All Dressed Up…

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I love getting dressed up for vintage events. For events where the choice is mine as to which decade I’ll be wearing, I start to puzzle through my outfit maybe a week in advance. I have some dresses and skirts in my closet that make too big a statement for me to wear to work. They’re a bit on the costume-y side. For example, I love novelty print skirts, I love to wear hats, and I adore psychedelic op-art print dresses, but I seldom get to wear them. A vintage event is a perfect time to bring them out of hiding and let these clothes shine through in all their dramatic, rather loopy wonderfulness.

This summer for a trip to the East Coast, I decided to attend local events set in the 1920s. I went to a Jazz Age Ball in Providence, to Speakeasy Dollhouse’s play The Bloody Beginning (a prohibition-themed play with audience participation) in Brooklyn, and the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governor’s Island. The 1920s were outside the realm of my vintage sweet spot, the 1960s, so I checked out books and on-line images on 20s looks. And I had to sew! I tackled a black lace “flapper” dress with a silk slip and sash, and a cream-and-orange linen deco day dress.

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I also had a great time procuring 20s accessories to go with my dresses. A jadeite-green beaded purse, a long Peking glass beaded necklace, a pair of t-strap shoes, and the Jazz Age Lawn Party concessions just happen to be selling the perfect orange parasol to match my day dress ensemble.

I had a great time preparing to go to the east coast 20s events. I learned about 1920s style, how to sew lace and unraveling linen. I worried about the authenticity of the dresses I created since I tend to improvise away from original patterns. And in the end, I loved my new 20s dresses. I gingerly packed them into my suitcase and off I flew.

Which brings me to the title of the post. I’ll admit that I am often a bit at a loss as to what to actually do at vintage events. For 45 minutes or so, I immensely enjoy the people watching, admiring what everyone is wearing, the wonder of being in a room full of dressed-up people (it’s a rare occurrence in this day and age). I occasionally chat with other attendees about their dresses and suits – Did they find them at a local vintage shop? E-bay or Etsy? Sew them? Get them from Grandma or a great aunt? Everyone has a story about acquiring their best vintage garments. But these chats are brief – how much can one really connect over what we’re wearing?  We give one another the aesthetic appreciation that’s deserved for thoughtfully and creatively dressing, but it’s hard to know how to turn that into a more meaningful social connection.

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I think that I might feel different if I knew how to properly dance. The best place to be at the Jazz Age Lawn Party was dancing the Charleston or the Tango on the stage in front of Michael Arenella’s band – an area for dancer’s only. If I could dance and had brought a partner, I think  vintage events – whether the 1920s or a 1950s swing dance – would be a lot more socially engaging. At the Jazz Age Ball I attended in Providence, I had a great time with those who took the time to teach a woman with two left feet a few Charleston moves. How can you not smile and be happy to be alive dancing the Charleston?

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Maybe by next year, I’ll get some dance lessons under my belt and get the full vintage-themed experience!

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Why wear vintage?

Why do we wear vintage? A common stereotype is that vintage-wearers would prefer to live in the past.  Or, is it because vintage clothing is often more eye-catching, better made or better suits one’s body type than many contemporary garments?

This recent article from Harper’s Bazaar on New York’s fashionable women in vintage is one of the better written fashion accounts of why we wear vintage.

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1920s-ish


In my last post, I was stalled by indecision of how to proceed in making a 1920s day dress. I had a 1921 McCall’s pattern and a 1920s hat. But did my authentic vintage pattern look “20s enough” with its straight skirt rather than the pleats or flounces I associate with the decade? I booked my tickets to the Jazz Age Lawn party, and excitedly (and somewhat nervously) wondered what to sew.

My imaginings for making the 20s dress took me through hundreds of google images and  e-bay listings of 20s dresses and 1920s pattern catalogues. I noticed how the hemlines rose and fell during the decade. I observed accessories and that the iconic 20s cloche was not the only hat style of the time. And despite e-bay listings that combine two decades with “20s/30s dress,” I could clearly see the rather dramatic shift  from Twenties’ loose pull-over-the-head dresses to Thirties’ highly fitted dresses (enabled by a new trend of using zippers in dresses). I also learned more about my favorite fashion decade, the 1960s. I knew that Sixties’ styles were influenced by a 1920s revival, but looking through the Twenties designs I was still a bit surprised by how closely the two decades relate – simply take a Sixties drop-waist scooter dress, leave out the darts and make it out of a light, floaty fabric, and you have a 1920s flapper look. I contemplated working with one of my 1960s patterns instead.


Yet in the end, I sewed my 1921 McCalls pattern rather than a Sixties-does-Twenties flapper dress. I even kept the straight skirt design of the original pattern. However, beyond that, making the entire 20s lawn party look was an exercise in “Twenties-ish” improvisation. In sewing the dress pattern, I drew on imagery from different years within the decade rather than hewing strictly to 1921.  I lowered the skirt hem below the knee. Below-the-knee skirts were in style in 1924, so it was as if I was a 1920s seamstress who procrastinated three years to make her dress, and altered the hem accordingly. I added a pocket to fill out the deco curve. And I made a two-piece dress (a top and matching skirt) rather than a one-piece. While I did see a few matching tops and skirts in my 20s image search, they seemed like exceptions. That decision was an example of how the needs of the present shape how we represent the past – I need clothes I can mix and match rather than a 1920s dress that can only be worn to costume events, and the two-piece style gives me that option.


In terms of accessories,  I went with a wide-brimmed straw hat rather than my authentic velvet brown 20s cloche, which seemed too heavy for August. In completing the look, I simply thought “Art Deco.”  I associate my Whiting & Davis white mesh bag as deco style, but according to the label and the Vintage Fashion Guild, it’s a 1940s, not a 1920s. The bag matches a deco celluloid-and-rhinestone pin, and the pin in turn matches the straw decoration on the hat. Are they 20s? I don’t know. The t-strap shoes are four or five years old but look 20s-ish. The orange gloves? Who knows? And I don’t have an option other than my 1950s/1960s cat-eye glasses. I like the vintage look of the whole ensemble, but it’s not authentically 1920s. Will it pass as Twenties? We’ll see.

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Selective Memory

Picture a 1920s dress and hat, trying to imagine the style, fabric and color.

What comes to mind as you picture the dress? Does it have a drop-waist? A hemline that stops just below the knee? Is it sleeveless? Is the skirt fitted, gathered or pleated? Does it have a straight hemline or an uneven one?  Is the dress fabric you’re picturing rather light-colored (pastels?) and floaty, like silk chiffon? Or maybe black, adorned with beads or embroidery?

How about the hat? Did you picture a round cloche? Was it a summer hat made of straw or raffia? Or a winter hat made of wool?

Where did your image of the 1920s dress and hat come from? Did you draw from images from the film The Great Gatsby (and then, 1974 or the 2013 version?) or maybe the HBO series Boardwalk Empire?

Did the dress and hat you imagined look anything like this?

 

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I’d like to have something to wear to a 1920s-themed event, like the Jazz Age Lawn Party or to a speakeasy bar.

The pattern pictured above is a genuine 1921 pattern. The hat is a 1920s hat that I’ve had for years, displayed in my sewing room in a clear hat box. I’ve purchased linen fabric in the yellow-cream and light orange that matches the hat’s embroidery.

Yet I find myself hesitating to cut out the pattern pieces. I keep thinking, “Does the pattern really look 20s enough? I mean, aren’t those exaggerated wavy lines in the design more mod 1960s or 1970s than 1920s? And what about that skirt on the dress? Doesn’t it read more 1930s? And isn’t the skirt kind of frumpy? Does the hat look enough like a cloche?”

And here I am caught up in the irony of having genuine 1920s articles, and wondering if they look “authentically” 1920s.  I’ve been thinking of making the pattern with a different skirt style – maybe pleated or handerkerchief – in order to give it a more “20s look.”

I’ve been reading Heike Jenss’s book Fashioning Memory: Vintage Culture and Youth Style and it’s helped me understand why I’m questioning the “20s-ness” of my pattern. It turns out we have a selective cultural memory of what 1920s (or any past decade’s) style is. My 20s patterns doesn’t look 20s enough because I’m drawing off only the most iconic images of how that era has been reproduced in popular culture in films like Midnight in Paris or the television series Downtown Abbey.  Costume designers regularly allow present styles to influence how they reproduce the past. So, for example, the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby features much more fitted versions of flapper dresses than actually was the style. It’s no surprise – every vintage store owner I’ve ever talked to about wearing 20s  has told me that most women look terrible in the flat-chested, straight-sided, sack-like dresses of that era. But like most vintage enthusiasts, I’m highly influenced by the present in my imagining of what constitutes “the look” of the past. And so, just like a costume designer, I’m highly likely to alter the pattern’s style to give it a more shapely look that I can more easily wear in the present day. And then my altered “authentic” 20s dress will continue to shape how we today imagine the 1920s.

 

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“We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life”

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“Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.”

Thus Juliette@ElusiveJ on Twitter so eloquently put it. I’ve been thinking about this quote all weekend, as I binge-listen to Purple Rain and favorite songs like “7” and “Raspberry Beret” (the kind you find in a secondhand store). I listen and remember how Prince and the 1980s Minneapolis scene rocked me through my young adulthood.

I won the Purple Rain album at my high school senior prom. I remember dancing with abandon to “Let’s Go Crazy” in a peach-colored lace tea-length dress (a retro 1950s-style). When I saw the film Purple Rain (movies came later than soundtrack albums to rural North Dakota), I was fascinated with the urban scenes – First Avenue, Lake Minnetonka (actually, Cedar Lake playing the role of Lake Minnetonka), and the Crystal Court of IDS Center. When I arrived in Minneapolis in Fall 1985 for college, I was so excited to explore the city. I’d go dancing with friends at First Avenue. I’d scan the dark edges of the club, hoping to see Prince for the first 10 minutes I was there, and then I’d forget all about celebrity sighting. The multi-colored lights flashed, the beat pounded,  and I would dance with friends, feeling like we were somewhere.

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The 1980s Minneapolis of my memory has a lavender glow. The neighborhood around First Avenue had more character then with its dive bars like Moby Dicks, or nearby Shinders with its comic books and enormous magazine section. We would visit the Chain of Lakes in the wee hours of the morning (usually Lake Calhoun), whispering and giggling, feeling transgressive. I would also go on urban explorations alone, walking in the early morning from Augsburg College in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood to Nicollet Mall in downtown. I walked along the Mississippi almost daily, and to the old Dinkytown (before it became a sea of student housing) on a weekly basis. I’d check out nearly every free concert and local festival. I learned how to be an independent, curious, confident young woman then, and part of what inspired my urban and personal exploration was the fantasy Minneapolis depicted in Purple Rain.

The Minneapolis vintage scene has always been great, but in my memory it was a wonderland then. Just blocks from Augsburg was a funky store called Intermezzo with rubber duckies, vintage clothing, and odd apartment furnishings. Tatters opened a record shop and vintage store further down on Cedar. The Tatters location in Uptown was often graced by visits from his Purple Highness. The Ragstock Warehouse was a bit further away on Washington Avenue (when Washington was filled mostly with empty warehouses rather than today’s colossal condos). I’d rummage through barrels of clothes, pulling out satin pajamas, silk kimonos, 40s peplum jackets, old military uniforms, acrylic sweaters adorned with ribbons. Vintage was about trying on different characters for me then. I could be a 40s secretary, a 50s sock-hopper, a 60s go-go girl, a 70s bohemian. Did I want to be smart? Sweet? Assertive? Blase´? My wardrobe was eclectic to reflect my changing moods and identity experiments.

I’ve been realizing this weekend that I haven’t been anywhere near as adventurous in exploring the city I live in as I was back then. And that situation needs to be rectified because life is too short to not appreciate what’s around you. Prince’s death has reminded me that it’s important to stoke that sense of wonder and curiosity. I’m sad our favorite hometown boy is gone and that I’ll never experience a Prince sighting. But I’m thankful that he put Minneapolis on the international map as a place where cool could happen and that he’s inspired me reconnect with that place and with my younger sense of self.

 

 

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The World of Clothing

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Every semester in my Introduction to Sociology course, we read the book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline. I ask my students to count their clothes and list the countries from where they came. In Overdressed, Cline focuses mostly on clothing production in three nations: The United States, China and Bangladesh. Above are the results from my Fall semester students and you can see that these three countries feature prominently (China in dark purple, the US in light purple and Bangladesh in marine blue). Perhaps what’s more interesting is that there were so many countries that accounted for just a tiny slice of clothing production that they all were lumped together in “all others” and that’s the second biggest piece of the pie (in apple green).

In this semester’s results (below) China still has the largest wedge of the pie chart, and Bangladesh, Bulgaria and Vietnam are close behind. I wasn’t surprised by China, Bangladesh and Vietnam. China is where garments that require more complex sewing is done (like sewing coats), and Vietnam and Bangladesh are known for T-shirts and other cheap knit clothing. I was surprised by Bulgaria having such a large wedge. I was unaware there was so much clothing production there, but a quick google search revealed that Bulgaria is considered “the sewing sweatshop of Europe” with low-paid workers sewing many American brands like Lee jeans or Calvin Klein.

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It’s an interesting task to count one’s clothes and note their origins. I always learn more about how global clothing-making geography is shifting through my students’ projects.

 

 

 

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Spring Forward into the Past

Spring 16 Fashion

March is almost upon us, and the hefty spring fashion magazines are out.  As a vintage aficionado, I like to page through and see which vintage looks are making a comeback. While some looks are perpetually in style, such as 1960s shift dresses (see the latest from Kate Spade below), other revived looks don’t hang around for long.

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Vintage store owners also make a point of looking at the latest in the fashion mags and change their storefront looks accordingly. In Alligators, Old Mink and New Money, fashion-model-turned-vintage-store-owner Alison Houtte tells how she always made sure her Brooklyn store was stocked with the “latest” old versions of new looks. Why buy a fast-fashion reproduction if you can have the original look?

The last time I was paying attention to fashion magazines looking at the “new” styles, I noticed the return of some 1970s looks that are not frequently revived. Will I be wearing my 1970s knee-length tapestry vest (a look that was all over stores this summer) or is it back to storage for this groovy vest?

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Paging through the March issue of Elle and Vogue, it appears the 1970s are still in. I’m particularly fascinated with this Gucci model from the Spring 2016 ads who appears to be channeling a young Elton John, minus the visible chest hair. And is this ad marking the return of the pageboy haircut?

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This spring 2016 suede cut-out dress by Bally also has an early 1970s look.

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From wide-leg trousers to the persistence of the maxi dress, it appears that the 1970s are still in. It makes me want to sell my house and purchase this fabulous 1970s Chicago apartment! Yeah baby!

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