A touch of the past

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If your grandfather didn't leave you a tuxedo, or your grandmother a lace camisole, improvise. Vintage clothing shops fill a need for those with attics insufficiently supplied. Of course, everybody's idea of ``vintage'' is different. One rule of thumb appears to be that people don't consider anything to be vintage if it's in a style that they ever wore themselves. Instead they think of it as Used. Many people like to buy clothes that belonged to their parents' generation on back.

Thus very young persons who do not remember the 1960s and to whom it is a glamorous bygone era will romp up the graffiti covered stairwell to Boston's Bertha Cool's, a place that looks like a tidy and rather fanciful Goodwill store, and get a great '60s cocktail minidress for $30. They buy gigantic peace-sign earrings to match; but ``they don't even know what it is; I've had a couple ask,'' volunteered the woman behind the counter.

Antiques shops have always had a Victorian blouse hanging somewhere amid the mahogany, and for lots of women there has always been mother's wedding gown, but the vintage clothing boutique is a creation of the mid-'60s. Harriet Love of New York claims to have opened the first, in 1965, because at that time people wanted things that were ``cheap, individual, and handmade,'' she says.

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Cheapness of course, is always an asset; nonetheless, many vintage clothing shoppers are middle-class. Leonard Goldstein of Keezer's, which has been serving the sartorial needs of Harvard students since 1895, says even affluent people patronize the store's used clothing section; he hazards that they have ``better uses for their money than paying $600 for a suit.''

Keezer's did a particularly booming business in used tuxedos in honor of Harvard's 350th anniversary (jackets, $35; pants, $12.50; shirts $7.50.)

But not all vintage clothing is inexpensive. Hand-beaded dresses and real lace can cost you. Candace Savage of Boston's Grand Trousseau, who searches auctions and estate sales for Victoriana, says the part of the country you're in can make a difference. Her prices range from $30 up to $700 or so, while ``in New York, prices are wildly higher -- in the thousands,'' she says.

``Prices are also higher in Texas and the Southwest,'' says Ms. Savage. ``It's rarer there, and they love it more; they still have that `Southern belle' mentality -- a lot of women who like the frills. In the Midwest, it's still [considered] junk, so that's the best place to buy.''

Ms. Savage says women in the South don vintage clothing for everyday wear. But in Boston people are more likely to wear it for a party or wedding.

Theme parties are times to wear vintage clothing, and of course, Halloween: ``We have people coming in October, and somehow we manage to fit them all,'' says Debbie Earl of Vintage Etc. in Cambridge, Mass. ``Then we have kids coming in buying back-to-school stuff. In April, things go crazy with the formal wear.''

Vintage clothing can be very interesting for the woman who doesn't remember the days before the suit was the mainstay of a woman's wardrobe, and before a manufacturer's idea of a dress was to throw in a zipper and a few darts and call it a day.

For the woman whose very bathing suit could be described as tailored, and who has abandoned high heels because they interfere with sprinting for the subway, how feminine she looks in a slinky '30s evening dress can be a revelation.

At Vintage Etc. there's a book of pictures of '30s and '40s movie stars -- Rita Hayworth as ``Gilda'' for instance -- for the inspiration of customers. ``Very few and far between do you get a Gilda dress,'' said Debbie Earl. ``But we'll get a dress and say `Oh, an ``I Love Lucy'' dress,' or `that's Katharine Hepburn.' ''

You can waltz through the decades in a store like this, changing personalities at a dizzying rate.

``This is a wonderful dress from the '30s,'' Earl said, pulling out a fabulous dress of puckered silver silk slit to the navel, which she described as ``Fortunyesque.''

``You really have to be a pencil to wear this. I can see it on some tall person with nerve.''

Next she pulled out a '40s cobalt-blue number with a square neck and padded shoulders that made the wearer look vaguely like Eleanor Roosevelt. And from the '50s, a strapless dress of nonstop, vigorous aqua tulle ruffles: pure Annette Funicello.

``In the '50s, it was, `Let's accentuate the positive. Let's all be women and live in the suburbs and have babies and have great waistlines and busts,' '' says Earl.

At Grand Trousseau, there is a different atmosphere of Edwardian white-lace dresses and black-satin petticoats. It is tiny, and fabulous treasures adorn the walls, for a sort of overheated boudoir effect. Manager Leslie Teeling says the store's displays have actually gotten less elaborate since the shop opened a year or so ago.

``People got a museum complex,'' Ms. Teeling says. ``They would look and think `I can't afford the things in here. You can awe people with these things.''

One dress on the display was made of tissue silk -- fabulous transparent cloudy stuff.

``They don't make it any more,'' says Teeling. ``People don't understand why things are so sheer. But people wore undergarments underneath -- petticoats and camisoles.''

An advantage of shopping in vintage clothing stores is the fabrics -- linen, cotton batiste, lawns, nets, silk charmeuse, silk chiffon -- not readily available elsewhere.

``You can look at these materials and not realize how long it took to make the laces. An elaborate dress of the '20s could take a month to bead -- so we could never reproduce these now. Most of what came down is from wealthier people.''

Great petticoats at modest prices are popular.

``What we wear on the street is their underwear -- they would die,'' says Ms. Teeling.

``I've seen white cotton petticoats done up with a cotton top and leather belt; it looked terrific,'' she says. ``You have to adapt the look to make it contemporary. If you do that, people don't always know it's an old piece -- it's `Wow, where did you get that?'

``Older people wander in here; they say, `I threw so much of this stuff away,' Teeling says. ``If these things lasted this long, it's because they were special.''

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