Vintage Shopping… a history

I am beginning a new feature today – a ‘registry’ of vintage clothing dealers. Sometimes I feel like I am over a hundred when I begin talking about what it used to be like buying vintage clothing ‘back in the day’ – and I was hardly a pioneer when I started haunting vintage shops in the late 1970s.

It wasn’t necessarily always cheaper or easier to find vintage clothing then, but it seemed to be a lot more fun! I used to go out on a Saturday morning with $50.00 in my pocket and come home with bags of treasures from garage and church sales, thrift shops, and vintage clothing stores. Some of my friends also into vintage would get together for what we called ‘drag and brag’ – where we dragged everything to someone’s house and bragged about how good our finds were.

Some of my best finds came from shops that are no longer around. There are a few vintage shops like I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet in London, and Screaming Mimi’s in New York, that are famous, but most of these shops were small, owner-operated boutiques that will fade into history unless it’s written down, and so I begin with these inductees:

Sandy Stagg, c. 1978

Sandy Stagg, c. 1978

Amelia Earhart

Shortly after English-born Sandy Stagg emigrated to Toronto in August 1968, she opened a vintage clothing store on Charles Street called Amelia Earhart Originals. In the 1980s she sold her business to Lana Lowen and opened Fiesta, a restaurant that catered to the New Wave crowd. In 1990 Stagg moved back to London where she returned to the vintage clothing scene in Portobello Road. In 2008 Stagg sold off her vintage stock in London and came back to Toronto but not to work in vintage clothing.




Cabbages and Kinx

In 1977 I visited my first vintage clothing store – Cabbages and Kinx. Located on Cambie street near Cordova in Gastown, Vancouver. You had to walk down a set of stairs to get to the narrow shop, set below the sidewalk. The shop was decorated like a Victorian parlour, with bamboo bookshelves draped with Victorian paraphernalia, antique shoes and carte de visite photographs. It was very dark and moody and always smelled of incense. Steven Lippold founded Cabbages and Kinx in 1973. I bought my first antique garment from him – a black lace dress from the 1890s for $60.00. I stopped going to his shop in the early 1980s as his stock shifted more towards imported contemporary punk and fetish rubber and leather clothing. Lippold moved his shop around the corner onto Hastings street sometime in the 1980s and closed up in 2004 after a fire gutted his business.

Courage My Love

Courage My Love, 1975

Courage My Love, 1975

In 1975 Stewart Scriver and Patricia Roy opened a three-room shop at 60 Cecil Street in Toronto. The bulk of their stock was acquired from defunct general store stock and warehouses found across rural Ontario and Quebec, as well as the rag warehouses of Toronto where bundled old clothes were sold by the pound. By 1978 Toronto was becoming Hollywood North because of its potential location shoots, and Courage My Love began supplying costumes to the film industry. In 1980 Courage My Love moved to its present location at 14 Kensington Avenue and has built up a reputation for affordable vintage – but no bargaining! For more about Courage My Love, read their first person history here.

Deluxe Junk

In 1973, 31 year old Ken Spada filled his red van with old clothing and accessories and vintage house wares as he drove from Toronto to Vancouver. Upon arriving in Vancouver he set up shop in Gastown but soon relocated to West 4th Avenue. In the 1970s most of the store’s stock was bought ‘by the pound’ from rag yards. As that source dwindled, Spada began taking vintage consignments. I went into Spada’s shop exactly three times and was kicked out twice for asking if he could do better on a price (his prices were always high.) Apparently you weren’t allowed to ask for a discount on bundles, or about anything ‘on display’ – even nicely. Despite the surly treatment I experienced, Spada must have had faithful clients because the shop remained open for forty years. They relocated back to Gastown in the 1980s and, after Spada’s death in 2008, remained open until 2013.

Hats in Deluxe Junk, c. 2010

Hats in Deluxe Junk, c. 2010

What I Did on My Summer Holiday – Part 2 – A Bit of Shopping…

After hitting several antique stores in Canandaigua, New York we headed off to Sturbridge.

Girl's straw hat, c. 1870 from Canandaigua antique store; Green mohair and embroiderd satin cloche, early 1920s, and Grape decorated Early Edwardian hat with New York label, c. 1905, both from Sturbridge sale.

I bought more than just hats, but they were a favourite this trip: Girl’s straw hat, c. 1870 from Canandaigua antique store; Green mohair and embroiderd satin cloche, early 1920s, and Grape decorated Early Edwardian hat with New York label, c. 1905, both from Sturbridge sale.

We had never been to the Sturbridge Antique Clothing and Textile Show, although we used to go to Molly’s vintage sale in Springfield, Mass in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After Molly retired the Sturbridge show sprang up in its place. Of the advertised 140 booths at the Sturbridge sale I would estimate there were about 90 dealers because many took double spaces. Although I spent the entire day at the sale thoroughly checking racks, there were a few booths I skipped over because I know from experience they rarely have the sort of things that appeal to me: The ‘Millennial’ dealers where 1997 is considered a good vintage year and all merchandise is priced under twenty-dollars, and the ‘Pristine’ dealers who only sell items in perfect condition at high prices to women with healthy chequebooks. These dealers are aimed at a demographic that isn’t me, and that’s fine – I get what they are doing. However, there is another type of dealer I don’t get.

Girl's embroidered straw cloche from Canandaigua antique store; Green felt hat trimmed with grapes and multi-coloured straw hat trimmed with red flowers and feathers,  both early Edwardian, from the Sturbridge sale

Girl’s embroidered straw cloche from Canandaigua antique store; Green felt hat trimmed with grapes and multi-coloured straw hat trimmed with red flowers and feathers, both early Edwardian, from the Sturbridge sale

These dealers rarely have any good merchandising skills, they cram far too many items onto their racks, don’t organize their stock by any visible means, and don’t let damage influence their asking price, which is usually not marked on a tag. Their booths have a jumble sale aesthetic but their prices are commensurate with the  ‘pristine’ dealers, except that nothing is pristine. One booth from this category had a white knit dress from the 1930s with a red, yellow, and green striped collar and cuffs. The belt was missing and there were three dark brown spots on the front of the skirt. It was priced at $500.00! Another dealer had a late 1890s pink brocade evening gown with a Henry Morgan, Montreal label. There was underarm damage and the dress was not what you could call ‘fresh’ – not surprising, as I am sure it had gone through many sales with its asking price of $2,800.00! I backed away from both those booths as there was no point in even attempting to negotiate since I would value their items at a fraction of their asking price. Aside from these booths there were many dealers who had wonderful things at fair market prices. For some reason I bought mostly hats that day but I got other items too, from some early Vogue magazines to a fantastic 1880s parasol.

Gingham mob cap, c. 1910, from Canandaigua antique store; Gold silk caleche, c. 1830s, from Sturbridge sale; and man's riding hat, c. 1920, from Brimfield antique show

Gingham mob cap, c. 1910, from Canandaigua antique store; Gold silk caleche, c. 1830s, from Sturbridge sale; and man’s riding hat, c. 1920, from Brimfield antique show

The next day it was off to Brimfield. It has been twenty years since I have been to Brimfield and the differences between then and now are conspicuous. The eBay factor has changed everything, made evident by the amount of ‘junque’ on the fields geared more for decorating chic than antique collectors. There were far too many birdhouses made from vintage license plates, bulk tribal ware imports, as well as non-trendy collectables such as Depression glassware and china head dolls. Most of the few in-demand and quality vintage and antique items I saw were not priced for their rustic venue but rather a Manhattan antique shop, like a pair of garnet suede shoes from the late 1930s I found in one booth priced at $235.00. Brimfield used to be a wholesaler’s marketplace, but that isn’t the case anymore.

It didn’t help that day (Tuesday, September 2) was the hottest day of the summer. We were 3 1/2 fields into the sale with three purchases in total when we decided to call it quits – it was already 97 degrees Fahrenheit, not including  humidity, and only 11 a.m. In retrospect I was happy with Sturbridge and look forward to coming back, but I don’t have the stamina for Brimfield anymore – it ain’t what it used to be.

Dye Bleeds – Shazbot!

T-shirt featuring Robin Williams as Mork from Ork, dated 1978, Paramount Pictures Trademark

T-shirt featuring Robin Williams as Mork from Ork, dated 1978

A few days ago I decided to clean-up the storage room as too many things were in need of being put away in their proper boxes. In the bottom of a plastic bag I rediscovered this 1978 T-shirt featuring Robin Williams as Mork. I bought it at an ‘antique mall’ at the beginning of the summer and completely forgot about it.

Although I watched a few Mork and Mindy episodes when it was originally aired (1978-1982), it was not one of my favourites. I always thought the wardrobe for Mork was a bit past its ‘best before’ date — that disco-hobo look was a little more mid 70s Shields and Yarnell or Godspell, as I remember it. Regardless, thirty-five years later the T-shirt now appealed to me so I bought it for three dollars to use in some future 1970s exhibition.

Close-up of the bleed along the collar

Close-up of the bleed along the collar

This was before the sad news of Robin William’s death, so when I rediscovered the shirt I thought I might feature it on Facebook, but it needed a freshening up as it smelled from decades of being stored in a musty basement. Unfortunately, even though I thought I had been careful testing the blue dye on the knitted collar and cuffs for fastness, after a quick wash with PH balanced soap in cool water, a cold water rinse, then a roll-up in a bath towel to remove excess moisture and hanging to air dry, a small amount of the blue dye still migrated into the adjacent white cotton. I should have known better as I have noticed that dyes on items that have been stored in a damp place seem to be more migrant than if they had been stored in a dry place. I have rarely had a bad experience with washing things because I am usually very careful, (ever since an unfortunate event when I was a young collector involving a 1940 rayon dress with gelatin sequins…) but I should have been more vigilant in testing the blue dye on the collar – as Mork would say – Shazbot!

What I bought this week

Last Saturday was Christie’s, a local semi-annual antique sale that we have been going to for years. It’s huge and can take the whole day if you are really thorough. We usually find something that makes us happy so we make the effort to always go unless its pouring with rain, which it often is.

This year we were running a bit late, but got there by 9 a.m. and scored almost everything we bought within the first two hours. By noon we had done half the show and decided to head back to the car to drop off our purchases and eat our chicken sandwiches and rhubarb tarts. I really wish I had brought an extra shirt – it was just hot enough that I was feeling sticky, and the deodorant was failing… We pressed on and got back to the fields  just in time for a rain shower. Only found one more thing in the rest of the sale and was done by 3 p.m. Aside from a few things that I bought for resale, here were the scores:

What I bought this week…

Left to Right: Early 1920s white cotton dress; Louella Ballerino jacket c. 1940;  Lace jumpsuit by Claire Haddad, c. 1969

Left to Right: Early 1920s white cotton dress; Louella Ballerino jacket c. 1940; Lace jumpsuit by Claire Haddad, c. 1969

Clockwise from bottom: White boot laces, c. 1910s; Roller skates, 1908, 1860s headpiece; 1879 petit point slipper; Vietnam era pinback

Clockwise from bottom:
White boot laces, c. 1910s; Roller skates, 1908, 1860s headpiece; 1879 petit point slipper; Vietnam era pinback

Every time I went into a shop or booth this week I was repeatedly asked if I was looking for something specific. I never know how to answer that question because what I want to say is “Only things that are more valuable than you think they are.” While there is some truth to this, what I am really looking for is so varied I can’t really explain it easily, and I think this week’s purchases tell that story.

One of my favourite online sellers was having a bit of a spring clear-out to make way for new stock and so I snapped up a c. 1940 red wool Louella Ballerino jacket that I had had my eye on for some time. Ballerino was one of the women designers who pioneered  American sportswear in the 1930s and 1940s. Everything else was purchased locally, either at our local antique mall, or the semi-annual Greensville textile and vintage clothing sale near Dundas, Ontario (another local antique mall we went to was a bust — bought nothing.) In my quest for Canadian design I picked up the white lace and yellow cotton  jumpsuit trimmed with daisies by Claire Haddad, an important Toronto-based designer of innovative lingerie in the 1960s and 1970s. The white cotton early 20s dress was a mercy buy – it was misidentified and incredibly cheap.

The smaller items this week included two pairs of white boot laces from the 1910s for restoring missing laces from period boots; a pair of men’s black leather roller skates from about 1908; an evening head piece from the 1860s; a man’s petit point slipper with a date attached of 1879 (probably made for exhibition); and a protest pinback button from the late 1960s demanding a stop to bombing in Vietnam.

A mix like this: designer, Canadian, sportswear, men’s, women’s, lingerie, Victorian, footwear, novelty… is why I can never answer that question ‘Is there anything you are looking for in particular?”

When wearing vintage was weird…

Three designs by Leong for Streisand's club appearances in the early 60s that included (left to right) a feathered bedjacket, vintage 20s shoes, and Edwardian bodice.

Three designs by Leong for Streisand’s club dates in the early 60s that included (left to right) feathered bedjacket, vintage shoes, and Edwardian bodice.

I never knew that when Barbra Streisand sang “…I’m wearing second hand hats, second hand clothes, That’s why they call me Second Hand Rose…” in Funny Girl, a song originally written for the 1921 Ziegfield Follies, that she was also singing from experience.

When I wrote the chapter ‘Doing Your Own Thing’ in my book Sixties Fashion: From Less is More to Youthquake, I knew there was more to the history of wearing vintage clothing but every contemporary academic book and period article I could find on the topic credited the Mods and Hippies of the mid 1960s as the originators for wearing funky threads found in antique stores and thrift shops. Any reference that predated the mid 60s trend referred to old clothing as something worn for fancy dress-up, or out of need due to wartime necessity or poverty. These last two reasons however, were more about the resale of previously worn clothes that pass for new, or remaking vintage clothes to disguise their archaic styling- not wearing them because of their archaic styling.

Research doesn’t end when the book is published and so it is that I discovered an interesting site today about Barbra Streisand’s fondness for wearing vintage clothing. In 1960, the 18 year old Barbra often wore black tights and raincoats for a Beatnik chic while attending acting classes. After winning a fifty dollar prize in a singing contest, Barbra got a gig that September to perform between comedy sets by Phyllis Diller at the Bon Soir, a Greenwich Village after-hours club. In a January 9, 1970 article in LIFE magazine, Streisand recounted how she wore an antique white lace combing jacket and pink silk 1920s shoes to appear at the Bon Soir. “I didn’t know you were supposed to wear gowns in nightclubs so I sang in a wool dress or in antique clothes.”

Earlier that year Streisand met the young costume designer Terry Leong while rehearsing a play. Leong sketched several stage outfits for her nightclub routine that included vintage pieces such as an Edwardian beaded bodice, feather-trimmed bed jacket or shoes from the 1920s. Phyllis Diller reportedly told Striesand “You can’t wear that stuff”, and took her shopping for a cocktail dress, but “It wasn’t me” said Streisand.

Moths? Freeze them.

I was giving a lecture last night about the historical use of felt in fashion and was asked about how to care for felt. As felt is made of animal fibres, moths are potentially the worst problem and so I explained my environmentally-friendly, sure-fire method of moth prevention. I discovered how effective this method was in February 1994 when I was moving between two apartments in Toronto in the middle of the coldest winter in decades (even colder than this past winter.)

I usually make sure I keep new acquisitions out of the storage room until I am sure they are pest free, however, something I acquired (I think it was a Canadian Women’s Army uniform) slipped in under the radar and within a few weeks the collection was all ‘a flutter’. As I went through the racks it was interesting to note that the moths preferred soft wools like cashmere over hard spun woolen twills, and gravitated to fur instead of wool, and were drawn to light coloured fur over dark coloured fur. The worst infestations were in a rabbit and ermine fur coat from the 1920s and two white fox stoles. Those items were too riddled to save and were thrown out. However, the rest of the collection was largely spared but needed treatment.

I had heard of the freezer method and as I was moving in a few days and the weather was in the negative double digits, I used the cold to my advantage by putting the collection into the truck the night before our move. The quick freezing didn’t give time for the moths to acclimatize and effectively killed the worms and adult moths. After a thorough vacuuming and inspection a 1950s cashmere blend suit had to join the fox stoles and ermine coat, but everything else was fine.

I should have posted this blog during the last few months when there was still plenty of cold weather around, but when its not below freezing outside, I use the freezer compartment of the fridge, but do it twice to be sure (freeze for 24 hours, thaw for 12 and freeze for 12) and I swear by this method. I even use it as a part of the standard acquisition process for all furs entering the collection.

As Seen In – Regola – 1949 convertible suit and coat

Last week when I blogged about Ellen Peterson I mentioned the patent she registered in 1949 for a suit design she called ‘Regola’, the jacket of which could be converted into a coat with the addition of a skirt and cape. Fortunately, one of the garments included with the archives was Peterson’s own copy of the suit that she brought to Canada in December 1952. The July 1949 design in the article differs from Peterson’s example which I believe originally resembled the example in the article before alterations were done in the early 1950s.

Garbo Sells!

Valentina coat of ottoman silk, from the private wardrobe of Gret Garbo

Valentina coat of ottoman silk, from the private wardrobe of Gret Garbo

1955 dress designed by Valentina for Greta Garbo

1955 dress designed by Valentina for Greta Garbo

Some of Greta Garbo’s personal items went up for sale over the weekend in Los Angeles and commanded “Marilyn Monroe prices” according to the director of Julien’s auction house where the items were sold. Ferragamo shoes sold for over $8,000, sunglasses for over $13,000, a black velvet turban for over $12,000, and a Louis Vuitton steamer trunk for over $37,000. The most interesting fashion items were the dresses, suits. coats, and 67 pairs of trousers, many designed for Garbo by the New York couturier Valentina.

The Russian born couturier and Swedish born actress lived in the same building in New York. Not only were the two close friends, but it was even rumoured they had a long-standing affair. Garbo never married nor had any children; her nephew inherited her estate after Garbo died in 1990 at the age of 85.