage frock shopping is not for the faint of heart. It’s the great equalizer, attracting bargain hunters, big-city fashionistas and the clinically crazy alike who more often than not, stand toe-to-toe fighting over a $2.00 throwback to the Mrs. Roper muumuu era.

I’ve been digging for couture diamonds in the rough at a penny’s price since a teen-age I know what you did last summer stint at the Salvation Army thrift store. Sifting through bags of donated goodies – some flawed, some fabulous- brought unexpected thrills and led to many, many more shopping sprees in the retail dumping grounds for Grandma’s Eisenhower-era duds. Wherever I trod in this world, a retro clothes safari is sure to follow. My goal? To one day have enough stops and stamps on my vintage store passport to put them on the back of a shirt, like that old Rush concert tee you wanted to rip off your boyfriend and wear yourself in 1987. I have traversed in an inestimatable number of store doors on the way to my goal – criss-crossing the globe to establishments in Tromso, Rome and Tokyo. I’ve found many a memorable outfit. One of my favy-faves is the aqua and gold-beaded 1970’s inaugural gown I was proudly given by its original owner, a well-known speechwriter on Richard Nixon’s staff. Not one to let my dresses sit idly by, I wore it to the opera in Minneapolis, taking more than a tad bit of attention away from the mezzo-Soprano soloist during a red carpet walk. My beaver fur coat, genuine flapper confection, WWII wood-block bathshoes and cadre of polyester-blend shirt-skirt combos that could pass in the dim light of winter as Prada ready-to-wear, are also cherished holdings. I confess my closet looks more Nicole Richie and Mary Kate Olsen than Pamela Harrington cum Clinton/Pelosi.

I wear my found treasures everywhere, from the Dairy Treat to the office. And why not? While one time out of ten I look like a Project Runway fashion challenge gone freakishly wrong, I’m usually the chicest girl on the K Street catwalk, about 3-6 months ahead of the Phoebe Couture, Tracy Reese and Marc Jacobs trends. Andre D’Natale would be so proud! Buyers beware though: donning blasts-from-the-past is truly for the brave as you must be prepared for the circus-freak stares, whiplash headturns and shocked second looks. Is a fox head stole or 60’s velvet robe worn as an overcoat really so wrong? People ask me at least one a week what drives my passion for recycled fashion. (Note: Save an apocolyptic mushroom shift dress, my loving, bearded Mr. Kotter man has grown to accept it, happily dropping me off at the thrift shoppe while he shops at the computer superstore. Mr. Kotter, have I told you today how very grateful I am you have the patience of a saint and can spend 60 precious minutes weekly looking at motherboards?)

I’ve thought about my synthetic fabric addiction long and hard and here’s the rub: just like my DVF wrap-dress original, vintage treasure hunting fits me like a glove. I have a taste for the unexpected, constant surprise, unique stand-outs and luxe on a Happy Meal budget. Retro pursuing gives me all of this, and the intoxicating mystery of the frocks’ storied history. Peasant or baroness, debutante or showgirl, it’s often hard to tell who owned it. If only genealogical charts could be done on cheongsams. While the general public may not understand the sprint to Porta Portese at sunrise, it seems uber-designer Vivienne Tam does. She waxes in China Chic, her insightful new tome of Pac Rim culture,

I was curious about ways of dressing and fascinated with second-hand clothing. I bought bags and bags… Each dress has its own story. I can imagine the woman who wore it and the details of her life. When I looked at the dress to study its construction, I could almost see her skin inside. It made me aware of the past.

While not quite as academically pure as studying the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, vintage fashion is anything but vapid. It enables us to uniquely express the essence not only of who we are, but who were by slipping on a little bit of old magic. It’s also 75% cheaper than a shopping spree at Anthropolgie.

For those wanting to try vintage treasure-troving on for size, I offer the following learned hints culled from my very own glorious triumphs and tragic mistakes: always seek out a fall church sale and absolutely be there when the doors open for the very best selection; if it’s in an Episcopal house of worship, all the better. Those Anglicans not only possess the quaint Book of Common Prayer and the most authentic communion wine, but older female parishioners with the most fabulous gowns, shoes and capes on the planet. Next, don’t be afraid to brave the line and try garments on in the store. Dust and discarded clothes on the fitting room floor shouldn’t scare you, urine should. Sizing and fit for a dress from decades past is wildly unpredictable. If you have a waist bigger than 27’ or a broad swimmers back, breathe in very deeply and look in the large section. Many golden-oldie outfits are made for freakishly thin June Cleaverites and a size small would only fit Kirsten Dunst. Lastly and most importantly, get a marvelous seamstress and have original vision for your purchase. Imagination is your only limit. I chop up my frocks like Edwina Scissorhands and have my Cinderella sewer stand at the ready to revamp the zippers and put it all back together again. Good luck. I wish you good times and thrilling finds, like the Louis Vuitton purse I snapped up for less than a sushi dinner at Nobu or a pie at Waldo’s Pizza. Please write me and tell me of your adventures and favorite found merch stories. I’m thinking of writing a book on the topic. As for me, I’ll be walking the floors of my local vintage warehouse with visions of Dita Von Teese and Shirley MacLaine – sparkling as she did in the original Ocean’s Eleven – dancing in my head.

(Otherwise known as Duchess of the Throwback Frock)

P.S. I can’t compose a column mentioning couture without giving a shout-out to my good friend and beloved fellow fashionista who writes our Postcards from A Sandy Place Column. She’s back in the sandbox and we are holding her close in our thoughts. While donning her camoflauge, I know she’s dreaming of Prada and BCBG’s best. Can’t wait to be back in the Saks shoe department with you soon! I’m holding a pair of Marc Jacobs peep-toe shoes for your return to our shores. SWAK!