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Correspondence: 1930s for Special Occasions

I’ve been friends with American Magpie for 24 years! It was delightful to hear from her when she got in touch to ask  about vintage style for special occasions.

I would like to start the process of amassing some wardrobe pieces in a 1930s style (dresses, mainly). I’m looking for fairly simple ones, not high fashion examples of the genre, but ones with a nice drape that show off my, um, hour-glassiness, to good advantage. I’m really not a dress-up person – work clothes are mainly dark trousers, a nice blouse and a scarf, and I grub around in gardens and on hiking trails enough that casual clothes are still jeans and tshirts. But on occasion I do like to dress up and I prefer the simple dress, seamed stockings, hat and a coat look to more contemporary styles. Can you recommend places (on line, preferably) where I could look for clothes like these? I suspect it would be much easier if I could just make them myself, but I don’t have a sewing machine, or a room (or a table,even) to devote to learning how to do this. Maybe down the road, but not now … so I’m looking to buy things ready-made. Any ideas?

Hi hon, oooh, the 1930s look! So lovely, so troublesome…the 1930s were when modernism really hit its stride sartorially, and fabric prints and tailoring veered off in lots of quirky directions. Personally, with my curves, I am a 1940s gal. But if you want the 1930s, then by the Goddess, you shall have it. It just so happens that here in New Zealand, we are coming up on Art Deco weekend in Napier, and so lots of us here in the Antipodes will be getting their 1930s on as well.

This is a good website to just get ideas about the 30s look: Fashion-Era.

And here’s another one: Giant Pants of the 30s.

In the 1930s you would have day dresses – a range of dresses or outfits worn during the daytime – and, if you were so lucky, evening dress. Day dresses had hemlines between the knee and the calf, most of the time – the flapper’s naughty hemlines were over – usually had sleeves, and were often accesorized with a hat and gloves. Smart suits were also worn during the day, made of fabrics from wool crepe to tweed. Chanel got started with her suits in the 1930s. Evening dress was made of more glamorous fabrics, and accessorized with jewelry, long gloves, and corsages. I’ve had a long, bias-cut, 30sish black evening dress in my wardrobe for 20 years. It still fits (just!) and still gets worn.

Blog inspiration can be found at SammyD’s Vintage (overview with hints), Kitty’s Vintage Kitsch (tutorial!) and The Dreamstress. I shared The Dreamstress’ “Gran’s Garden” 1930s dress with American Magpie, who said it was just the thing, but that she couldn’t sew.

Now, where to find these looks ready-made? To evoke a 1930s garden party for under $75 US,  my #1 recommendation is going to be hitting up consignment stores or eBay. Tea-length floral silk/rayon dresses and tea-length skirts, bias-cut or pleated, are not at the top of the fashion hit parade at the moment, which means consignment/eBay is a great source. Vintage Coldwater Creek and Liz Claiborne, in rayon or silk, often has lovely 1930sish lines. There was an Art Deco revival in the 1970s, so to find ’70s vintage that looks ’30s, search on “does 30s” or “does 1930s” to find 70s-does-30s and 80s-does-30s styles.

A range of EBay finds: Laura Ashley, Karen Millen, and Stop Staring.

A range of 30sish EBay finds: Laura Ashley “day dress”, Karen Millen evening dress, and Stop Staring dress that could be day or evening.

If you want to spend between $100 and $200 US, there’s a site called Trashy Diva that does ravishing retro dresses, and their Obi dress, on sale now, has a great 30s-like line. I am happy to vouch for their fabrics and say that this would be a fab investment special occasion dress, flexible for all kinds of events. Looking around, I also found some appealing, well-priced reproduction 30s and 40s dresses at Stop Staring, Heyday, and ModCloth. And, of course, there are custom vintage reproduction dresses galore on Etsy – their 1930s selection seems skewed towards cotton daywear. I recommend Heart My Closet, especially the Ivy, Darcy, or Serena pencil dresses. Because they are custom made you can request a tea-length skirt, which takes them to the 1930s.  The Dreamstress also takes commissions, if her schedule allows.

We tend to focus on dresses, for some reason – we’re all in love with the idea of the magic dress – so I encourage you to consider top/skirt combinations. If you have curves, it can be far easier to find a great-fitting top/skirt combination than it is to find a bias-cut dress that fits just right. For a true 30s look, necklines were high, and most blouses had some sleeve.

Would have been worn during the day with hat and gloves.

1930s skirt ensembles from a pattern.

For some retro-flavored tops and skirts, here’s a stealth source: Pendleton! The Tuck it Up, Tie Front, and double-breasted blouses look great to me.  (I find vintage Pendleton on eBay less appealing than their new stuff,) I also love this tie-neck knit top from Talbots. Both Pendleton and Talbots have lots of petites, recommended because I know American Magpie is, like me, petite in height.

Why are you not going to the Pendleton web site right now?

Strikingly retro Pendleton tops from their current sale.

Shoes and accessories can take clean-lined contemporary clothes in a vintage direction. How about investing in some vintage 30s jewelry – such as Bakelite bangles, Czech glass necklaces, paired rhinestone dress clips, brooches for coats or dress/blouse lapels, Trifari costume jewelry, rock crystal necklaces. The 1930s were not one of the great jewelry eras, due to the Depression, so I’d add 1920s and Art Nouveau necklaces and bracelets to the mix. Pearls have never been more affordable thanks to Chinese pearl farmers (eBay, Fire Mountain Gems, your favorite local bead store). Rennie Mackintosh silver, and silver and marcasite jewelry, are also perfect for the Art Deco look.

To avoid overdoing it with gloves, hats, jewelry, scarves, costume jewelry, etc. when they were all worn more frequently, a lady would get dressed, put on her acessories, and then take one accessory off. Also, for a true 1930s look, stick with smooth body-toned hosiery, possibly with seams. Fishnets were trampy back then!

Lastly there’s yet another Art Deco revival happening out there – you can thank the upcoming Great Gatsby movie for that – so I would look in your favorite stores this season for Art Deco-flavored tops to team with skirts or Giant Pants.

I know I just recommended this book in another recent post, but I Capture the Castle has a lot of commentary about women’s clothing in the 1930s. It’s also a great story that you can share with your stepdaughter.

Coda: After more conversation, and an exchange of photographs and measurements,  I mailed American Magpie a vintage silk dress that was waiting patiently in my closet, in an international clothes swap. Here’s a picture of the dress. The long lines, ditsy print, and fine chiffon ruffles give it a 1930s feel.

30sish dress

A 30s-ish dress that’s about 10 years old. Silk chiffon/light crepe, with pearl shell buttons.

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Selling Grandma’s Vintage Fur

Dear Internet, you are asking me a LOT about how to sell a vintage fur coat. Because I love you and want to help you out, here is a follow up to my piece on Grandma’s Vintage Fur. This is for everyone who wants to sell their vintage fur coat, stole, or other item. I’m also posting public answers to some of the more interesting questions that have come my way.

The Step By Step Guide to Selling Your Vintage Fur[Read more]

"I was a young 'un at Oogli, shy as a girl to begin/Aggie de Castrer she made me, and Aggie was clever as sin..." Poem by Rudyard Kipling, photo courtesy of Digitalpix!
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Vintage Clothing Matchmaking

"I was a young 'un at Oogli, shy as a girl to begin/Aggie de Castrer she made me, and Aggie was clever as sin..." Poem by Rudyard Kipling, photo courtesy of Digitalpix!

Both this eau de nil short kimono and the antique paper fan were gifted to me.

Comments are still streaming in over at the all-time #1 favorite post here, Grandma’s Vintage Fur. There is one poignant theme that I want to address: that of wanting second-hand, somewhat valuable, once-loved garments to have a new life. It comes up whenever I buy a “Sadie von Scrumptious” dress online or in person: the sellers are thrilled at the idea that the dress will be worn and seen.

This idea is so powerful that one vintage-dress-loving blogger’s series, The Secret Lives of Dresses, got turned into a novel. The wistful tales of these anthropomorphized garments are irresistible, and show us the drive behind playing vintage clothing matchmaker.

Sometimes a garment comes to my hands , or emerges from the wardrobe archives, that is really great…for a friend. Three tricky things can come up with this:

  • It IS used, after all – And not everybody is comfortable with used clothes.
  • It isn’t how your friend sees themselves -You think your friend looks fantastic in it, but they’re unsure. It may not be their usual color or labeled size, or it may look strange until the right person puts it on.
  • Maybe you’d like money for it – A toughie! I have had this come up twice for me with thrifting finds. Keeping finances out of the friends zone is usually for the best. Still, one time it was an item I’d been asked to look for, and the other time, if my friend hadn’t bought it somebody else would have, with such an immaculate designer item. I offered it to her with the tag on for just-reimburse-me. If I haven’t thrifted it and I do want some money, I usually post it online or talk to the people at appropriate consignment stores. They are not my friends, they are fellow business people.

I do find that playing vintage matchmaker works best with:

  • Designer items – I admit this with some reluctance, but it does give everyone a shared idea of provenance and quality.
  • Natural fiber items – Yes, polyester is veritably vintage, but it doesn’t time-travel so well.
  • Items that match a person’s aesthetic very strongly. Hard to lose here.

As a giver, be low pressure – an air of generous nonchalance is just right. And when in doubt as a receiver, either say no kindly-but-firmly, or, if you’re on the edge, give it a chance. Keep it for a season and see if it fits, or ask when you accept, “If it doesn’t work out for me, can I share it with another friend?”

Vintage matchmaking gets awkward with family. It’s when it’s family that we feel bad about saying no to the closet full of 1970s knits, or coveting the bolt of Italian silk gathering dust in that same closet. Or it’s when we are pressured to take ALL of Grandma’s vintage clothes – the ones we covet as well as the ones we don’t. (My own grandmother, by the way, was much more gracious than that – hi, Grandpenny! That’s your fan in the photo above!)

Lastly, accept that the item is going on to its new life. When you are gifting something, especially with dramatic items or whole outfits, you have your idea of what will happen to it. The new owner definitely has their own.  Would the person who gave me that mink stole be pleased that I had it converted into a scarf and used the scraps to line a cat bed? I’m not sure. Maybe if I shared my own stories about wearing the mink scarf, they’d be reconciled.

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Furs And Money, Part II

1920s arcade card featuring Fannie Ward and a sable coat ready to run away on all those feet!Some past posts have been particularly popular – here’s some follow up on them.

Grandma’s Vintage Fur…  Recent comments show that people are getting ready to sell their vintage furs. I did the rounds of the vintage/resale stores in Wellington this past weekend. Furs I’d noted there a month or two prior were sold, and ladies were trying on furs. Yes,  sightings of vintage store customers trying furs. So if you’re going to sell, this month and next month are prime.

Also, thanks to the super-stylish Alison for this tip – the last full-service furrier in New Zealand is Mooney’s in Dunedin. Remakes and repairs, take them there! Alison and I also agreed that the Antipodean retailer Cue is, in fact, a stealth petites store, and their partner retailer Veronika Maine is for taller women.

Living In NZ, Shopping Overseas… Had a fascinating discussion with an international retail maven who pointed out that one item leading to higher NZ prices is that “suppliers in NZ pay the GST tax every step of the way. In other countries (such as the US) wholesalers are exempt from sales tax.” But don’t the suppliers here get their GST tax paid back, eventually? “Yes, but they do have to provide the cash up front.” Retail Maven also agreed that, because Kiwis are used to paying the higher prices, retailers in NZ go ahead and charge them.

Cupcakes Against the Abyss  Oddly, the same week that the Very Vintage Day Out was a huge hit in Auckland,  I was asked a lot, “So when is the retro trend going to die? When will it stop?” Plenty of people are going ahead and starting the stylistic future (hello, Black Milk and your galaxy leggings) – I’m particularly impressed with older women’s contemporary style in Wellington. On the other hand, retro has never been more accessible, more fun, and more widely understood. Retro overall has joined Goth, Steampunk, and Rave/Electronica as an alternative lifestyle choice centered around events, dance, and music, with a significant style/dress component.

Real life has been keeping me away from the computer, including lots of freelance work, burlesque hosting, and outdoors winter preparation. Coming up soon: thoughts on color and style, how to get the most out of a photo session, a page on emceeing/hosting, heretical thoughts on red lipstick failures, and some house/home posts.

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Vintage Precious Jewelry: Understanding, Buying, And (Not) Selling It

Vintage jewelry seems to baffle people as much as, if not more than, vintage furs. And it has an even higher cargo of expectations about its value and emotional significance. Plus, who doesn’t like looking at shiny sparkly things? So: a post about vintage precious jewelry.

In my early 20s, I lucked out with a part-time  job at a high-end jeweler. The jeweler was a kind and artistic man, and he told me about the pieces he made, the stones he used, and what was and wasn’t worth one’s dollar. I came away with a lifelong appreciation of jewelry. A month ago, I learned that he had died, which made me sad. So, this post is for you, Vaughn.

What Is Vintage Precious Jewelry?

Vintage precious jewelry = mid-Victorian to modern jewelry made with gold, silver, platinum, and precious stones, including pearl strands.

People often assume that all vintage precious jewelry was like Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels – they visualize spectacularly valuable pieces.

Hey, I wish it was all like this too

Elizabeth Taylor and her emeralds. Brooch on right is Bulgari.

But there was a huge range of items, many of them for the mass market:

Vintage jewelry examples.

Left to right: rose gold bow/heart locket, 1940s diamond engagement ring, multi-stone bracelet, Victorian Bohemian garnet brooch, Art Nouveau amethyst and gold lavalier pendant.

These smaller pieces blend into the lives that 95% of us live without being overly formal or ostentanious. They can add vintage style to a contemporary outfit, and be the perfect finishing touch for a vintage or pin-up event.

Behind the cut: more information about jewelry economics, when you should and shouldn’t sell old jewelry, how to tell if metals and gems are precious, and what I learned working at that high-end jeweler.

[Read more]

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Grandma’s Vintage Fur: Is It Valuable? Is It Ethical? How Do I Sell It?

Now for a much more seasonal post: vintage fur. UPDATE! After oodles of queries I have created a new post, Selling Grandma’s Vintage Fur. This includes a vintage fur price range list for the winter of 2012/2013. You may find answers to fur price questions. I have also created, in January 2015, a second post, Furs You Can’t Sell: what to do with vintage endangered fur pieces.

Vintage fur calls for one's most demented smile. Moment of madness captured by Digitalpix.

Another image courtesy of Digitalpix!

I am dealing with a spate of questions from people about vintage furs. I love both taxidermy and vintage clothing – the stuffed dead animals in my retroish living room make me a go-to person for this.

I know that fur is not a neutral topic! People have strong feelings about it! One time, my fur-clad stepmother had paint thrown on her by anti-fur protestors outside a New York furrier. But, still, the old furs endure, and they are emerging from closets as my friends’ grandmothers pass away, and what do you do with them?

I’ve put together some vintage fur basics, compiled from what I have seen online, what I have seen selling and not selling at vintage clothing stores around the world, and the furs I’ve had through my hands lately.

Lots of information behind the cut about what makes a vintage fur valuable, how to keep your fur, ways to recycle it, and how to sell it.

[Read more]