The Journal
May 2001
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   By Debbie Regan Cleveland

As the antiques business marches along in the new millennium, vintage fashion is making strides and blowing horns in the marketplace, museum world, and mass media.

In Print and On the Tube

Several recent novels feature vintage clothing on the dust jacket or as a plot device. One mystery plot, A Dress to Die For, by Dolores Johnson, centered around the ownership of a valuable Fortuny gown. Previews of a new cable series on A & E, The Incurable Collector, include reports on auctions of couture at William Doyle Galleries. Antiques trade papers are putting clothing and textiles on their covers as mainstream newspapers are highlighting fashion exhibits in their Arts and Leisure sections.

The lead paragraph in the special show section of Antiques and the Arts Weekly promoting the recent Triple Pier Expo spotlighted New Yorkerís current zest for Retro fashion. Not so long ago, antiques and vintage clothing werenít mentioned in the same breath in the upper echelons of the antique world.

Seen in All the Best Places

Academics, curators, high-end dealers, and auctioneers are more inclusive and respectful of vintage costume and dealers of same.

At its annual antiques forum, Colonial Williamsburg recognized the contributions made by costume and textile antiquarian Cora Ginsburg to prominent costume collections. The recent Philadelphia Antiques Show featured a collection of needlework, samplers, quilts, costumes, and accessories from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Winterthur Conference, "Conversations about Costume and the Visual Arts," set for October 19-20 at Winterthur, Delaware is further evidence of appreciation of clothingís rightful place in antiques echelons. The top auction houses are paying more attention to vintage fashion as interest and prices continue to climb. William Doyle Galleries has nurtured a following through a series of successful couture auctions. A few years back Skinner, Inc., of Boston and Bolton, Massachusetts attracted widespread attention with some charity auctions of Princess Dianaís gowns. It already had a loyal jewelry clientele thanks to expert Gloria Lieberman. Since then, Skinner has paid greater attention to couture and designer clothing and arranged some creative cooperation with Boston-area institutions. Dresses from an upcoming auction decorated the Boston Gallery during a cocktail reception for Chubbís Antiques Roadshow appraisers in town for an appraisal day. Skinner collaborated with clothier Louis, Boston to sponsor Fashion Plates, an auction of couture and vintage clothing selections from celebrity donors. Last November Skinner and the Peabody Essex Museum presented a slide lecture "Out of Bostonís Closets: Discovering French and American Fashion" to foster an appreciation of fashion and social history. Kerry Shrives, Director, Discovery Auctions at Skinner, says Skinnerís June 21st fashion auction will range from Pucci, Fortuny, and de la Renta, to Victorian clothing and accessories. Shrives says that desirability and prices are affected by labels and condition and that classic examples continue to be strong sellers. "The market for Victorian clothing has strengthened with renewed interest," says Shrives, "and museums are more actively acquiring items for their collections from all periods."

The Costume Society of America has stepped up its outreach to dealers and collectors of fashion. The CSA sought out noted costume dealers like Karen Augusta of N. Westminster, Vermont, to grace a panel at its annual symposium. Panel discussions of interest to vintage dealers included "E-commerce and Designing Your Own Web Page" aimed at entrepreneurs and "The Waves of Influence: Why and How We Do What We Do" for collectors and dealers.

Branching Out

Augusta is part of a growing trend of dealers who are branching out into consulting work and brokering consignments of major pieces and collections. She evaluates collections and may help place pieces in the optimum sale venue, whether auction, web site, or show. She assisted in the preparation and cataloging of the mammoth sale of the inventory of "The Suziís," prominent vintage dealers who were tragically slain last summer. She points out that there is a need for auction houses that will handle clothing for the general market, not just high end collectors. The major auction houses tend to accept only top pieces, leaving the better and good saleable pieces behind. For example, William Doyle Galleries selected only 32 pieces from "The Suziís" huge collection. Augusta arranged for the Charles A. Whitaker Auction Co. of Philadelphia to handle the rest, of high quality and enough for a two day auction, on this April 24 and 25. Charles Whitaker admits heís learned a tremendous amount from working with Augusta. He admits to "leaving many vintage lots behind when handling estates, because I didnít know anything about them."

Whitaker, with Augustaís help, hopes to fill the need for well-organized auctions of quality clothing. Heís already received some referrals from Doyles, including a menís clothing collection.

Augusta predicts an upswing in the interest in menís garb spurred by the upcoming exhibit at Historic Deerfield, "The Shape of Man: Menís Fashion 1760-1860."

New Curator Makes Historic Fashion Waves

Since Edward Maeder joined Historic Deerfield in January 2000, as Chair of the Curatorial Department and Curator of Textiles, he's been a presence in the marketplace and in the media. An avid and appreciative buyer of period costume, he scouts the Brimfield shows and elsewhere to augment Deerfieldís collection. In the new "Historic Deerfield" magazine, Maeder discusses a new find. He reveals he discovered a rare circa 1830ís manís banyan, or dressing gown from an advertiser in Maine Antique Digest.

Maederís recent clever exhibit of 18th century womenís fashions made of 20th century paper products illustrated that the historically rooted patterns surround us today. The New York Times, Boston Globe, and Wall St. Journal, as well as Martha Stewart Living TV, all celebrated his gowns made of paper towels, lace doilies, and coffee filters purchased at the Dollar Store. Maeder is organizing a symposium, "The Shape of Man,"set for Oct. 31 - Nov. 2 to coincide with his exhibit of menís fashion. Both symposium and exhibit will examine the way men dressed and why, and range from practical clothing of ordinary people to the embroidered courtwear of the wealthiest classes.

Hooray for Hollywood

Many people dress and collect the way they do because of whatís hot in Hollywood, on screen and off. Hollywood continues to have a multi-faceted impact on the vintage market. Hollywood stars are not only buying and selling, but donating all manner of Hollywood hand-me-downs to charity auctions. On screen or off, an article with star provenance has a newsy, collectible aura.

Garments worn to an event, whether the academy awards, or Madonnaís wedding, become instantly "collectible." Browsing through Sothebys.com in recent months reveals a series of auctions listing clothing items with Hollywood connections, from a tuxedo worn by James Dean in "Giant" to a pair of red sequined gondola shaped hats labeled "Jane Russell" and "Marilyn Monroe" made for "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" but not seen in the movie.

Film and theater groups provide a bankrolled clientele for vintage dealers, plus a "bounce-back" effect. First, they buy. Then if what they bought is in a hit movie, the general public wants to buy more of the same styles seen in the film and hits the vintage trail to find them.

The run of costume pictures, including "Titanic" as well as those based on period novelists such as Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, has been good for the vintage market.

According to Molly Turner, editor of The Vintage Gazette newsletter, some dealers who rely on supplying film costumers, see a hopefully temporary downturn in demand for their wares. Of late there are fewer costume pictures and an impending Hollywood writerís strike and other strikes that hurt the business. Better exchange rates have enticed production companies to Canada, which is good for Canadian dealers, but not for those in the U.S. If only the real Erin Brockovich had dressed in vintageÖ

The Internetís Impact

Recent developments in communications technology, particularly the Internet, have restructured how dealers do business, collectors collect, and designers find inspiration.

Dealers find it easier to promote their business and move stock online, yet have more competition. Collectors and designers are searching Internationally on line, hooking up with new far-flung sources. Designers and buyers used to ask for approval boxes. Some designers would "rent" garments for a week or two, at about 1/3 of the price, to copy a design. Now, they can grab images online or with a computer and digital camera, quickly digitalize a piece, and send it right back. By seeing a photo online, buyers have an immediate impression of the garment. By posting images online, dealers reduce their catalog printing costs and the time and handling involved in approval boxes. "I donít need a shop, what I need is space and a computer," says Linda White, of Upton, Massachusetts, whose shop has been in a large Victorian house on Maple St. for 18 years. She notes a big change in retail sales in the last three years. Direct costuming requests from film and theater groups has dried up as they go to the Web instead. Now, White generally sells online and at shows, while the shop is a vehicle for getting stock as opposed to selling it. Her main sources are pickers and people who just walk in off the street. She avoids auctions as sheís found auction prices have risen to almost retail level.

New York, New York

White sets up at shows in New York City and Sturbridge, Massachusetts. To get ready for what she calls the "trendy" Metropolitan Pavilion shows in New York, she sits down with the last two months of the major fashion magazines: Elle, Vogue, Harperís Bazaar, and packs styles with similar verve and color. At the same time, she anticipates that designers may have shifted gears and be looking for something else.

"Itís almost scary how the retro look and demand is moving closer to 2000," comments Sheila Feeney, vice president, Antiques Shows at the Metropolitan Pavilion, where White exhibits. About 60% of Feeneyís dealers deal in just 20th century garb, from the 1940ís on. Other dealers, like White, bring in 20th century pieces with their earlier stock.

"What do you have in designer clothing?" is a standard question so White also packs designer, along with the quality Victorian and Edwardian pieces that she loves and has built her reputation on. While the demand for these isnít as strong as for the now-hot retro, the prices have jumped. "A Civil War era dress used to go for $ 250,"says White, "Now itís $ 1,000." Feeney asserts that while some say the Internet hurt the industry, attendance and demand for dealer space is on an upward curve. The September show will jump from 67 dealers to 78 and she has a waiting list of about 30 more. Feeney also notes that in New York City, about a half a dozen new boutiques have opened recently, and are doing well. "People want to see and feel the color and texture, and check for weak and faded fabric," says Feeney. "You canít do that with a jpeg image." Designers Donna Karan, Anna Sui, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and others look for inspiration in the structure, fabric designs and themes of earlier decades and find it at the Metropolitan.

"Handbags are hot," reports Feeney, based upon the large number of handbags bought by retail shoppers as well as designers. Karan, an avowed vintage fashion show devotee, collects vintage shoes and handbags, and buys heavily at the New York and Sturbridge, Massachusetts shows.

Shopping in Sturbridge

Linda Zukas, manager of the vintage show in Sturbridge, also contests complaints about the Internetís impact on the market and on shows. Sheís expanded her show and has a waiting list of dealers. "You have to go buy things in the first place, before hitting the Web. You have to smooze and network, meet customers and sources face to face and build personal rapports." That corroborates Feeneyís observation that designers make a beeline to the booths of dealers that they already know.

Zukas points out that searching on the ĎNet is nothing like the fun of treasure hunting through booth after booth of vintage goodies. Retro, the newest category at Sturbridge, joins booths of just buttons, just bridal whites, and just jewelry, along with displays of textiles, jewelry, quilts, trims, and clothing from the 18th century through the 1970ís. Along with the recent interest in retro, Zukas notes that quilts and hooked rugs have rebounded from a soft market.

Past Patterns Popular

Patterns may be the category of vintage fashion most helped by the web. The study and market for patterns, to recreate vintage clothing and learn about earlier clothing construction and styles, have blossomed due to technology and the Internet.

Michelle Lee, of Patterns From the Past, started her business five years ago, after "one too many tag sales." She only sells on her web site, which is part of a web ring featuring other sites of companies with patterns and related interests. Lee lists about 4000 patterns on her web site and sends out about 50 patterns per day.

"Ebay is a great place to sell patterns," believes Lee. "It has a large area for patterns with sub-divisions depending upon whether they are craft or clothing patterns. The most expensive and in demand pattern are the Elvis jump suit and Sailor Moon patterns, which go for $ 30."

Others she sells for a few dollars or they end up in a grab bag (worth about $.10). Thereís also a demand for 1930s for great styles, 1940s for style and swing dancing. Thereís also a consistent demand for recently out of print fashion, especially bridal.

Lee explains that people buy the patterns to recreate the vintage look because they love it and the old fabric doesnít necessarily hold up, especially dancing, and buying vintage costs about the same or more that sewing a new sturdy garment. As swing dancing is waning a bit in popularity, Lee wonders if the demand for those patterns will wane.

For further study of patterns and prices, Lee recommends two books by Wade Laboissonniere: Blueprints of Fashion: Home Sewing Patterns of the 1940ís and Blueprints of Fashion: Home Sewing Patterns of the 1950ís, published by Schiffer.

The demand for retro/vintage has been strong enough that Vogue, Butterick, and Simplicity are reprinting vintage patterns in modern sizes. In fact, Buttrick has its own archives and is researching past patterns via the Commercial Pattern Archive, whose Center is located in the University of Rhode Islandís Library. The CPA is a consortium of clothing pattern collections in North American and England. URI itself has the largest collection of clothes patterns in the world, as well as a variety of supporting materials, such as fashion periodicals, tailoring books, and trade catalogs. Researchers seeking information on such topics as bras, 20th century home sewing, Edith Head, swimwear, and Vionnet tap into the CPA.

URI presented the exhibit "Discovering Unknown Resources: The Commercial Pattern Archives" featuring swimwear, to coincide with the Costume Society of Americanís symposium. The centerpiece of the exhibit, which runs through April 24, was the premiere of an interactive, digital database of the archive holdings. The archive has over 25,000 text records and over 12,700 scanned images of pattern envelopes. The database is available by appointment.

Best Foot and Faces Forward

Two more categories of fashion "stepping out" this spring are womenís shoes and compacts. Karen Augusta highly recommends Nancy Rexfordís new book Womenís Shoes in America, 1795-1930, recently published by Kent University Press. Rexford, in conjunction with her book, curated a new exhibit, Her Best Foot Forward: Womenís Shoes in America, 1765-1930 at Historic Northampton through September 2.

The Eleventh, yes, Eleventh Annual Ladies Compact Convention will grace Warwick, Rhode Island the first weekend in June. Roselyn Gerson, "The Compact Lady," and publisher of "The Powder Puff" newsletter and numerous books on compacts, expects the "biggest compact convention ever." Collectors from across the U.S. and abroad will share, swap, and sell an amazing array of Art Deco, enameled, figural, gadgetry, and combination compacts as well as vanity bags and purses and perfume bottles and fans.

From head to foot, vintage fashion and accessories is making news. Take advantage of the many auctions, events, and exhibits coming up this spring and summer. The biz is buzzing!


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