My addiction began last June with a pang of sentiment. We had been living for a month or so in the old house we’d just bought in East Dallas, and I was in that heady period when a move seems to have delivered you into a new world. The most ordinary chores were transformed into adventures by the unfamiliar landscape. Once I ran around the corner to the Fiesta Supermarket on Columbia for a jug of milk, and returned an hour later with a dozen shuck-wrapped ta-males, a large can of mangoes, some inedible bright pink Mexican candy – and no milk. 1 checked out the used furniture stores on Ross and browsed through pawnshops on East Grand.
Lower Greenville especially fascinated me, with its medley of good little restaurants, consignment places, fern bars, small groceries, and hardware stores. One hot Friday afternoon, looking for a three-way light switch, I discovered Eclec-tricity, a lavender shop sandwiched between Mexico Super-mercado No. 2 and D.J.’s. I thought the sign read Electricity and was startled to find behind the front counter a pretty darkhaired girl looking, in a white ruffled and sashed frock and black Mary Janes with white anklets, exactly as if she’d stepped out of Rebecca of Sunny-brook Farm. Her name, she told me, was Micheline, and I should take my time and look around the shop, though as they’d only been open a few days things were still a little unsettled. And the air conditioning wasn’t working.
Undeterred by the heat and contributing to the pleasant disarray, I stayed the rest of the afternoon and tried on everything in the shop, all vintage clothes (I prefer “vintage” as more accurate than “antique” and more elegant than “used”). I had these all to myself: gorgeous silk and lace teddies and chemises from the Twenties, a Fifties purple taffeta and net Gaymode tiered half-slip, cotton Victorian “picnic” pantaloons and eyelet bodices threaded with ribbon, a Carmen Miranda dress with rows of bright colored ruffles and shoes to match, a feather boa.
The moment of truth came when I tried on what Micheline had labeled in her neat handwriting on a little lavender card, “Edwardian cotton tea dress with hand crocheted lace.” As she fastened the pre-zipper row of minuscule hooks and buttons up the back, 1 looked at myself in the mirror in the delicate white lawn dress. The panels of handmade lace around my throat and arms, the softly bloused bodice, the long flared skirt were enormously flattering. It occurred to me that the original lady or the daughter of my new house, which was built in 1909, would have dressed so to serve tea to her sewing circle or lemonade on the shady porch to her beau. The dress and the house were the same age. It was an omen; they deserved one another.
“It’s a perfect fit,” Micheline breathed behind me, and I bought it on the spot. At $125, it was the most expensive item in the shop, though still a bargain by contemporary standards. Such practical considerations really had nothing to do with my interest in the dress, however. I wanted it for other reasons. Living in a 70-year-old house, wearing a 70-year-old dress, I could know the past with an immediacy not possible through books.
For example, now that I have worn my Edwardian dress for tea and lemonade and martinis and Perrier, I have learned how seldom its owner must have been alone: Those hooks up the back require a maid or a mamma or a frock-coated husband. Once, when my husband took a guest home after a party, I spent 30 miserable minutes hooked half-in, half-out till he came back and released me. Wearing the dress requires a certain serenity. The lace is heavy but intricately worked, and in a boisterous argument 1 have heard, or felt, the unmistakable rrrip of broken thread, and ’ quickly turned meek. “Whatever you say, dear. I didn’t want the vote, anyway.”
Remember the old schoolbook adage, Never judge a man till you have walked a mile in his moccasins? It works for women, too. In my compulsive fashion, I have now tried on much of the vintage clothing for sale in Dallas, and the experience has made me empathetic. For a modern woman I am smallish, but the gorgeous Victorian bodice in ribbed black velvet shot with magenta and green, on sale for $20 at the Faded Rose, would not meet around my middle, even with the help of its dozen or so whalebone stays. Realizing no grown woman could breathe in such a contraption, I understood Victorian vapors and fainting spells. I’d always thought of them vaguely as an affectation, but they were caused by a simple lack of oxygen.
Imagine with the bodice, with its stays, high neck, and tight sleeves, also wearing pantaloons, several petticoats, a long full skirt, stockings, tiny laced shoes, and a bonnet. What an emancipation the picnic pantaloons, which make it possible to go to the bathroom “on a picnic” – that is, without undressing – must have seemed. These were not at all the early Fredericks of Hollywood number I’d first thought them, but an immensely practical and benevolent ? creation. I hope their designer was knighted – or, more likely, darned.
Not all clothes of the past seem so constricting as those of the Victorian era, of course. On the contrary, it’s hard to know what to do with the wonderful floaty things of the Twenties and Thirties, which were almost too unstructured to be comfortable to me. I felt as if my clothes were falling off, and thus discovered that flappers really flapped. The lace, silk chiffon, and crepe are exquisite, and many chemises, slips, teddies, nightgowns, and robes with years of luxurious use still in them can be found in Dallas. At Shady Lady I even found several Twenties silk bras for $7 each. One could, I suppose, wear a chemise or diaphanous robe over a dress or blouse, a la Janis Joplin, but that’s not my style.
Nor are the wide shoulders and narrow skirts of the Forties, though this silhouette is most popular of all with many vintage clothes wearers. The bold, dramatic, aggressive shape allows freedom with control and suits ambitious women; the fabrics are durable, the colors discreet. You could walk out of Lulu’s or Faded Rose in a Forties suit that cost $28 and look modishly contemporary.
I love the Fifties clothes for my remembered girlhood, but now they seem regressive even to me. Back to stays and numer-ous petticoats under wasp-waisted strapless, waltz-length evening gowns and low-necked daytime dresses with boleros or jackets. Why, I wonder? How did we allow ourselves to be sold by Dior and his New Look and all that followed it?
As for the Sixties, forget them. If, for history’s sake, you’re interested in polyester mini-skirts, Goodwill has rows and rows of them, all for under $3.
What I have learned over the past eight months, as I’ve meandered through the five excellent vintage clothes shops near me, is the meaning of what I began with – eclec-tricity: The eclectic is electric. In buying vintage clothes, don’t try to recapitulate a whole period, or become an apparition from Godey’s Lady’s Book or the pages of Punch. Use what you find from the past with what you already own to create a new effect. It’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s eclec-tric. It’s also cheap.
Saving money is not the prime object, however. I like good clothes and I don’t mind paying for them. I’ve been known to create disaster by blowing the house payment on a new outfit, and one of the high points of this winter for me was buying a Nipon suit at the Carriage Shop’s Nipon trunk show, and being fitted by Pearl Nipon herself. I palpitate at labels and the quality they represent.
But consider this: My husband came home in late November with a business invitation, black tie, which meant a dressier look than anything I had. After a dispiriting Saturday afternoon at NorthPark looking at costly party dresses and worrying about the Christmas budget, I stopped off at Eclectricity on the way home. There I found a full, crisp Fifties skirt of iridescent plaid taffeta in shades of red, green, and gold, with a black satin ribbon stripe. With it, I wore my cropped black velvet Nipon jacket over a dull gold chemise and high-heeled evening sandals. A day or two after the party, the Dallas News ran an ad for a similar look by, of all people, Nipon; price, $390. I had spent exactly $18.
Or this: We were going to a neighborhood open house from 5 till 7 Christmas Eve, then coming home for a family party. 1 wanted to be casual and comfortable, but festive. So I wore my own tailored white flannel slacks and silk shirt, and added a short white cashmere Fifties cardigan, embroidered with tiny seed pearls and rhine-stones, from Faded Rose for $10.
And so on. I don’t pretend to know all the places in the Dallas area that sell vintage clothes, but here are five prominent shops near downtown Dallas and what I found in them on recent visits. Stock changes constantly and as items are usually one of a kind, don’t count on finding exactly the same things when you start looking. You may find something better!
Faded Rose (2720 N. Henderson, 826-7450) is the grande dame of antique clothes shops in Dallas, run by Joyce Baker, whose idea the whole thing seems to have been in the first place. At the Rose I found a rack of silk and cotton kimonos from $20 to $50; the $50 one was a hand-painted crepe in marvelous shades of coral. Some needed repair. (Always examine neck and underarm seams carefully, and look for moth damage and rotten fabric – these clothes are old, remember.)
Joyce had an early 1900’s plush cape for $45, a Persian lamb stole marked “Sid Frank Furs, Houston,” for $45, a mariachi outfit and blue satin, sequined outfits for wrestlers for $8 and $10; there were two Victorian winter bodices, one in old rose for only $10, a number of Fifties embroidered sweaters for $10, and some fancy Fifties cocktail dresses from $15 to $30.I liked a brown chiffon with gold beads, $28, and a handmade blue satin stripe halter dress (with the basting threads still in it) for $20.
This fall Joyce opened a new shop, Solo, adjacent to Theatre Three in the Quadrangle (2800 Routh, 742-6482). Billed “clothing for individuals,” Solo is intended to appeal to the woman who could buy anywhere but wants the distinction of one-of-a-kind antique fashions. The most elegant and expensive antique clothes in Dallas are here: elaborately hand-embroidered silk kimonos from old China, including a crimson one embroidered all over in gold for $300; a Victorian net and lace dress for $300; a Victorian traveling costume in eggplant-colored wool and silk for $175; a Victorian three-piece garden party dress, $125; a lace and net morning dress from the turn of the century for $175; and a Victorian lace skirt with a slight train for $120.
These clothes are collectors’ items and in fine condition. Solo carries other less expensive pieces, too, and also makes long velvet evening capes and blouses designed from old lace which sell for varying prices.
Shady Lady (3422A Greenville, 826-1361) is a little grubbier looking than either Solo or the Rose, and the interior is as dim as the name indicates. But I’ve seen interesting things there. Terry Smart, the whimsically pretty lady with bangs and long brown hair who owns it, has an eye for the exotic and the erotic. She has a neat collection of vintage nighties, long quilted and satin robes ($10-15), as well as men’s dressing gowns and smoking jackets ($10-20). I also saw a full length muskrat coat for $200, a leopard coat for $145, and – yuk – a short jacket of unborn calf for $75.
Lulu’s (3404A Oak Lawn, 521-2862) has the most exquisite cotton and lace nightgowns, petticoats, and pantaloons around. Meredith Motley (there is no Lulu), who owns the shop, keeps them beautifully laundered and pressed. They would make lovely Valentine’s Day gifts, as would the silk chiffon slips and chemises left by departed flappers. Lulu’s also has a miscellany of authentic vintage memorabilia – silver-backed brushes, picture frames, candle holders, jewelry – but as Meredith tends to be a bit haphazard in marking prices I’m not sure what they cost. Perhaps the nicest item in the shop when I was last in was a beaded street-length silk satin velvet dress in a rich moss green, “made for the wedding of an actress in the Thirties,” the card read, at $110.
Call it sentiment if you will, but of all the shops my favorite remains Eclectricity (2002 Greenville, 826-2195). Their selection is good, their prices are terrific, and I always see something there I have to resist – or not. On my last visit I saw a black printed circle skirt adorned with rows of silver sequins for $18, a long Edwardian black taffeta dress with a lace collar and rose on the low round neck ($58), a beaded while velvet party dress from the Fifties ($26), and a Thirties seal coat for $60. 1 also saw a great looking bright blue taffeta dress with a bubble skirt, very like a Calvin Klein I saw at Barbara Robertson for $630. This one: $34.
Ask to go upstairs at Eclectricity, whereyou’ll find a good collection of men’sshirts, suits, and topcoats priced from $8 to$25, and ladies’ shoes at $8 a pair. Just tellthem Jo sent you. On second thought, theshort woman standing at the triple mirrorwearing a gold lame scarf ($8) around herneck, a pillbox hat with a red veil ($6), aHawaiian sports shirt ($12), and her son’sold jogging pants will probably be the eclec-tricme.