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Vintage Fashion

by Nancy Weldon

Copyright © 1998 Nancy Weldon. All rights reserved.

In my heart I am Scarlett O'Hara, flouncing into the barbecue at Twelve Oaks, wearing an off-the-shoulder, green-and-white gown, with yards and yards of ruffles. Armed only with a dainty parasol and a pair of flashing eyes, I'm ready to capture the hearts of Ashley, Charles, and eventually that rapscallion Butler man.

Or I am Rose, onboard the Titanic, descending the grand staircase, dressed in an elegant evening gown of beads and lace, drifting down into the arms of the luscious Leonardo Di Caprio.

Or perhaps I'm Joan Crawford, with padded shoulders "out to there," a wasp waist and a tongue to match, doing battle with any number of misguided movie malefactors.

Of course, in real life, I'm probably wearing scuffed sneakers, faded leggings and an oversized T-shirt, waiting in line at the supermarket behind someone with a screaming toddler, outdated double-coupons and no I.D.

But I can dream. And on the Net, there are plenty of people ready to make those gracious, vintage fashion dreams come true. While appearing at the office dressed in a full-length bustled gown is likely to be problematic (especially for you guys), other vintage touches are easier to achieve. For instance, you might try a brocade or embroidered vest under a business suit, a Hawaiian shirt for retro flair, or a fedora to top things off!

One woman devoted to bringing gentler fashions to modern life is Jennie Chancey, owner of Sense and Sensibility. She sells vintage fashions online, and also makes and sells vintage-style dresses, some with a Regency or Edwardian flair.

"Really, where I got the boom in my business, was with the release of several Jane Austen adaptations: 'Sense and Sensibility' and 'Emma'," Chancey said in a telephone interview. "And all of a sudden, tons of women wanted these [dresses]. Some are re-enactors who do 1812 events...but a lot of them were girls going to proms [who] said, 'I'm just so tired of all the sameness that I see on the market out there. I can go and see 500 of the same gowns in the mall...I don't want to look like everyone else. I want to be completely different.' "

Chancey will go to great lengths to fulfill those fashion fantasies. Her site contains a segment on her "Titanic Project." Movie fans and people who sew especially will enjoy reading her seam-by-seam description of making Titanic movie-inspired prom gowns for two Southern teenagers this spring. And the look is far from over. According to Chancey, "From what I hear from the mass-marketers, next spring is gonna be 'Titanic' mania all over the market."

All this aside, some of her customers are simply looking for everyday wearables. "I've really found a niche with women that are probably 25 to 40," Chancey says. "Some of them are just women who said, 'Everything out there for me in stores is ugly and doesn't fit well, and I want to look nice...' " Looks like they're in luck; Chancey's custom prices seem quite reasonable, starting at about $60 for a simple day dress.

Over the years, the concept of "simplicity" has changed. The Victorians seemed to subscribe to the theory that, indeed, "More is more." If you yearn to frolic in the frills and furbelows of a gilded age, there are Web sites galore for you. (One caution: after surfing dozens of Victorian images and articles, you are likely to start saying things like "frills and furbelows." Gracious reader!)

First stop, Victoriana, specializing in "antique clothing and accessories for men, women and children," from the 18th to the 20th centuries. It also has many links to other related sites and stores.

Victoriana itself includes articles about the era, with intriguing titles such as "The Unsuitable Suitor of 1879," "Woman's Debility," and "Is the Red Nose from the Corset or Liquor?" You can also download free animated graphics with vintage themes. These include a lady with a lorgnette and an antebellum belle with petticoat problems. The GIFs are sponsored by Reflections of the Past, a mail-order company offering fashions from 1770 to 1960, including all kinds of goods, such as "gentleman's buckskin breeches" or a dainty bridal gown.

Speaking of romance, My Scrap Album is a beautiful site filled with colorful Victorian era cards, Valentines and other ephemera. Here you'll find fairies, flowers and dimpled tots from a bygone era-a glimpse into festive and romantic moments from the past.

Another wonderful site from the era is A Victorian Elegance. It has all kinds of treasures, including one-of-a-kind bustled gowns, tea gowns and unique wedding finery. One unusual offering when I visited: an 1800s silk wedding gown, covered with lavish embroidery of flowers and French sayings. One motto translates to "The life is asleep, and love is like a dream." Sounds a lot more romantic than our modern-day "couple's" clothing slogans, like the souvenir T-shirt classic: "Stupid" and "I'm with Stupid." Now doesn't it?

"Stupid" no doubt is a word not uttered in the delicate confines of The Ladies' Tea and Rhetoric Society. The site declares it is "dedicated to creating a world where the ladies are always refined, the gentlemen are always gentle men, and there is always time for Afternoon Tea…" The site offers many pages and images on fashions from the past-lots of inspiration for costumers and anyone who wants to incorporate touches from the era.

One significant undergarment from the past has many sites devoted to its history and use. Yes, the corset apparently has worldwide fans. WARNING: While some sites seem entirely devoted to corsets for fashion use, others may contain graphic sexual adult content.

The Long Island Stay Lace Association is devoted to promoting the use of the corset, with links to many other corsetry sites.

If you simply like information on all things Victorian, try Victoria Magazine. This is an online version of the print magazine, with many articles on vintage and modern fashion, decor and crafts.

One distinctive craft has survived through the years to attract new generations of fans. Victorian Hairwork offers a wealth of information on the art and craft of making jewelry and mementos from human hair. According to the site, hairwork was quite popular from about the 1840s to the 1870s. The site lists hair jewelry for sale, and also offers supplies, information, and of course, human hair, for do-it-yourselfers.

Hair goods aren't "you"? In that case, you might try another vintage-style jewelry source: Nelsoncraft Jewelry. The colorful site sells new, vintage-style jewelry. The delicate-looking pieces might include beads, crystals, pearls, and/or faux pearls.

Ebay, the online auction house, is another possible source for vintage and antique jewelry, clothing and accessories. An Ebay search on "antiques" brings you all kinds of goods, from Gothic gowns to 1950s neckties. Sometimes entire "lots" of vintage clothing are auctioned on Ebay, at prices that seem quite low.

No matter where you buy vintage goods, remember that quality and condition may vary. You can't really expect a 90-year-old dress to be perfect (although I have noticed that many online vendors take care to note each stain, tear or flaw). Nevertheless, it's probably a good idea to check out return policies (if any) before shelling out big bucks for old items.

"Old" things and "old" times are the specialty of yet another Web site, a zine called Retro. As the site says, "Retro is a Web magazine celebrating classic popular culture of the first three-fourths of the 20th Century." Here you'll find articles and archives on fashion, as well as entertainment, politics, music, decor and thrift shops.

Those thrift-style shops can be a bonanza for vintage fans who prefer later eras-say, the 1920s to the 1980s-but what is it that makes shoppers choose old clothes? "They are unique and well made," says Miss Kitty at Cat's Pajamas In an email interview, Miss Kitty said vintage fashions are popular because of their quality, and " feel like you're in a different time when you wear them." At Cat's Pajamas, Victorian and 1920s styles sell well, but according to Miss Kitty, "The most popular is 40s." The site is also getting lots of requests for "swing" clothes. The resurgence of swing music has been going on in Southern California for several years. Now it seems to be spreading nationwide.

If vintage rock is more your scene, check out Rockin' Rudy's Den. It claims to be "The Ultimate Source for Rockabilly and Mid-Century Lifestyles." Here you can listen to the swinging sounds of the Starlight Drifters, the site's "house" band. And Rudy's is a great source of other vintage shopping links.

Men and women can find cool threads at Jabots, which sells fashions from the Victorian era to the 1960s. Here you'll see 40s house dresses and 50s cocktail gowns. Many are very inexpensive, with some dresses listed from $18 and up. More vintage style is available at Ballyhoo. It offers online shopping with clothes from the 1930s to the 1970s. Have a blast from the past with hip-hugger pants, maxi dresses, and those attractive Lurex halters so dear to the hearts of disco dwellers.

Another huge site is Rusty Zipper Vintage Clothing, which has a great selection that you can search by era. Here you'll see Hawaiian shirts, motorcycle jackets, and polyester dresses that would make the Brady Bunch lime-green with envy.

Paper Bag Princess is yet another site offering vintage wares, specializing in designer clothes. This is actually the online presence of the real-life store located in Los Angeles. The site offers lots of information on designers such as Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Emilio Pucci.

But if you still can't find exactly what you want, maybe you'd like to sew it yourself! The Web can lead you to many sewing links, vintage and otherwise. Amazon Drygoods is the online presence of the mail-order pattern company that specializes in vintage styles. At the site, you can order pattern catalogs from the store itself. Also, Past Patterns offers pattern styles from the 1830s to the 1920s, as well as reproduction buttons and that all-important hoop skirt kit!

If you want authentic-looking fabrics and notions, you have a few other options. Farmhouse Fabrics has reproduction fabric prints, patterns and sewing supplies. The site caters to quilters, costumers, and Civil War re-enactors.Lacis offers thread, ribbon, purse frames and supplies needed for many vintage-style garments.

Of course, if you just want to learn more about vintage styles, you might like the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. It's a college site that also posts online exhibits and archives. One of the exhibits takes a look at working women in the 20th century, and the site offers fashion retrospectives from notables such as Rudi Gernreich and the Romanovs.

For a look at yet more bygone elegance, try the Louisiana State Museum. There you'll find Elegance After Dark, a photo exhibit depicting evening gowns from 1896 to 1996. As museum costume curator Mary Edna Sullivan says on the site, "Worth, Poret and Dior all sought inspiration from historic styles..." And with today's fast-paced lifestyles and burgeoning technology, the fashion pace is picking up. As Ms. Sullivan puts it, "Instead of occurring every 50 or 100 years, styles are being popularized after only a generation."

Which means that 20 or so years from now, some young girl may be waxing nostalgic over that dashing style from the good old 1990s: scuffed sneakers, faded leggings, and an oversized T-shirt.

Well, maybe.

After all, as Scarlett said, "Tomorrow is another day!"


Nancy Weldon is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.


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