One of the things I love most about vintage fashion are the multiple lives: how people and events and time can transform the original purpose of a garment, how a confection of fabric can be reinvented for a new age.
Historic clothing reveals the traces of these lives through signs of wear and adaptation. They tell stories about the times they’ve been valued. I’ll give you some examples using ’30s pieces that have flowed through my collection.
1930s silk velvet coat with elaborate, ruched cape-like back and white silk lining. I bought this garment in the early days of ebay, around 1999: a gorgeous and glamorous affair, of the sort that was rarely seen in Australia at that time. I have a special fondness for velvet coats but they’re hard to find here.
This beauty came from a New York collector, and she had bought it from the J. Peterman Company, who in turn had bought it from a NYC vintage shop. Still attached were tags from both groups, revealing the journey.
J. Peterman are a reproduction vintage manufacturer and they had purchased the coat as a sample to reproduce for their range, and after it had fulfilled its purpose, they released it back into the wild. I rather like the idea of it inspiring lots more fabulous coats for modern wearers.
I don’t know about it’s pre-NY vintage shop history but it could have been custom-made for a wealthy woman in the early ’30s, worn over a soft bias-cut gown and maybe passed down through her family until it found its way into an estate sale. If it had entered the vintage market earlier, it would likely have been shortened from its original full length, or maybe worn by hippies in the ’70s (my bohemian mum would have adored it) and maybe damaged from wild parties or red wine spills.
So it found its way into my collection, where it sat in my mending ‘pile’ (actually a whole room) for many years because somewhere along during its many adventures, the hem had sustained water damage. It was very long, like so many ’30s fashions, so I shortened it slightly and rehemmed, and found a new loving home for it through my own (very far away from New York) vintage shop, where its story continues.
Secondly is a lovely silk and silver lame’ tea gown with a floral print and matching silk petticoat. This beauty was purchased by a Melbourne society lady, perhaps from a swish Collins St boutique or made to measure by a local couturier, and worn for a few special day events before being carefully put away and later passed down to her daughter, who enjoyed it for some of those early ’70s parties when the style came back into vogue.
Her son is an antique dealer, who passed it on to me to sell in my vintage shop. Instead, I photographed it for my first book ‘Love Vintage‘ and used it in fashion parades and talks – too beautiful to part with. It’s found a permanent home in my collection, no longer being worn but like the coat, still inspirational. Its journey has not covered as many miles but it has progressed in function.
Clothing doesn’t have to be high quality to live additional lives, but it helps. They survive because we value them, because they’re special to someone. Here are some more examples:
On the left is a simple cotton day dress, of the sort that was worn and worn out. Many ’30s day dresses lived very hard lives due to the Great Depression and did double duty in WW2. They were darned and patched. After the bad times were over, they were torn into rags or gleefully thrown away, and so are hard to find now. Which is a pity because they’re amongst the most charming and wearable of vintage fashions if you’re fortunate enough to find them.
This cutie is hand made of very hard wearing and robust cotton, the sort that was more often used for curtains and perhaps that’s why she’s still in solid shape and why she survived. She has the typical silhouette of the late ’30s and comes with the matching self-belt with a plastic buckle. I don’t know her early history but she found her way to a costumer, who used her in a film. Many historical garments are used for performance, as they’re cheaper and more authentic than reproductions. I’ve supplied thousands of garments for film, theatre and TV and in return, bought many collections from costumers. Round and round.
I acquired this frock, along with hundreds of other vintage dresses, from the costumer. Many of the dresses had the names of films they were featured in, hand-written in texta inside the collar. It adds an extra dimension to their story.
On the right is one of the best dinner dresses I’ve ever seen. Late ’30s again, and made of crepe (which was a very popular fabric in the ’30s and ’40s) its rich with detailing, featuring a faux-bolero, built into the dress and secured with fancy crocheted bobbles, trimmed with lace.
Dinner dresses are some of the most elegant but plainer types of dress around. They’re usually understated, mid-calf length and sober colours like burgundy, navy and bottle green but most are black. The popular style continued into the ’60s for older ladies so they can be hard to date but as with all historic dress, fabric and construction will tell.
This one came in the collection of a vintage clothing dealer, who had sold out of the Queen Victoria Markets in the ’70s. Back then, a dealer was limited to stock that was available locally so the early vintage clothing shops tended to sell mostly Australian fashion. She had probably bought it from the woman who wore it originally, or perhaps her daughter. It’s very nice quality, probably made by a professional dressmaker.
After the dealer had passed away, her remaining stock was put away and many years later, offered to me. It was a real treat: as someone who specialises in Australian fashion, it was a treasure trove of labels that are now hard to find, a time capsule of what used to be available but isn’t any more.
The dress found a new home at my Mitchell House salon and is now in a new wardrobe, being worn again after decades languishing in private collections. So like the other dresses in my story – but not the coat – this one hasn’t travelled far but she remains loved and appreciated many years later.
Round and round she goes, and where she’ll stop, nobody knows. With care, vintage clothing will continue to live a life as a loved garment far beyond what their creators ever envisaged.