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A passion for vintage fashion: Secrets of a Vintage Maven

Holding an article of vintage fashion from another era makes you wonder how many women had a grand time wearing this particular piece of material history. Where did they go? How incognito had they been? One of the more fulfilling joys of this wacky world we call vintage fashion is in the interesting artifacts we find, but the most rewarding aspect is the fabulous people met along the way. Dec. 30, 2010

By Stacy LoAlbo

There are many reasons to be cheerful when you have a passion for anything timeless. As I point out endlessly, the thrill of the hunt is the best motivation. You never know what you’re going to find; excitement is in discovering something unique that you may have never seen before.

Holding an article from another era makes you wonder how many women had a grand time wearing this particular piece of material history. Where did they go? How incognito had they been?

Vintage Fashion Accessories

Find Stacy LoAlbo's book "Vintage Fashion Accessories" and more at

One of the more fulfilling joys of this wacky world we call vintage is in the interesting artifacts we find, but the most rewarding aspect is the fabulous people met along the way. There literally is a cast of characters! Life imitates art.

In the early 1990s, I met a traveling salesman named Michael Wolfe while he was roving the country hitting thrift shops, buying up merchandise, and then finding used clothing stores to purchase the goods. (My dream job!) His station wagon was overstuffed and I remember buying a pair of Pucci bell bottoms from the back of it. Michael eventually opened a retro shop called “Good Gawd” in Austin, Texas, but is now back to wholesaling his wares.

I have developed lasting friendships (Rhona Ferling) through this common ground; we speak the same language and can enjoy shopping together. I have met famous theatrical costumers who have come to me looking for that perfect wardrobe component to compliment a character in an upcoming film. The Incogneeto collection has clothed stars such as Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Tim Robbins, Walter Matthau, and nameless others for movie and film productions.

Celebrities, models, designers, and actors all personally shop The Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show and the Antiques at the NY Pier Show several times a year for their personal favorites. Actor Rob Schneider collects 1940s/’50s Hawaiian shirts as well as other men’s items of that era. He spent about 10 minutes schmoozing with my teenage daughter and telling her that her mom has impressive objets d’art. He was the sweetest guy with his sparkling blue eyes that twinkled when he smiled.

I have had Chloë Sevigny looking at rock T-shirts, Daryl Hannah, Gina Gershon eyeing up black lace bustiers, Kyra Sedgwick, and even Pauly Shore in my booth at one of these conventions in New York City. The most enormous thrill was when I spied Elvis Costello buying a traditional “Stetson” fedora in another person’s booth.

I have corresponded via the Internet for years with other nostalgia enthusiasts who are a delight to talk with. And, of course, I have worked with professional men and women who enjoy incorporating period pieces into their everyday wardrobes. But I must say, my favorite people are the elderly men and women who invite me into their homes and share their stories about the adventure they had while wearing the clothing they are about to part with after all these years. I enjoy the reverent reminiscing they indulge in, and revel in passing their stories on to other folks who admire, for example, that lovely 1950s prom dress hanging in my store that was previously in a senior citizen’s closet just a few days earlier.

The vintage business would not exist if it wasn’t for these enlightening inhabitants of the world. I would like to take the opportunity to show my appreciation for the many men and women who have given us what we have today by buying, saving, storing, and preserving their past.

The first recognition goes to all the old seamstresses and clotheshorses who have been fruitful enough to preserve their efforts; to store all their homemade hand-me-downs from Great Aunt Gertrude. To keep, in mothproof cedar closets and trunks, the great Victorian whites, hand-embroidered bonnets and perhaps Grandmother’s wedding gown. If there exists a photograph of a relative modeling the item, try to keep it together as it will mean something to somebody down the road.

It’s always extra special if who and when this clothing was worn are included in the original box. That’s an added bonus to have the history of an item. This is what we call provenance, which can enhance the value of your inheritance. By all means, don’t throw away that little piece of paper with a scribble of a date and name, that’s all part of the history.

My most recent acquisition of this sort was from the home of a lovely 85-year-old woman, Edith Kuhn, who either knitted herself or had all her dresses custom made in the ’50s and ’60s.

In this collection came numerous bouclé knit suits that were copies of “Coco” Chanel originals. I delighted in the sheer workmanship that went into the ribbon lace and knit ensembles that she kept for all these years even when she moved out of the state and back. There were a few ready-to-wear designer pieces in her closet like the Albert Nippon Pucci-esque dress that she wore to her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.

“All the other women my age were dressed like old ladies and I show up in this!” she exclaimed.

What a pistol this woman was when I held up a pink, flowing silk gown by Don Luis and she announced, “That was my divorce dress!” As you can probably tell, I vastly enjoyed every moment with her. And then I was lucky enough to take these items with me in exchange for the monies I helped her start her “Kitty Fund” with.

The greatest indebtedness has got to be when this history of antique fabrics is so well preserved and passed down, and then sold to ME! Who am I to deserve such valued heirlooms, besides one who will continue to savor the history? Is it really true that no one else in the family will appreciate such gifts? I always feel that if someone else will regret having sold these items, then by all means, do not part with them. If only I had received such treasures from within my own lineage.

I cherish only a few pieces that have been handed down to me. I have my great aunt Connie’s 1930s satin wedding gown that will never fit me because it is a size 4! Some of great Aunt Marcelle’s costume jewelry was sent to me from my grandmother when she had heard that I was amassing such goodies as rhinestone jewelry. My prize possession from her is a coiled up snake brooch glittered in sparkling brilliants from the 1930s.

My great Aunt Marcelle was one of those eccentric pack rats who could never part with anything. She lived in a huge Victorian home in Westfield, N.J., that was filled to capacity with her life-long treasures, everything from piles of old TV Guides and magazines to copper pots and kettles from a bye-gone era. Unfortunately, I was not savvy enough to invite myself to the house and help them clean it out after she passed.

Now, I mustn’t forget the 1940s Art Deco watch pin in a floral spray design given to me by “Ya-Ya.” My step-mother Marina LoAlbo’s mother Theresa received this as a gift from her husband when he was stationed overseas during WWII. She then graciously passed it on to me much to my delight! I love to wear it around the holidays; it even still keeps accurate time.

I also have several small keepsakes from my mom, Barbara Hansen Sloboda, including a sterling silver hair barrette, circa 1945, with her childhood initials engraved in it. Over the years, my mom has given me a few pieces of jewelry that I lovingly adore.

Once always on her finger, the most beautiful Art Deco ring of sterling silver, marcasite, and jet now graces my pinky on occasion. This is one of my favorites and I get compliments every time I don this jewel.

Keepsake heirlooms such as the Elvis Presley hanky that my mom painstakingly embroidered or the beloved 1960s sweater that my dad lived in are not necessarily worth anything grand monetarily, but will be treasured by me sentimentally. So, my advice to you is to try and find your own family heritage to capture in time and document as much as possible.

Here’s an interesting story. I once bought a peach, cotton voile dress that was made as a school project in 1914 by the elderly lady who sold it to me. My offer, seemingly insignificant, could not be met by sentimental value, in my mind. However, it was enough for her to sell it. With all her wits about her, this 92-year-old Princeton sophisticate told me she had only grandsons who couldn’t appreciate her time and effort that were involved in making this dress. With this being the case, the woman was delighted to see how enthused I was to be the new proud owner of this material gem.

I valued this dress greatly and told the story of its origin to many people, until finally, several years later, a young woman met my sentimental value price and bought it from me in my Princeton store on Nassau Street. Gratitude goes to you Mrs. VanDermark; your dress is in the hands of a happy hoarder who will continue its legacy.
Collective kudos go to the shopaholics who bought at Bergdorf-Goodman’s, Saks 5th Avenue, or even E.J. Korvettes and F.W. Woolworth’s ... and bought ... and bought. Bought to the point where they never wore half their wardrobe, but continued to shop until their closets burst!

These pieces, with original tags, will remain “new/old” or “deadstock” until someone finally buys them to wear. Original tags are exciting and fun to a vintage dealer and accumulator like me. I enjoy comparing the values of items then and now when tags are present. One of my obsessions is with the art of these tags. I have many beautifully designed illustrations from the ’20s to the 2000s. (Yes, I even save the current ones if they’re cool!) It’s fun to peruse the styles and try to date the item by just knowing the artwork modes and lettering types from each decade.

Oh and the shoes! The ones worn once or perhaps, never, hiding in the back of the closet in their original box waiting for the estate sale to happen. Finding those is truly a pirate’s booty to a shoe fanatic such as me, especially when they are fine examples by fabulous creators such as Salvatore Ferragamo, Charles Jourdan, or Herbert Levine. And so what if they’re all size 5. They won’t fit many of us Sasquatch women, but believe it or not, there are still some very diminutive-footed women out there. I have a 55+-year-old fashionista that shops my store and admits that she’s a perfect size 4 shoe!

So even if those women are few and far between, there are always shoe designers who buy the unusual styles for inspiration. It might just be a vamp design that they want to use to update a new look. Size 4 to size 12 stylish shoes are all welcome in my collected works.

You don’t have to have been a shopaholic with a disposable income to be included here. As a matter of fact, during the Depression era, many folks could not afford new clothes and either made their own or recycled an existing outfit. As a consequence, you may find an early 1920s dress that was remodeled by shortening it a bit or adding a ruffled trim. This revamping practice often makes it difficult to accurately date these articles of attire.

In my travels, I once acquired a gorgeous, crimson silk velvet 1930s dress that had been a white wedding gown until the original owner needed to go to a formal function and a new dress was not in her budget. After all, it was the Depression era. Hence, the gown was dyed and cut so expertly that it was undetectable.

It made a beautiful Christmas dress for its new lucky owner who purchased it from me in the mid-1990s. My admiration here goes to the woman who had the need to use her ingenuity to create such a lovely period piece, for wedding gowns are far more common and harder to sell than formal or party dresses. This festive dress, now red silk velvet, was unique and utterly charming with the most detailed sleeve decoration and flattering fit.

Let us not forget the gentlemen who hoard. You are a bit more of a rarity, as good condition menswear is a lot harder to find. My theory behind this is that men seem to wear their apparel until it falls off their backs. They don’t update their wardrobe as often as women do since the majority of the male population is less fashion conscious. Just don’t forget the mothballs with those letter sweaters. These necessary evils make all your efforts worthwhile.

Aside from the fantastic people I have met, there are other gratifying facets of being obsessed with items from the past. For instance, there is nothing like the feel of genuinely pure textiles.

I have found that most everything manufactured before 1960 is well made of superior materials and notions. The fabrics are mainly pure silks, wool, rayon, and cotton, not blended with synthetics as so many compositions are today.

When it comes to the construction of an epoch article, there is absolutely no comparison in terms of quality of merchandise. Buttonholes were bound, that is where the edges are finished so as not to fray. You will also find that buttons were covered with coordinating cloth on many pieces. A great deal of attention was paid to detailing a garment. Top stitching was more prevalent as decorative trim. Seams were hand finished. In Victorian times, coats and jackets were completed with fabulous silk linings that had inside pockets decorated with tiny velvet bows in the corners. Zipper teeth are made of metal instead of nylon, which is often found today with the exception of higher-priced fashions. The list is endless; you only need to purchase a classic period piece to see the advantages in the value and styling the past offers.

The “life expectancy” is also much greater because of the durability this type of manufacturing provides. Can you imagine something you bought today lasting another 50 years or even 100?

Interesting tidbits and wonderful people are what the vintage world is made of. The magnificent one of a kind items that you encounter while rummaging your favorite haunts are truly a joy. Many of today’s designers collect vintage clothing and accessories to motivate them for a new fashion line.

These designers do not copy a garment but rather recreate it using techniques from an earlier period. J’Nell Blakeley, chief costume designer for one of the largest, mass produced Halloween costume makers, is one such person. Her 35+ years in the costume industry, designing for numerous professional theatre productions, has taught her to turn to vintage for inspiration. J’Nell window shops for reference on design and turns garments inside out for construction insight. Her collection of vintage stimuli has even seduced her daughter to become a thrift shop queen. As a matter of fact, Jennifer showed me a few hidden treasure spots and I showed her mine!

Pick up an old Vogue magazine from almost any period and you will see styles that emulate those that are made today, or rather the other way around. Undisputedly, everything old is new again. And nothing beats the value of vintage; why settle for “retro” when you can have the real thing.

Remember to get all the information you can while someone still recalls it. Store away items properly for protection, and enjoy this wonderful hobby of classic clothing collecting! You never know who you’ll meet and how long of a lasting friendship this enjoyable pastime can spur.

More from Antique Trader is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to and affiliated websites. 

Originally published in Antique Trader magazine, 2010.

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