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A touch of the past

By Ellen SteeseStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 16, 1986


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.

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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.

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.