News & Events
Discover Mid-America November 2008
Vintage clothing can give one a unique personal ‘look’
story and photos by Sylvia Forbes
Leah Cheney flips through the hangers on a rack with her friends from Chicago, trying to find a 1920s style dress to wear to a girlfriend’s wedding. The girlfriend is wearing a 1920’s wedding dress worn by her great grandmother, and Leah and her friends wants to wear items of the same period. Over at another rack, Taylor Bacon, a drummer, is looking for something in an animal print to wear for his band’s concert on Friday night. In another section of the store, Serenity H. is putting together an outfit to wear for Halloween. She’s decided to dress as “Little Debbie,” of snack cake fame, and is pairing a gingham dress with princess sleeves with lace pantaloons and crinolines, topped with an apron.
All are shopping at Maude Vintage Clothing & Costumes in Columbia, MO, because they think that the “right” piece of vintage clothing will provide a distinctive, personal look they can call their own.
What is vintage, anyway?
“At one point, vintage used to mean anything over 100 years old,” says Ken Coit, owner of Re-Runs in Kansas City. “Now, for clothing, most people consider it to be from the early 20th century up to the 1980s.”
Sabrina Braden, owner of Maude Vintage Clothing & Costumes in Columbia, agrees. “To us, vintage is 1980s and earlier. The ’90s are getting close. When we started our business, people were holding ’70s-themed parties and coming in to find appropriate clothing. Now, they’re giving ’90s-themed parties and looking for ’90s clothing.”
Who is buying vintage clothing?
“The great thing about vintage clothing, is that it appeals to so many,” says Coit. “People pick up certain items, such as jackets, men’s ties, jewelry, handbags or other items, and make it their trademark.”
Coit’s 23 years in business has helped him build up the store’s reputation. Re-Runs draws many customers, including celebrities.
“We get a lot of famous people coming through our doors,” he says. “Faye Dunaway, Natalie Merchant and Chris Cooper are a few that have stopped in. Due to our location, we get most of the bands that come through — many love vintage and incorporate it into their shows. Some of my younger employees know who they are — I often don’t find out until later. On average, we get a celebrity in about every two weeks.”
Not only celebrities shop there, so do the wardrobe assistants for movie productions. Over the years, Coit has provided authentic period clothing for movies, television, theatre and print media. Some of the more notable movies he’s provided clothing items for include Forrest Gump, Truman, Ali, Minority Report and The Road to Perdition.
At Sisters Antiques, in Garnett, KS, which just opened in May, young high school girls are some of their regular customers
“They like the ’50s and ’60s styles,” says Lynn Pickert, co-owner with her two sisters, Paula Scobee and Sandy Stockton. “We also get lots of ladies who are decorating powder rooms, bedrooms, sewing rooms and guest rooms. Many are using vintage clothing to add interest to their home interiors.”
At Maude, lots of families come in to shop. “We also have more middle-aged fashionable women coming in than ever before,” says Braden. “People often come from bigger cities, looking for bargains. We have a couple of customers that come regularly from New York, as well as several Japanese buyers. However, being located in a college town, the majority of our customers are college students.”
Pick up a bargain
When compared with other types of antiques, many vintage clothing items are surprisingly reasonably priced.
“We try to keep things affordable,” says Pickert. “Customers can pick up a 1960s mini-dress for $15 or a nightgown for $22. Many of our dresses are priced from $15 to $20. Our most expensive hat is $25, but we have them down to $5.”
Eileen Miller, owner of Recollections, in Guthrie, OK, has the same philosophy on pricing. “I want all age groups to be able to afford to buy things at my shop.” Braden offers a variety of prices. “Our most expensive T-shirt is a tour shirt for a band, which is $50. However, we have T-shirts as low as $3. Our dresses average $12, but go as low as $6.50.”
Pricing is similar at Re-runs, says Coit. “People can buy a dress here for $6, but we have prices all the way up to $250, for an exquisite ball gown. Our 1970’s polyester clothing goes anywhere from $6 to $45. We always have a sale going on. Within our store, we have a wheel people can spin, to get a discount.”
The shops owners agree that pricing can range from about $3 to upwards of $300, depending on the condition and scarcity of the item. Authentic Victorian items may sell for $200 to $300, and truly rare items may go for $500 or more.
In vintage clothing, what’s hot depends on the type of customer. Styles cycle, so what’s hot one year may not be the next. At Recollections, vintage shoes and hats are popular right now. Also, college-age men often come in looking for 1950s fedoras. Many women who stop in are searching for 1930s and ’40s dresses. At Sister’s Antiques, hats are always hot. Bellbottoms are back, as well as ’50s and ’60s styles.
At Maude, Braden finds men’s ties and suspenders to be selling well right now, as well as crinolines. She’s also finding that ’70s dresses and ’70s high waist jeans are extremely popular. Coit sums it up well. “We get a variety of customers. That’s one of the secrets of a successful business. All ages of people come in, each looking for something different.”
A variety of items
Storeowners never know where they might obtain outstanding vintage clothing. “I’ve looked at merchandise in burned out houses as well as in seldom visited attics. Sometimes people bring in van-loads of clothing at a time,” says Coit.
Much of the clothing is useable, but occasionally some exceptional pieces are found. “Right now we have a 1940’s sage green sheath, beaded on the front, with a matching overcoat with a mandarin collar and frog closures,” says Pickert. “We’ve priced it at $95. We recently sold a 1920’s nightgown in pale pink, which had a pleated bodice and empire waist, and was just exquisite. We also had a pale pink bed jacket from the 1910s. It was made of sheer crepe, with a collar and short sleeves edged with ivory lace. It tied in back and had a little flounce below the tie, which flared out over the hips.”
Braden also has a couple of outstanding pieces. “One piece we have in right now is a 1920’s cream, sleeveless lace dress, in very good condition. It has a full skirt below the knee. It is not lined; it probably would have been worn with a dress-length slip. It has a matching lace bolero jacket. Another nice item is a delicate, 1950’s Sac’s Fifth Avenue dress, in a red and green paisley.”
Two items of interest at Re-Runs are a 1980’s dress, in fuchsia, navy and gold, created by Alfred Fiandaca, a third generation designer in Boston and New York City. Fiandaca made clothes for Audrey Hepburn, Julie Andrews, Lady Bird Johnson, Anita Baker and many other famous personalities. A second item is a 1915 wedding dress, made of silk and lace and priced at $225.
At Recollections, for sale is an authentic Victorian wedding dress, a gauzy shorter tea length made of lace and tulle, with little rosettes. They also have an authentic 1920’s blue flapper dress with lots of white beading at the neck, waist and hem. It’s an even more unusual piece because it is in a large size.
While any type of vintage pieces can be collectible, some items have established a following. One popular line is the Enid Collins handbag.
Collins manufactured whimsical handbags in Texas in the 1960s and ’70s. These were actually rectangular wooden boxes with handles. Collins developed themes for the bags, such as “Four Seasons” and “Sea Garden,” and decorated the handbags with paint, sequins and rhinestones, trimming them with mirrors, leather and brass fasteners. Collins’ wooden handbags can bring anywhere from $10 to $400, depending on the condition and scarcity of the design.
Because fabrics age over time, and wear out with lots of use, some fashions are becoming harder to find.
“You don’t see much Victorian any more, because it is so fragile,” says Pickert. Coit notes that clothes from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s are getting scarcer all the time, too, and therefore more collectible. Other examples of vintage collectibles include Bakelite jewelry and any type of jewelry signed by the designer.
Today, it is hard to find authentic clothes from the 19th century. Many people are interested in them, especially those of the Civil War time period, as Civil War reenactments are popular throughout the United States. Soldier uniforms and ladies dresses during the Civil War period are extremely collectible.
There is not enough authentic Civil War clothing that has remained in good condition to outfit all the reenactors. Also, most people in earlier times were shorter and thinner, so much of the clothing available does not fit today’s body shapes. That’s where Jeanine Berrier, owner of Back to Basics, steps in.
Berrier, a seamstress, specializes in making period clothing in as authentic a manner as possible. “I’ve been sewing all my life. My grandmother taught me. She was the daughter of a Civil War mother, so I took what she did as gospel.”
Berrier not only makes Civil War clothing, but also makes flapper dresses, prairie dresses, pantaloons, camisoles and clothing for almost any period requested.
“Right now, before Christmas, I get lots of requests for Victorian clothing. In the springtime, more people are interested in the Civil War. I also do World War II clothing — people are now doing reenactments of USO shows during that time period.” Berrier recently sewed a schoolmarm’s costume for a historical program about one-room schools. She also recreated Abraham Lincoln’s frock coat for a customer.
Berrier prides herself in her commitment to authenticity. She doesn’t use zippers for clothing for eras that would have had drawstrings. She makes buttonholes by hand for earlier eras, just as they used to before buttonhole attachments on sewing machines were invented. “If you’re just doing a costume for a performance, you can get by, but if you want clothing for reenactors, you need to make it as authentic as possible,” she says.
One way Berrier maintains authenticity is to buy an actual dress of the period. “Sometimes I buy a ‘bucket dress.’ That’s a dress that’s beyond repair, which we take apart for the pattern.” Once she has the pattern, she can make the same dress in a variety of fabrics, changing the color, trim, or other aspects. “Each piece I make for a customer is unique. I never make two pieces exactly alike.”
Because of her commitment to accuracy, her clothes have appeared in movies and in historical documentaries on television. For one movie, Gracie, which takes place in the 1930s, she had to make three identical dresses for the lead.
Berrier is available to make clothing for anyone. “The fun part of my job is working with people. I’ll interview (and measure) a person before I make a piece. The reward to me is when they put it on, and I see the surprise and pleasure in their face.”
Customers can contact her at 785-883-2559 to set up an appointment at her store in Wellsville. It usually takes about a week for her to sew a custom order.
Things to consider when buying vintage clothing
If people are just starting out, what should they look for when buying vintage clothing?
“The first thing to consider is,” says Braden, “are they collecting, or are they looking for items to wear? If collecting, they may want to look for unique designer pieces, whether wearable or not. If they’re looking to add to their wardrobe, one of the first things to look for is comfort. For example, many 1940s blazers are made of wool — some may find them hot and scratchy. Also, look for items that have a broad range, items that will work with the other clothes in their closet.”
Miller suggests that buyers look closely at workmanship. “There are lots of look-alikes out there. If unsure about authenticity, ask. Reputable dealers will answer honestly. Also, if a person is planning to wear the item, keep in mind whether it is cleanable. If it is dry cleaned or washed, will it fall apart?”
Berrier suggests looking at the wear on an item. “There was no deodorant back then. Also, collars are often stained and body oils are hard to get out. Be sure that the items don’t have stains that can’t be removed.”
There are usually clues within a clothing item, to help with dating its age. For example, metal zippers were not used in men’s pants until 1927, and women’s dresses until 1930, so items with metal zippers should not be listed as being older than this. Plastic zippers were invented in 1940, but were not used much until the 1960s. Garment care labels were not added to clothing made in the U.S. until 1971.
For more tips on how to date vintage clothing, visit http://www.vintagefashionguild.org/content/view/659/107/ , a website run by the Vintage Fashion Guild, an international association of sellers of vintage clothing.
Something for everyone
Because of the many eras of clothing, and many styles, fabrics, and designers, there’s always an item that appeals to someone, no matter what their taste. Miller gets to the heart of the enjoyment of vintage clothing. “There’s always going to be a future as long as people appreciate something that has lasted so long.”
Sylvia Forbes is a freelance writer based in Fayette, MO. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An Overview of Vintage Clothing Styles by Decade
1910s – late Edwardian age, with elaborate, form-fitting clothes, corsets, petticoats, and dresses with tiny waists
1920s – beginning of modern women’s liberation, with women getting the right to vote. Clothing started to reflect freedom, as hemlines started to go up; corsets were discarded; dresses were shapeless rather than tight-fitting, giving freer movement; flapper dresses popular in the later part of the decade
1930s – Style came back into clothing; long full dresses with beautiful tailoring; much more flattering to the female form than styles of the 1920s; zippers became widely used
1940s – large shoulder pads started being worn; beautifully tailored women’s suits became popular, in new fabrics of rayon and gabardine; smocking also common; dresses often were ornamented at the hip; nylon stockings became common; some dark colors worn during wartime
1950s – full skirts came in, along with crinoline slips; styles were more relaxed, more girlish, like in the TV show Happy Days; poodle skirts, button-down white shirts, more easy-care fabrics started being used, such as Dacron and Orlon; pencil skirts also popular. In the late ‘50s, the Kennedy era came in, with straight skirts, basic black and more classic styles
1960s – this was a time of wild fashion, psychedelic colors; lots of variation with tie-dyes, mini-dresses, boots, leather, fur, feathers, fringe, form-fitting clothing clothes
1970s – the disco era; clothes were often toned down versions of the ‘60s; metallic fibers were used more
1980s – many clothes reference back to the 1940s styles, but with exaggerated shoulder pads.
Back to Basics
(for recreations of vintage clothing)
Maude Vintage Clothing
For Sylvia Forbes’ comments on