Chicago — There's something sentimental as well as ecological about the awakened interest here in garments made of vintage fabric. The Shirt Off Her Back, in suburban Winnetka, specializes in Victorian apparel that its owners have restored to pristine freshness. "We feel good about a beautiful garment finding a new life," says owner Sharon Danhoff.
"People feel good, too, about wearing these clothes," her partner Linda Garfield adds. "They are so clean, so white, that they don't give the impression of ever having been worn before. In fact, only twice has anyone ever said to us, 'Well, then, someone else has worn this!'"
The recycling aspect is a satisfaction to most buyers. Further, buyers realize they couldn't duplicate the handwork they are getting at anywhere near the price they are paying -- if indeed they could findm comparable handwork in new apparel.
It's not necessary to price these clothes sky high, say the owners, who call their clothes "affordable." And the clothes incorporate handwork that is rarely done today.
One pair of cotton pantaloons, tagged $36, is edged in six inches of handmade lace. It can be worn today under a dress, the partners suggest, with a peek of lace showing below the hemline, or it can make it on its own as a pair of demure shorts. It has a matching slip, tagged $65, that would sally forth beguilingly today as a lovely lacey ankle-length skirt.
Though sizes tend to be small -- predominantly sizes 6 and 8 with lots of size 3 and very few sizes 12 and 14 -- the garments themselves are flexible.
"If a particular piece appeals to a customer, it usually will provide a lot of room to work with: waistbands are fullm of fabric," says co-owner Danhoff. "So waistlines can be expanded or tightened; lengths can be shortened or extended. Then there's also that flexibility of use. People who buy this kind of clothing are usually pretty imaginative. A beautiful cotton lace nightgown sashed with a fresh ribbon easily translates to a summer dress."
"This would make a lovely sun dress," she continues, pointing to an all-cotton white slip detailed with camisole top, satin ribbons threaded through neckline and waistline, and eight inches of rose-patter lace at the hemline. It's tagged $90.
Brides find the sheer, be-laced garments of the Victorian period especially appealing.
The partners discovered their mutual affinity for the Victorian era when both worked at the Art Institute of Chicago. Now, to keep the shop stocked, they often find themselves working seven-day weeks. They stalk flea markets, house sales, antique shops, and country auctions in search of acceptable garments. Some of the pieces they come upon still have the original sales tags on them.
"For some reason or other, quite a few never-used dresses, slips, and handbags were pushed to the back of a drawer or closet and didn't resurface again for many years," says Linda Garfield.
Other pieces they buy require some restoration work. The two divided the cleaning and the repair work. Rust is their big enemy, but many stains can be removed.
They opened the shop a year ago with an inventory of 15 pieces of apparel. Since then they've watched customer interest move from collars and cuffs to pillowcases to handkerchiefs to infant dresses to, most recently, slips, dresses , capes, and suits.
Now they have 50 to 60 pieces in the shop at all times, but they have to be nimble to maintain that level of inventory. It can be painful for them to watch a dress leave the shop after spending many hours repairing it. And they know that the new finds are getting scarcer and scarcer.
A variation on this theme of utilizing vintage fabric to make a 1980 statement comes from Ginny Rae, whose Chicago boutique, Feeling Country, specializes in one-of-a-kind western wear.
Her four-year-old shop stocked antiques and collectibles plus vintage clothes until a year ago when she followed her heart and concentrated exclusively on country and western apparel. Acceptance has been so enthusiastic that she recently opened a second shop as appendage to Phoenix Western World, a large country and western music supper club here. Her particular penchant is for hats and shirts, though she's moving into leather goods, too, with pants, vests, and coordinated outfits.
The owner of Feeling Country, too, finds vintage pieces harder and harder to come by, though she has not limited herself to a particular period. She does what she calls "junking around" Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Besides vintage yard goods, she's after old lace, piping, and beading with which to embellish shirts for both men and women.
A native Chicagoan who's spent a lot of time in the western Rockies, she feels people are hankering for a bona fide American image and that country and western fills the bill as nothing else does. People tend to be reaching back to a time when they could relate to earthier surroundings, she says.
You can pick up a straw hat at Country Feeling for $45. A richly plumed felt hat embellished with vintage jewelry and Victorian jet will run $100 plus.