Vintage Fur Stoles: Your Questions Answered

Pin up Karen Lovegrove models a vintage fur stole for us. Note her use of color and texture contrast so that the stole enhances her style.

Pin up Karen Lovegrove models a vintage fur stole for us. Her clever use of color and texture gives her vintage look contrast and depth. Photo by David Rowe Photography.

It’s late autumn in the Northern Hemisphere – fur stole season. Time to wear your vintage fur stole, or, if it isn’t for you any more, time to sell it. I came back from a trip to an in box PACKED with fur stole queries. With this post, I’m doing my best to answer the most popular questions for the Internet.

What is a fur stole?

A fur stole is a large scarf, wrap, or capelet made of fur and lining, designed to be worn over your shoulders.

Most fur stoles from the 1920s through the 1970s have three layers: the exterior fur, an interior shaping layer made of felt, buckram, or horsehair fabric, and a satiny lining that was worn next to the skin. These different layers and types of fabric make it challenging to dye a fur stole and get good results.

Fur garments, especially accessibly priced stoles, were very popular in Western culture from mid-Victorian times through the late 1960s. Then, styles and ethics changed drastically (this article on the history of fur is excellent)  and the fur piece was no longer the equivalent of an It bag or iPhone. Because of their long association with value and luxury, we still associate high value with furs – even when most people are now carrying technology in their pockets that costs more than most vintage furs.

How do I choose a vintage or faux fur stole to wear?

Simple guideline: wear one that contrasts with your hair. Dark hair? Light stole – white, grey, champagne brown, pink. Light hair? Dark stole. Mid-toned hair? I recommend going darker, very dark brown or black. Or pick a fur that has a contrasting element to your own hair.

Shaped and tailored stoles look best with styles from the 1920s through to the late 1950s. They also work well for crinoline-wearing Victorian costumers.

Our stylish friend Fandangle Fabulus shows us one way to wear a radical limbs-and-all fur stole. Guaranteed to attract attention.

Our stylish friend Fandangle Fabulus shows us one way to wear a radical limbs-and-all fur stole. Guaranteed to attract attention.

A lot of people are revulsed by vintage stoles that have the heads and feet still included. Others are fascinated. If you wear one, people WILL react! The entire-fox-fur stoles are compatible with today’s bohemian looks, if not with today’s bohemian morals. They’re also flexible for cosplay.

How can I tell if my fur stole is real fur or fake fur?

It’s so easy. Trim a tiny snip of the fur from a spot you won’t notice, and set it on fire! If it’s real fur, it will burn cleanly, with a little pale smoke and a distinctive burning-hair smell. You’ll be left with ashes and carbon. If it’s fake fur, it will melt and smoke and smell synthetic. You’ll be left with a black synthetic blob.

Is the furrier who created my fur still in business?

I get this a lot, and I don’t know why, since…people can Google this for themselves. 95% of the furriers of the past are now out of business, particularly in the United States. Many of them, back in the day, acquired furs wholesale and sewed in their own labels. They provided fur care, cleaning, and storage. If your stole has a vintage furrier’s label in it, Google the name, and if nothing significant comes up, your stole is still enhanced by the vintage label and provenance.

How much is my vintage fur stole worth? Can I sell it?

Model Sandra Mabey shows us a silver fox stole. The tipping on the silver fox contrasts with her blue-tipped hair.

Model Sandra Mabey shows us a silver fox stole. The tipping on the silver fox contrasts with her blue-tipped hair.

With furs, older doesn’t mean more valuable: condition, quality, and color have more meaning. Embroidered/monogrammed linings are a plus, as are labels from vintage furriers. Tears in the fur, tears in the lining, or fur that’s thinning/falling out all detract from the value. White or cream stoles are the most valuable. These are often sought for weddings.

Here are some approximate sale values for vintage fur stoles in 2015. If you are selling your stole directly on eBay or Etsy, you will get close to these prices, once you find a buyer. If you are selling via a consignment store, you will get 50% to 60%, but your chances of achieving a sale are far better. People like to choose furs in person much of the time.

  • White/cream/tourmaline mink or fox – $300 – $500 average, $800 – $1000 for something really good.
  • White/cream rabbit – $1oo – $200. Maybe $300 if there’s a matching hat or cuffs.
  • Brown mink, high quality – $300 – $500.
  • Fox fur with head/feet – $150 – $350.
  • Average stoles – medium quality brown mink, squirrel, nutria – $75 – $200.
  • Unusual furs – skunk, dyed, shorn, chinchilla – varies based on fur type and quality. Skunk furs were popular, then “worthless”, and now they have novelty value again.
  • Spotted cat, leopard, ocelot, seal, monkey – CANNOT be sold, see my article about furs from protected/endangered animals.

To sell your fur, follow the advice in my article Selling Grandma’s Vintage Fur. High-end vintage emporium Ziggurat in Wellington noted, “We don’t sell one every week, but the fur stoles sell more often than fur coats. Many people feel more comfortable wearing the stoles, nowadays.”

Here’s an example of two different fur stoles. One is a high value stole. The other is of average quality and value. Compare them and come to your own conclusions….


A high-value vintage fur stole. Light color, tailored shaping, beautiful condition. This is also by a designer still in business today, Oleg Cassini. On sale on Etsy for about $900 US.


An average value fur stole from a standard furrier. Dark brown mink, less detailed shaping, still good quality, glossy fur. On sale on Etsy for $120 US. No designer label noted.

Can I donate my vintage fur stole to a museum?

Only if it has seriously interesting provenance. Because fur stoles were extremely popular from the 1930s through the late 1950s, museums with costume collections often have enough fur stoles.

See my article about donating vintage clothing to museums for more information about this, and to learn how to donate successfully.

There you have it, curious Internet denizens. Good luck with your vintage furs.

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Book Review: Seven Sisters Style

Putting on my tatty Bryn Mawr academic robe here to review a book: Seven Sisters Style, a recent volume about the clothing worn by and inspired by women university students at Seven Sisters universities in America.


My copy on my table…keeping company with another BMC-related book.

You may be familiar with a Japanese photo book, Take Ivy, compiled by four Japanese photographers charmed by the style of young male Ivy League students in the 50s. While their contemporaries were making monster movies, they were at the campuses that incubated the academics for The Manhattan Project. A different way, perhaps, of capturing their post-nuclear monsters – the college sweatshirts and J. Press button-downs are described in brief captions with anthropological reverence and puzzlement. Take Ivy‘s combination of crisp photographs and otherworldly captions made it a long-term classic amongst style historians.

It’s taken another outsider to bring us an intended companion volume. The glamorous author of Seven Sisters Style, Rebecca Tuite, is originally from the UK and spent some undergraduate time at Vassar, the Seven Sisters university in Poughkeepsie, New York. And Vassar has been the focus of much of her fashion history study.

The Vassar connection is important. Through the history Tuite presents, Vassar also comes across as the most troubled locus of media fever-dreams about the American women’s university student. While a Bryn Mawr College article in Life magazine cemented the school’s reputation for “intensity”, a Vassar-focused article in 1937 sparked a fashion craze. These Vassar depictions reached their film zenith with Marilyn Monroe impersonating a Vassar student in Some Like It Hot and their print apogee with the novel The Group in 1963.

Back to the book: this slim volume is a history of clothing styles on Seven Sisters campuses from the 1920s through the late 1970s, far wordier than Take Ivy. These clothes have meaning: they were what women choose to wear at a time when women began to live independent, modern lives. At times Tuite’s connections between wider fashion trends and the university students come across as convoluted, and at other times, a tantalizing sentence and a small photo left me frustrated. Also, photo choices are a problem. In the second half of the book, most of the images aren’t from Seven Sisters schools or students at all, but from journalists visiting the schools or from modeled advertisements for clothes “in the style of.” Perhaps these were chosen to show that The Styles Truly Were An Influence – or perhaps because they tended to feature conventionally pretty students or actual models.


One of the book’s images that troubled me – Mount Holyoke women in 1945: posed and heteronormative (note the Dartmouth banner): in no way representative of the scintillating Mount Holyoke women I know.

Is Tuite’s book made, or undone, by her fondness for the proper, public, preppy side of Seven Sisters style? She’s certainly hit a nerve with everyone who grew up far away from American preppy but dreamed fond dreams about letter sweaters and camel coats. Dames in ragged racoon coats and dungarees are mentioned – they have to be, they were so prevalent – but Tuite only selected photos of them if they were pert-nosed or (with a caption exhaling a sense of relief) particularly neatly groomed. Instead, she lingers most lovingly over the idea of a Vassarite being swept away to New York City on the weekends, dressed in a clever town suit, with a valise containing a demure yet alluring ballgown.

Ahem. The Seven Sisters STILL ARE, Tuite, not WERE…

Tuite’s edited evocation of East Coast prep is so wildly successful that I – with my personal feelings about preppy after growing up in New Haven, CT – felt rebellious and prickly while reading it. After my first browse, I ran out to a local thrift store to feel like my present-day self again. No, wait, that’s where I shopped when I was at Bryn Mawr. AUGH!

An entire perplexing chapter is devoted to the designer Perry Ellis and … I picked up this book to see real Seven Sisters style and history and we were, it seemed, all out of that after Love Story came out.


Another image from the book that troubled me – the abbreviated preppy clothes, the pose, all summing up the ideal and inviting the viewer to see a (Vassar!) student’s body. The fantasy manifest.

The end result is a historical and social overview overwhelmed by the preppy dream: images of autumn leaves, sweaters, gowns, print books, and social status mingled with academic freedom. I truly wish I’d enjoyed this book more. Am I frustrated about the book itself, or about the perceptions of Seven Sisters universities that Tuite has revealed? Can one only enjoy this book if one hasn’t also read The Bell Jar? Tuite is at her best on Vassar, so an entire book by her on Vassar style and women would be a fascinating read. But the allure of the preppy dream led her to decline fully exploring actual Seven Sisters style and how it reflected the fun, freedom, stress, and variety of the students themselves. Ourselves.

I’d like to see a follow up by somebody less prep-invested that focuses on the style outliers and oddities and otherness consistently sheltered by these institutions. Barnard beatniks and Bryn Mawr medievalists, the millenial students going to class in their pjs (acknowledged yet dismissed by Tuit herself), the emerging trend for university-themed tattoos, and the students turning the style lens back on themselves in student-run style magazines.

Also, there was a Bryn Mawr blazer? WHERE IS MY BRYN MAWR BLAZER?

Bryn Mawr College imagery of actual students: simply irresistible. And, that blazer!

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Anassa Kata! A Look Back at Bryn Mawr College

Happy May Day – the day that makes alumnae of Bryn Mawr College everywhere rather wistful for the campus’ semi-Elizabethan, semi-pagan festivities. Living in New Zealand, on the rare occasions when I am asked where I went to university, the school’s name draws a double take. Despite the Welsh name, Bryn Mawr College is a storied, stony university outside of Philadelphia, one of the Seven Sisters all-women universities. When I went there, it was a quirky feminist university with strong sciences and the problems and politics of many smaller schools. All of us emerged with strong opinions about the place, influenced down to our bones and vocal cords. To this day, many of us speak with a lightly clipped tone.

The Gothic architecture, feminist ritual, and academic stress of Bryn Mawr College.

The Gothic architecture, feminist ritual, and academic stress of Bryn Mawr College.

Aesthetically, the history-steeped campus gave me a lifelong fondness for Arts and Crafts architecture, an interest in the 1930s and in vintage scientific art, and a soft spot for a flowing romantic aesthetic that, today, is conveniently called “steampunk”. And…what about Bryn Mawr style?

There’s a new book out, Seven Sisters Style, that’s meant to be a female-focused version of Take Ivy. I don’t have my copy yet, and I promise you a review when I get it, but all the advance photos seem to be from Smith and Vassar. Possibly because Bryn Mawr has always been a rumpled sort of school.
BMC-IndividualismFor a peek at vintage BMC without having an alumni magazine in front of you, the Tumblr Vintage Bryn Mawr is all that. And Hepburn’s Closet is the current Bryn Mawr College style magazine – I particularly like the sepia-and-vintage-flavored Winter 2013 issue.

The way I remember it, with BMC style, what was important was how you looked from the neck up.  From the neck down, you could be in the black of the academic robes, the white of May Day dresses, or forgettable garb for everyday classes and your shift in the dining hall, but your cabeza was always the same. This began immediately freshman week with your photo snapped at registration and included in the Class Of book, known on the street as “the pig book.” Somehow everyone knew it was called the pig book, or that the guys at X or Y non-Haverford college nearby called it that, but nobody actually used the term. These photos live forever in your college file and make a final poignant appearance in the alumni magazine when you die.

In the 90s, piercings were admired and hair was an experimental subject – cut off, shaved off, occasionally tinted with Manic Panic back when this was actually unusual. I preferred having long hair and I slipped off campus for trims two or three times a year. Once a year, for Hell Week, everyone would apply vamp makeup. Afterwards, I’d wind up helping sophomores remove the unaccustomed cosmetics.

Once you had decided on your hair and donned a leather jacket, a pair of cool boots, and a witty T-shirt, clothes were mostly secondary.  A few of us with romantic flair wore sweeping cloaks in the winter and Indian cotton prints on warmer days. Except for a few bodysuits and a dress or two, I dressed like a crumpled origami boulder, picking up bits at rich people’s thrift stores, and trying to have enough quarters to do laundry. I still feel guilty about sneaking clothes out of the piles and piles and PILES of clothes left for charity in the hallways at the end of the year. We weren’t supposed to touch them. They were supposed to be donated somewhere. But they were so much, so many, and the piles never seemed diminished when I crept away with two or three things.

Katherine Hepburn? For all that she is the school’s anointed Retro Style Icon, I relate more to E. B. White’s adoring essay about how he feels having married a Bryn Mawr graduate. Which you should read immediately.

As deeply pleased as I am to have the Wissahickon schist fortresses of Bryn Mawr’s campus in my history, as close as I still feel to my BMC friends and Back Smoker sisters, the classes of the 1990s are very dispersed today. Wistful as I am on May Day, that feels right. It is our calling to take our uniquely practical fire out into the world. To have adventures, make changes, and work on this planet.

ButMaryLou!I leave you with this enchanting makeup tutorial that reminds me of the blue-tiled bathrooms in the Merion dormitory. It’s labeled as “parody” but, trust me, this is how it’s done, women of the consortium, for making offerings to Athena.

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Home Sewn at the Dowse: Opening Night

Last night, I went to the hectic opening of “Home Sewn” at the Dowse Art Museum – an exhibit profiling the home creators and designers of clothing in New Zealand. Home sewing was a huge part of fashion in this remote isle until very recently, so this exhibit of the finest Kiwi home stitchers have to offer is amazing. The exhibit is free, and you should go, if you like dresses.

Dowse-PartyViewOpening night was a mad gala, the Home Sewn Night of Fashion, packed with hundreds of women wearing dresses and coats they, or a friend or relative, had sewn in New Zealand. A Dowse photographer captured many outfits for a People’s Choice competition. (Which isn’t online just yet,.)


This outfit, sewn and hand-painted with scenes of Samoa by the artist’s mother, won one of the prizes bestowed by luminaries including the designer and historian Doris du Pont.

Dowse-ExhibitCenterAfter our self-made fashion show, we were the first ones to see the exhibit – a vast cool room full of dresses from the 1930s to 2011, all made by New Zealand home stitchers. Yes, Archival People, I turned my camera flash off for these first-view shots. I love the contrast in this photo between the 1950s dresses and the contemporary viewers.

Dowse-ExhibitLeftThe 1960s side of the exhibit.

Dowse-ExhibitRightDresses from the 21st century – though you might not have guessed that at first, looking at the 1950s-esque eau de nil chiffon and the vivid retro sheath.

Dowse-ExhibitPatternsWriters and creators from the Wellington Sewing Bloggers Network got stuck into the pattern corner.

Tomorrow I’ll have shots of the attendees in their self-made garments, so get ready for another picture-weighty post.

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Friday Follies: A Flying Auckland Visit

A weekend or so ago, I took a flying visit to Auckland, indulging in a Saturday to roam around several neighborhoods (K Road, Ponsonby, Herne Bay) and reconnect with some old friends before they left New Zealand. Here’s some of the great places I visited…and one or two not-so-great ones.

Cherry Bishop dress, retro cut, in Japanese cotton with – are you ready? – BUNNIES.

Cherry Bishop’s store in Herne Bay is stocked with well-cut retro-style dresses she’s designed. Two points of difference here: her skirts are flatteringly pleated into waistbands, not gathered. I prefer this tremendously – it makes the dresses more polished and flexible. And she picks out delicious fabrics that you won’t see on 200 other retro-istas, including Japanese cottons and patterns with New Zealand flair. The velvets of her winter dresses are thick and scrumptious, too.

Annex boutique on Ponsonby Road is unexpectedly charming, with stylish foundation pieces like Three Dots and Petit Bateau tees and knitwear, and chic French hair clips and barrettes. “I try to have things you can’t get online,” says the smiling owner.

Avant-garde Scotties boutique has both Auckland and Wellington branches. In Auckland, tucked away in Herne Bay, they have a small branch with a high-end recycle boutique. The sale rack there had some fantastic deals for $100 and under.

Not so great: K Road…otherwise known as Karangahape Road, the local “alternative” hipster strip…it’s also lost several places that gave it charm, like excellent used bookstores and fabric shops. I’ve outgrown the trendy t-shirt and unremarkable vintage stores that remain. And Nostalgia Restaurant, also known as Prohibition, is certainly a beautiful locale. A friend and I, asking if we might have afternoon tea despite our jeans, were dumped at a table outside by an icily soignee woman, who gave us a grubby drinks menu and…ignored us. Not even ow! Honestly, “sorry, ladies, we have a dress code,” would have been better.

Luckily dreamy Jafa Cafe washed the bad taste out of my mouth. From the lushest pancakes ever seen to vegan raw food platters, they have something for everybody, and it’s casual-as.

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Subculture Clothes Versus Workaday Wardrobe

Alice Marks of the Twin Cities

A lovely goth par excellence, getting ready for a night out. Photo courtesy John Morson.

Lots of my friends have two separate wardrobes. There’s the clothes they wear every day – to work, to school, to the supermarket. And then there’s the clothes they wear when they’re participating in subculture activities – dance evenings and productions, goth club nights, medieval or retro immersion weekends, live role-playing games, science-fiction and steampunk conventions. So this post strings together some thoughts and inspiration on the topic.

It’s challenging to afford two wardrobes. Subculture clothing sellers often charge a premium because they are custom-making, or dealing with small manufacturing runs. And don’t we WANT to support our subculture vendors?  Often, in New Zealand, we make the clothes ourselves. Even this isn’t a cost-saver if your houppelande requires 7 meters of fine wool or velvet – the result is that you’re spending both money AND time.

When you are investing in a subculture look, it’s easy to get heedless about workaday clothes. It’s hard for me to get psyched about a new work blouse when I am tempted by sequined burlesque splendor, or the ever-increasing array of Ravishing Retro Dresses.

I hit up a toy from the $2 shop with gold spray paint for the ray gun

Thrifted steampunk, Exhibit A. Thanks again, Digitalpix!

For steampunk and retro, thrifting can come to the rescue. It can help if you’re goth. Because people are wonderful, I and others often get given subculture-relevant items; I am the fortunate recipient of feathered bags, lingerie, flowered hair clips, and lengths of unusual fabric.

Can you combine the two? Yes. You’ll care more about your clothes and appearance. And you’ll just have more fun. One time, a contractor paused in the hallway, scrutinized my cats’ eye glasses, leopard cardigan, and full red lips, and said, “You’re one of those retro girls, aren’t you?” It turned out that we knew people in common, and we were friends for the duration of the contract.

Here’s some good reading on this subject:

Another useful concept to get the most out of both a subculture wardrobe and a workaday wardobe is that of the wardrobe capsule – a group of garments designed to mix and match, so that you get many looks out of relatively few garments. This is a great way to get the most out of a small workaday wardrobe, and to extend the return on stunning subculture items, such as a steampunk jacket or a pin-up dress. Wardrobe capsules are having a moment in blogland, thanks to Polyvore‘s image collages. Some quality inspiration is at two of my style favorites, Wardrobe Oxygen and Inside Out Style.

Then there’s storage space. I’ve seen subculture wardrobes overflow from closet space and trunks to take over entire rooms. I’m incredibly lucky to have two closets that I can use – one is contemporary, and one is vintage/costume. Someday I’ll combine households with a special someone and the jig will be up. In the meantime, hats, wigs, and shoes are still especially difficult to store.

Small but perfectly formed

My vintage/costume closet. Note the clothes steamer beside the closet.

Subculture-signifier hair remains polarizing. In Wellington, New Zealand, vivid tints and streaks of candy colors or silver/white, are surprisingly OK for professionals. Retro hair is also OK… up to a point. (I’d feel better making strong statements about this if I knew retro-coiffed doctors or CEOs outside of the Louise Brooks bob zone.) Simply moving up to Auckland is enough to turn vivid hair into a vivid work problem, and this discussion of pink hair for a scientist discusses the contrast between Boston and London style. These are usually all incorporated into shorter hair styles, and there’s often bias against very long hair for women, and longer hair for men. A full head of candy-neon hair has become a new marker of luxury, indicating that you don’t have to work, or you’re Free of the Man – either way, nothing is stopping you.

I’ve enjoyed the drama and fun of retro and cosplay clothing since I was a teenager. For me part of maturing has been deciding that I deserve to have fun with all my clothes, both workaday/mundane ones and subculture/cosplay ones.


Cosplaying as an elf ten years ago.


Out in the Square 2013, Post I: Burlesque and Retro

Photo post – the Rainbow Troupe’s second performance, and some burlesque and retro style, all at Wellington’s 2013 Out in the Square GLBQT pride day.

Just a hunka' hunka' burnin' love

Miss Honey Suckle as lady Elvis rocked our socks and shook her famous “assels”.

Note the incredible wind bowing down the trees.

Sharing a kiss behind the balloon bunches, right before letting them fly to the skies! Cleverly, they’re in the reverse rainbow order of the backdrop behind them, so they stand out brilliantly.

The butches ranged from boyishly cute to serious swagger!

This year we had both femme beauties and butchy babes for a lighthearted burlesque vision of the 1950s as they should have been.

Yes, I coordinated/produced the Rainbow Troupe again for 2013, with serious production support from Winnie Chester. And what a troupe it was: Salacious Sugar, The Velvet Whip, Atomic Ruby, Miss La Belle, Flic Caracou, Ula Vulk, The Deity Dollicious, and The Purple Rose were our living rainbow, and we had a guest appearance from lady Elvis brought to us by Miss Honey Suckle. More than a few people came by Civic Square especially to see the performance. Thanks to the whole Out in the Square team for making it go like buttah!

And now for some additional glimpses of burlesque and retro style from this fabulous afternoon of fabulosity:

Can I be her when I grow up?

This is my favorite picture of the entire day – a perfect lady. Like the background says, “LOVE!”

Red gold and green!

This stunning burlesque chanteuse shared the stage with us. We’ll be seeing more of her in Wellington!

Not only are they so cute, they're color coordinated

Young volunteers mixing up vintage plus. They were staffing one of several vintage clothing booths – some real bargains out there.

Love the bowler

Edgy burlesque performer Candy Thorne livens up a windy Wellington day.

Bow chicka bow bow!

Miss La Belle, burlesque star and teacher, relaxing after her first performance of the year.

Look out for Post #2 with more great style and atmosphere shots!

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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.


2013 Style Forecast: Relaxed With A Chance of Apocalypse, Retro Still Not Dead

We’re starting the future, yet again – whether we like it or not – and this does impact what we wear and how we think about it. And at the start of 2013, change is in the warm and windswept air. Ten years ago “retro” as we know it was happening for everyone. Now the fashion-forward are starting to dress like extras from the last two scenes of Cloud Atlas.

Sonmi-451 and her fellow fabricants from Cloud Atlas are on trend with vivid nails, a shot of hair color, and antidepressant beverages.

Times are still tough, but instead of “homeland security” our anxiety is Soft Apocalypse-style.  Global warming and geological crises are impacting our daily lives. Our diets are changing, slowly but surely. And the madness of governments seems more normal to us, even as we distance ourselves from it by packing our own “go” bags.

A half-day reviewing December’s fashion glossies didn’t bring my retinas much retro. Tellingly, the only mag showcasing a retro summer look for us Antipodeans was Redbook. Magazines from the winter side of the world presented go-bag ready styles – sporty, survival-ish quilted puffers and military-style coats are edging out structured wool coats. Huge, sleek totes and doctor’s bag-style satchels are in, one promising the comfort of being able to carry everything, the other giving the bag’s carrier some borrowed intellectual oomph.

(Postapocalyptic fashion…in a world where we forage amongst the rags, there seems to be an awful lot of Manic Panic hair dye left. And we all want to bare our newly honed abs! I prefer Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor for my post-societal-collapse looks, thanks.)

In blogland, some of my favorite style bloggers are relaxing from high glam into more bohemian looks. Hair is long and ruffled, or in caplike pixie cuts; pendants swing, bib  necklaces clank; shoes sprout spikes and defensive excrescences in all directions. Wardrobe Oxygen’s literal wardrobe got totaled by Hurricane Irene in 2011. What New Yorkers wore during Hurricane Sandy is uncannily similar to what Wellingtonians wear, um, most of the time. “When the world goes to hell perfume can help one feel as though things are at least normal,” says Unseen Censer in this post on Perfume for a hurricane after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

NZ designers Cybele and Ricochet have blazed the path here. Free People (free shipping to NZ!), and Black Milk are in the forefront of this new relaxation.  Gudrun Sjoden and Pink Chicken are more modest/sexless-in-that-“quirky!” way manifestations of this. I am impressed with the way style blogger Wardrobe Oxygen makes this look achievable. Stuff in New Zealand has a crisp little summary of 2013 styles that is worth reading if you care about fashion.

So, is Miss Retro dead? 1940s to early 1960s style retro is now more accessible than it’s ever been. Makeup, dresses, shoes, instructions, hairdressers, you name it. Rockabilly and pin-up subculture has swelled to the point that we ought to fret about the fine line between “icon” and “clone.”  I have a few 50s-influenced looks and finds ready for this year, but I’ve worked to keep away from the standard rockabilly palette of red-blue-black-white. Sometimes with the help of a vat of fabric dye! Here’s some of my favorite hues and prints from my wardrobe – some classically retro, some not.

Just visualize me wearing it, OK? I had a hard day.

Retro flavored fabrics, from the 50s to the 70s. From the left: “cabbage tree” cotton dress, grey leopard print, electric 70s silk, a 50s classic, marbled 70s silk, and the dyed-by-me purple and turquoise hues of full skirts.

And I am opening my mind to Ms. Retro, with inspiration from everywhere but the ’50s cocktail lounge. Zippers and velocipede-riding ensembles from the Victorians, embroideries and voiles from the Edwardians, lissom 20s and 30s lines (hi, Giant Pants of the 30s), later 60s and 70s kookiness. I’ve had a preview of BeHome in Miramar – they’re stocking sleeker tunics in linen, in shades of navy, coral, and white that channel the 30s and the late 60s at the same time.

Where retro style and the apocalypse meet – besides the 1950s nuclear bunker, of course – is in their rejection of “fashion.” Right now, several of my intelligent friends are formally withdrawing from buying any new clothes in 2013, rejecting fast fashion consumerism. Other intelligent friends have officially (and unexpectedly) declared their allegiance to retro styles, for individual reasons underlined by perplexity at the demands of current styles.

Sensing this withdrawal from the artificial fray, some tastemakers declare fashion trends themselves entirely passe. A timely dodge that lets us all concentrate on what suits us best in between the changes of 2013.

Queenie May Cold Cream

Queenie May Skin Care and the Burlesque Challenge

The Product: Queenie May Vanishing Cream and Queenie May Cold Cream.

The Challenge: Two nights of emceeing in stage makeup + a busy life had stressed my skin. Could the new vintage-themed skin care line Queenie May successfully remove stage makeup after a burlesque show with the Cold Cream, and soothe my battered hide with the Vanishing Cream?

History Distracts Me: What are cold cream and vanishing cream, anyway? My last memory of cold cream was confidently recommending it for Halloween makeup removal in a Bryn Mawr College bathroom in 1991. And vanishing cream was, for me, tangled up in the same fuzzy romantic realm as lace curtains and bowls of potpourri. To the Internet!

In the dawn of the modern era, when powder was the most a respectable woman ventured, lipstick was required yet unsubtle, and pancake foundation was strange and new, the base color and tone of the complexion were vital to beauty. Vanishing creams and cold creams, soft, fragrant, and emollient, had lots of appeal – so much that they were undermined by their own success, as this historical article describes.

"Erasmic", it's like you'll be orgasmic at the flaws erased from your skin

The vanished dream of vanishing cream. Ad from 1918

The literature for Queenie May purrs seductively, “Everything about this cream, the jar, the label, the thick inviting cream, suggests that you take time to indulge in a glamorous night time ritual.” -fans self- Gosh, Queenie, we just met!

And yet, a jar of vanishing cream in my hand reminded me more of a line from S.J. Perelman in his 1937 classic Strictly from Hunger: “I suddenly detected a stowaway blonde under the bed. Turning a deaf ear to her heartrending entreaties and burning glances, I sent her packing. Then I treated my face to a feast of skin food, buried my head in the pillow and went bye-bye.”

All-natural, historical, multi-purpose, AND referenced by S.J. Perelman? This, I had to try.

The Test: Queenie May lauds its lovely packaging. Let us observe:

The jars seemed to like this settingThere is more to the Queenie May line than frosted glass jars and pretty labels.  I’m the kind of person who flips a product over and reads the ingredient list. The creams are 100% botanical, built on olive and jojoba oil extracts, glycerine, and Damascus rose oils. With a nod of approval, I finally opened the jars. Inside the Vanishing Cream is tender and fluffy, and the Cold Cream shows us that it’s aereated.

Inside the jars

Vanishing Cream to the left, Cold Cream to the right. Note the vivid whiteness of the cold cream – just like it used to be.

Saturday afternoon, between shows, I tried the Vanishing Cream on my dry, tired, sad post-show epidermis. It felt rich, but not unpleasantly so, and it did indeed sink in neatly, leaving me soothed and fresh. The slight gloss it left on my skin may be what is described as “dewy.” Four hours later, when I did my stage makeup for a night of emceeing, my makeup came out twice as well as it had the night before. Hm.

Then, close to midnight, after the show, it was time for the Cold Cream to take off that makeup. Armed with cotton pads, I opened the jar. Bubbles! This, too, was aereated, and its agreeable rose scent was stronger. I dipped a finger in and smeared the light, vividly white cream around my eyes. Three swipes with a cotton pad later, the near-geological layers of primer, foundation, and shadow were cleared from one eye. Four cotton pads later, my face was makeup-free, save for mascara, and feeling soft instead of stressed. A night or two later, I tried the Cold Cream on a normal day’s makeup, with similarly good results (and going through a similar amount of cotton pads.)

Any negatives? With the Cold Cream, its one shortcoming as a makeup remover is that it isn’t great for removing modern waterproof mascaras. And while I like the Vanishing Cream in the classic role of a “night cream”, I prefer a lighter pre-makeup moisturizer. Also, I can’t stop putting the Vanishing Cream on my hands.

Creams and Oil Cleansing: My skin is naturally oily and prone to breakouts. After trying these oil-based emulsified beauty creams, I braced myself for post-moisturizing zits that…never came.  What alchemy was this? It turns out that natural oils are kind to even difficult skin like mine.  Oil cleansing has made a comeback as a gentle, surprisingly acne-suppressing method of skin care. Sally at Already Pretty praises oil cleansing here and Crunchy Betty describes the essentials of oil cleansing here. And, oooh, look! The Queenie May ingredients – olive and jojoba oil – are among the recommended oil-cleansing oils. So Queenie May cold cream is basically a single-source, user-friendly oil cleanser.

Showgirl Comments and The Final Test: I took the Vanishing Cream jar out for some of the dames before the burlesque show. The pretty frosted jar encouraged us all to play. From the lips of showgirls:

  • “It really does vanish! So soft!”
  • “$40 for all that? That’s really good.” Especially, I noted later, compared to Lush’s Vanishing Cream in its black plastic tub at  $42.00.
  • “Look at that jar. Mmmmm! Everything comes in white plastic pottles nowadays. But packaging does matter!”

There was one last test. Claire Gormly, proprietress of The Vanity Case and creator of the Queenie May creams, had told me, “The idea is to have jars that you’re proud to put on your retro dresser, to put some of the glamour back into beauty.” Little did she know that I had a glass 1930s dresser set at home. How do the Queenie May jars look in situ?

Queenie May Vanishing Cream in its natural environmentThe Queenie May jars are indubitably swanky with my retro dresser items. For aesthetics, I switched the lids on the Cold Cream and Vanishing Cream jars. The Cold Cream is in the bathroom, where I can dispose of the  post-cold-creaming cotton pads easily. And the Vanishing Cream, the gold lid matching the perfume bottle tops, is tucked on the 1930s crystal dresser tray, waiting for an idle moment.

Vintage atomizer? Check. Vintage pearls? Check. Queenie May? Check. Nicely done, Queenie May! My face is looking forwards to its next feast of skin food. I’m wondering if we can’t have travel-sized jars – maybe little metal tins? – for showgirl makeup bags. And a hand cream, please…

Disclaimer: Queenie May provided samples for my review. Believe me, if I’d gotten zits, you’d know about it.