Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Ripeness of Vintage

How hand-me-down got haute.

By Maureen Needham

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  There's no such person as Second-Hand Rose anymore. Instead, used clothes have come to be called "collectibles." Clothes that might have been worn by celebrities are now totems that you can hang and display on your living room walls. You don't touch these. After one of Diana's gowns sold for mega-thousands at Sotheby's auction last spring, one cynical observer asked, "Would she dare to wear this and dribble coffee down the front?"

At the other end of the spectrum, Vogue magazine's recent issue featured one of the exemplary young fashionables in what they termed "tarty vintage"--a suit with nipped-in waist ($100) and jabot blouse ($100), accessorized with a pink plastic handbag ($5). Even the staid Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits designers over the ages, putting peau de soie on a par with painted canvases.

Not too long ago, for five bucks, you could pick up a black felt skirt from the '50s, with appliqud smiling poodle and gold-chain leash, but today it's considered an antique and it costs over $100. If you're seeking a cheap nostalgia trip back to hippie fantasy land, consignment stores no longer provide you with a choice of faded gauze smocks from India, with or without a faint whiff of "tea" in the pocket seams thrown in for good measure. That drop-dead draped black silk panne velvet gown from the 1930s, complete with silvery-gray taffeta underslip and old-fashioned hooks instead of a zipper, is getting awfully hard to find anymore. At any price.

These are the clothes that used to be called hand-me-downs. Back then, I was embarrassed to wear the faded pink organdy frills that the neighbor's daughter would pass on to me. I was terrified that someone might recognize these unflattering leftovers and sneer that my family couldn't afford new clothes. But times have changed. Now these hand-me-downs have been relabeled upscale "retro" or "vintage." You have to purchase them from your local antique store, and they don't come cheap. No, indeed.

Despite the recent hoopla on the international market, is recycled clothing really so alien to the traditional American Way of Life? Every girl knows the thrill of raiding Grandma's attic. Cheap plastic garment bags filled with precious memories from bygone years hang in practically every house that boasts an attic, ghost-like wraiths that puff and swing slightly in the breeze every time the attic door pushes open. Adventuresome explorers, who navigate those spots where a misstep through the floorboards means a hole in the downstairs ceiling, might discover Great-Grandma's petticoats, with hand-made tatting and seams sewn by hand. Teamed with a colorful T-shirt, they're perfect as a skirt for a summer day. Or perhaps there's that useless old hoop that Auntie wore under her dress when she was queen of this or that. Surely it's good for something--at the very least a good laugh. The ubiquitous turn-of-the-century baptismal gown, hand-embroidered by Great-Great-Whomever, can be found in attics throughout the land. This particular item gets lots of tender, loving care. Hand-washed, bleached in lemon juice, hung in the sun every decade or so, it will be trotted out on ceremonial occasions for generations of infants to come.

Upstairs in the musty attic of my family's New Orleans home, I used to stare, fascinated, at the severe long-sleeved jacket with baroque gold braid that my mother wore over an otherwise understated little black number when she attended Mardi Gras balls, where a long gown was de rigueur. It seemed the very epitome of taste to my childish eyes. Not that the rest of the stuff stowed in the rafters was so glamorous. My mother hoarded anything and everything from the past, from swimsuits with elastic that had long since sagged beyond redemption, to a cache of sweltering-hot '50s nylon slips designed to stick your skirt out from the waist at a 45-degree angle. She had plastic garbage bags filled with lace and ribbons carefully slit off discarded clothing that must have dated back to the Depression era. Her button collection, of similar vintage, included thousands of real pearl ones cut from men's old dress shirts. She must have saved all her old clothes all her life with the firm intention of remaking them to hide the worn spots. Someday.

If I hadn't despised the very notion of hand-me-downs, she would gladly have buried me with her remainders for the next 100 years or more. No, not me. I was too spoiled for such-like, stored in the attic. New or nothing at all, that was my motto for many years.

But, of late, my trendy daughters have taught me to dance to a different tune. Maybe it's been passed along to them from their grandmother, I don't know. My eldest and her friends, young professional attorneys, haunt the local rummage sales for Parisian designer suits to wear to work. You can't beat a Moschino deep-green wool suit with fitted jacket and matching green velvet cording that outlines the hem and collar--for $60. (For those of you who aren't up to date on your Paris haute couture, that's a savings of several thousand dollars over the original price.) Or how about a softly draped Calvin Klein black-and-white cashmere tweed jacket for $35? It's worth the price just to hang it in your closet so that you can pet it on occasion. But if you pair it with black denim jeans, you can hang around looking stylish as all get-out.

My youngest daughter tells me that best friends' attics are the best source of all. She came home from a treasure hunt one day with an immaculate Red Cross Volunteer blue-and-white cord uniform, complete with buttoned-on starched white cuffs and collar. Mostly, she checks out Goodwill stores, where she might snag a torn blue work shirt for 60 cents (I mean a real one, not the pseudo stuff for which Ralph Lauren charges $150). If the item boasts a patch sewn on the sleeve that reads, "Sheriff's Deputy--Placquemines Parish, La.," all the better. Maybe it says in cheesy machine-embroidered script, "Can I help you?" Or maybe it is signed, in large red letters, "Ed" or " Maizie" or somebody else perpetually memorialized in a static quest to assist the world with a task as yet unspecified. Then my daughter tops it all off with an old black battered workman's lunch box in which she stows her gear. Nobody could ever penetrate her disguise to guess that she attends a fancy private girls' school.

It seems as if most every woman I know, closet retro shopper or not, treasures some kind of precious hand-me-down that has recently been promoted to "vintage." One friend has a hat collection from dearly beloved dead Aunt Cassie, which she wears to her annual Regression Therapy Party, where guests are expected to wear funny or funky hats. Her dress may be new for the occasion, but the object of admiring eyes is her marvelous straw hat, planted with perky spring flowers that peek through an old-fashioned veil. It's the kind of hat that everyone at the party, male or female, has to borrow and try on in front of the mirror. No one is able to restrain a smile at the cheerful sight reflected back to them.

Another friend, recently divorced, can no longer afford high fashion, which she acknowledges was one of the many disconcerting adjustments she was forced to make in her new life. However, she is a woman of a certain flexibility and, thanks to retro shops, dresses as beautifully as ever. No matter how high prices for "vintage" clothing have risen recently, they still are a bargain compared to retail. At a local antique store, my friend with the shrunken income discovered, for $25, an elegant all-black silk kimono with embroidered family crest, the interior discreetly lined with insets of apricot silk and butter-yellow sleeves. She wears it as an evening wrap to the symphony. When the house lights start to dim, if she gestures ever so slightly and thus reveals the slits in the kimono armholes, you can glimpse hidden treasures as the golden undersleeves gleam and flash.

As for me, I confess. I have discovered L'Incarnate, a tiny boutique in Paris that sells consignment clothing. A friend of mine recommended it as therapy to help me to overcome my irrational phobia against hand-me-downs. I had no sooner walked in the door than I succumbed to a fire-engine-red cape with redingote capelet and thick, black-braid edging on collar, pockets, and hem--an original designed by the great master Yves St. Laurent. You can see it coming from a mile away. It looks divine, chrie. Simply divine. And so was the price.


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