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Make Do and Mend In Action

1940s British rationing propaganda, pretty in pink!Have you noticed that overall silhouettes and color trends are the same as last year? That means it’s a good year to be a fashion cheapskate. So, as we transition into autumn and winter here in NZ,  I went through my closet and thrifting finds with “Make Do and Mend” in mind. This motto still floats around the collective consciousness after its use in Britain during WWII.

After the review, I had three piles; one for the next clothing swap, one for the dry cleaner, and one for repairs. The pile for repairs was dark and gloomy: blacks, brown, gray. New Zealand’s fashion “black out” has come and got me with my wardrobe basics. Seven garments needed repairs or alterations I could do at home: hem repairs, nipping in at the waist, or taking up sleeves/legs.  This wasn’t celebrity-level tailoring, but it does make a difference. Most of the garments were pants – what was with all the hem stitch failures? Maybe dance classes last year had something to do with it.  Knits didn’t stop me, I take knits up and in with the three-stitch knit/stretch stitch on my Janome sewing machine. And here’s how to take up jeans without losing a special hem.

Then, I confronted my raincoat. This coat is a warm, petite-sized, clean-lined raincoat – a valuable Wellington wardrobe component. Unfortunately, last year, I managed to scorch it against a space heater, bending over to scrutinize a drawer full of beaded trim at Three Buckets Full. I was left with an inch-size melted patch besmirching the behind of my coat. DERP. How to fix it?

Raincoat behind before: Sad, sad melted polyester.


Before: Burned rainproof polyester weave.

Raincoat behind after: melted spot is hidden, and what’s not hidden (a small paler area) is no longer the center of attention. A line from a song unites the two birds.

Yes, I do like that song.

After: Say it with me: put a bird on it! The burned spot is hidden under the left sparrow.

That is a lot of black. Maybe some more embroidery?

After: Full length back of coat with embroidery and patches.

The patches are from Calico Jack’s in Wellington, and the patch hot-fixing and embroidery was done by DKGM in Lower Hutt. They were bemused by this non-sportswear commission and worked with me happily. Nowadays, embroidery places can include up to 12 colors in one embroidered design and have about 200 colors to choose from. So go on and challenge them. One caveat: when a finished garment is embroidered, the embroidery goes through the lining, too. Embroidery through the lining bothered me less than a sad melted spot  on my raincoat.

Finally, there were shoes. Wellington’s rain really does a number on leather. Two pairs went for resoling, and a thrifted pair of ankle boots is lined up to have its heel height reduced. Yes, you can have the heel height on a pair of tall shoes or boots reduced – by about 1 cm. Which isn’t a lot, but it can make a difference. It’s not an expensive fix, either, compared to resoling.

As for the rest, I had shoe-polish-and-leather-dye day and it looked like this:

I do actually have shoes in colors but they don't get worn as much

I love that handbag to pieces – the perfect size and shape for me, it was a present from my mother. It’s two years old and after a leather dye touch-up and waterproofing, it’s still going strong.

Later I found two more tins of polish that didn't make it into the picture.

Clockwise from noon: neutral polish, waterproofing spray, beeswax formula, sponge for applying beeswax formula, shoe polishes, a pair of dead pantyhose for buffing, buffing brush, leather dye.

Here is a basic polish technique for plain leather shoes and boots. With tall boots, I generally polish them up to the ankle seam, and only touch up the leg area lightly, if required. You can also shine up patent leather and clean suede shoes.

Any fashion lover who lives in a humid climate has had the awful experience of taking a leather treasure out of the closet and finding it’s been attacked by mold or mildew. I got lucky this time around – only one pair of shoes needed mildew rescue (the dusty-looking pair with the laces in the photo). My preferred fix is cleaning the mildewed leather with a leather conditioner/cleaner (the same kind used for leather upholstery and sofas). Then I place it in a sunny area for a few days, followed by dye touchup or polishing. Light reconditioning is the last step. Don’t condition items too richly in humid climates – that helps mold grow. Don’t store items in humid areas, and check them every couple of months. If a leather coat has that mildew smell in the lining, you are stuck taking it to the specialist leather cleaner.

Now I feel the way we’re all supposed to feel after one of those closet clean-outs – satisfied and reminded of formerly buried favorites. Once those shoes sitting in the sun dry out, I am content.


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.

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I went to the other side of the planet to get away from this. Nothin' personal, Lisa.

Escape From The Prepicenter

I went to the other side of the planet to get away from this. Nothin' personal, Lisa.

True Prep authors Lisa Birnbach and Chip Kidd walk the preppy walk.

Living in New Zealand after being brought up in New England, I am occasionally asked to explain this thing called “preppy.”And I am reminded of how happy I was, myself, to leave preppy style behind.

From the ages of seven to eighteen, my home was a small town just bordering New Haven, CT. New Haven is the demarcation line between NYC suburbs and “real New England”, as indicated by my family’s bitter inter-sibling rift between being New York Yankees fans and Red Sox fans.  My svelte British mom liked New Haven’s Georgian colonial flavor, the brick and shale and clapboard buildings, the streamlined, classic clothes – the look called preppy that is well described here as “British inspired New England styling“. J. Press, the Yale Co-Op (which was its own small department store with in-house clothing brands until the 1990s), and Laura Ashley were just the thing for the tennis lessons and beach club visits.

Today, preppy styles have been given slimline makeovers and an ironic wink, and there are lots of preppy aficionados – even the Preppy Handbook has been updated. The web page for that update, True Prep, is a preppy primer. Pastels, madras, and tailoring take over the streets of Nantucket in the summer.  On the Boston sidewalks, every other person is preppy, and the look leaks down all the way to Washington D.C. According to True Prep, there are now new-prep variants across the country, from Lily Pulitzer southern belles to dignified Northwestern polarfleece. It seems easier for men, somehow, and easier to subvert today (if you’re read right). Lisa Birnbaum’s witty interview here sums up the subdued ethos of preppiness very well. “Grey and navy,  navy and grey, pink and navy…”

Pastels. For days.

All well and good. For me, as a teenager in the 80s, before the ironic makeover, preppy style in its 80s apotheosis made me think I hated clothes.

I took after my dad’s side of the family physically, with an Eastern European chassis. My cheeks, hips, chest – everything, really – curved. My hair waved and tousled, neither preppy straight nor 80s full, in the years before straighteners. I tried to be a hip ’80s New England teen. Disastrously. Shoelaces with hearts on them (mine had frogs, so wrong), a Ralph Lauren polo, and a Le Sportsac bag. L.L. Bean snow boots in season. A Laura Ashley dress for everyone else’s bar and bat mitzvahs when I was 13. But the pinks and blues and boxiness of 80s wear in New England meant that clothes were just another way for me to be a dork – until I discovered vintage clothing.

Ah, those 80s vintage clothing stores, full of lost treasures. Whatever happened to the burnt-orange 60s evening gown I picked up for a song? The quasi-Chanel 50s suit that even my mom agreed was a good idea? I still have a few pieces of Victoriana from those days, and a retro 40s tilt topper that has since done duty on many a model’s head.

The next step in my style evolution was leaving New England. I relocated to the Philadelphia area. Yes, preppies still roamed, herding onto the Paoli Local R5 commuter train in beige trench coats.  But it wasn’t mandatory. Philadelphia Freedom meant never having to wear a polo shirt again. In 1990, I bought a leather jacket on South Street and never looked back. Henceforth it was all admiring ladies in church hats, Mummers, and clothes from Zipperhead. I spent the 90s after work in sunflower sundresses and boots, polka-dot hot pants, leopard-print leggings from Contempo Casuals, and slinky oddments from the $20 sale bin at Betsey Johnson.  Life got interesting to match the clothes – one memorable evening, I got smuggled into a voguing ball – though I never made it to one of Henri David’s Halloween balls. I’m thinking about the clothes now, but at the time, they were almost incidental, so much was going on.

And then, at 28, I moved to New Zealand…


p.s. All the keys in this bowl belong to beautiful women.

When It’s So Bad It’s Good

There’s a category of vintage clothing summed up by this Venn diagram:

Note that the overlap area isn't large and is murky.I’m a sucker for items that fall into the murky, “so bad it’s good” area in the middle. Mouton coats. Marbled silk prints. Giant pussycat bows. Hats that are ready for lift-off. Brooches that can be seen from outer space. These items have often survived because they’re so distinctive or over-the-top that they got worn once or twice and then got put away.

It’s also illustrated by this vintage 70s dress that I thrifted:

p.s. All the keys in this bowl belong to beautiful women.

"I knew it was going to be a great party when I had to get a bigger bowl for all the keys!"

The dress seems to have been custom-made in Asia in the ’70s. Only the ’70s can explain the totally bizarre, yet very high quality, stretch silk twill, and the enormous collar. Based on the total lack of a waist, it seems to have been made for an edgy matron – I’ll be wearing it with a belt and a slip in the future.

The dress has no zipper and pulls over the head. Easy-on, easy-off.

"Whose keys are these? And which way is the waterbed?"

The dress photos are thanks to Wellington photographer Diana Villiers – see more of her work here.

"The things I've seen!" say these US WWII Navy binoculars.
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If These Binoculars Could Talk

"The things I've seen!" say these US WWII Navy binoculars.These just may be the sexiest WWII Navy issue binoculars ever. You see, they have a story.

I was at a friend’s house and he said, “You’ll like this!” And he showed me two things. First he showed me a Pliocene era articulated Ostridae fossil, complete and articulated, and that was greatly appreciated. Then, later, he brought out the binoculars.

“The story with these is that the former owner’s grandmother accepted these during World War II in exchange for a weekend with her. They would have been worth about $1000 at the time.”

The mind reels. Forget silk stockings. How hot was she, for him to steal the binoculars? What kind of woman accepts high-end military optics as the price of her favors? Maybe one who’s in a local underground militia? Did they burn with chemistry for one another, and the binocular exchange was just an excuse?  Did she think he was a schlub at first, but changed her mind after the weekend of passion? Why did she keep the binoculars?