Vintage Clothing, To Collect, Display and to Wear

Victorian Black Bodice

Victorian Black Bodice

Vintage and antique clothing from days gone by can be a fascinating subject to learn about and collect. One of the first places I explore when attending an estate sale is the attic. Peeking in old trunks, closets and cupboards I will discover precious memories tucked away. A piece of clothing, wrapped in old tissue, carefully stored away is a clue that this garment was something treasured by the owner and was most likely worn for a special occasion and had great sentimental value. Sometimes I really get lucky and find a note about the garment and what event it was worn for and if I am really lucky, I find an old photo of the owner in the garment. I am particularly intriqued by antique garments, I study the design, the techniques for construction, the fabric and the trims used. Ladies of the 1800s didn’t have a lot of clothing and each special piece which took a long time to create, and would have to serve them well, for a long peroid of time and for multiple purposes. Many of these saved pieces were for special events and a lot of love and details went into their design and construction. Victorian clothing was usually lined, had numerous fastenings inside the garment, they definetly would require assistance in getting in and out of the garments. One of the things I collect are antique bodices, these were worn with a basic long skirt. Each bodice is decorated with all kinds of trims, lace, piping, beading, ect. many of the trims could be removed so the bodice could be used as an everyday garment, or added to, to be dressed up for church , or black added for mourning. The beauty is in the details. Another special garment I love are antique baby items. These were made with the most love and creativity. Mostly beautifully embellished christening dresses, some have coats, slips, and hats included. The embroidery, the lace, the fabrics, these are little works of art, sometimes as fancy as a wedding gown. Along with the christening outfits, little everyday dresses, slips, nighties, all treasures in themselves.
These antique pieces are many times too fragile to even think of wearing but make excellent pieces to display in your decor and to study. The bone structure and size of these previous owners is very small compared to us today. Hang the items on pretty hangers to display on a wall, or dress an old dressmaker’s dummy if the garment’s fabric is strong enough for hanging. Shadow boxes with the item under glass is another idea. Just keep out of direct sunlight and in places were high humidity isn’t a problem. Never attempt to wash these antique pieces of clothing yourself, the weight of the garment wet could destroy delicate fabrics. Little cotton and muslin baby things can usually be gently laundered. When in doubt do nothing except air and shake out the dust. On garments I rescue that are in very poor shape with no hope of staying whole, I carefully detach the buttons and the trims to be used separately on other garments or for customers designing costumes or re-enactment clothing. Many a lace collar or other trims have ended up embellishing a newly created Civil War Dress.
Next of my favorite eras is the 1930s thru 1940s. I call it the glamour age. Beautifully designed evening clothes, and lingerie, and trousseau wear, are usually what I find tucked away. The designers of that era knew how to work with fabric, they would create designs that cling and flatter and drape the body beautifully. The tailoring details, darts, gores, linings, made the clothing fit perfectly and look custom made. Pre WWII , glamour was most important, staging a comeback after the Depression years, everyone wanted to look like their favorite screen idol. Study the old movies of the 40’s to educate your self in the styling and tailoring of the day. Many of the sweaters, skirts, suits and dresses are still very wearable today. During the war years there was a shortage of fabrics and trims, eveything manufactured was going into the war effort, gals got very creative in their wardrobes to look fashionable when their soldiers came home but they didn’t spend a fortune or suffer because of shortages. Necklaces were made from seeds, wedding gowns from parachute fabric, a simple work outfit would get instant glamour from adding little accessories for going out in the evening. Silk stockings disappeared during the war, there are stories of what “unspeakable” things a gal might do for a pair of silk stockings. It really is a fascinating study of American women’s ingenuity. She may be “Rosie the Riveter” by day but she was a femme fatale by night.
Next came the fabulous 50’s where everything was new, the war was over, soldiers had married and started families, everything was “Modern”. I call this the “June Cleaver” era after the “Leave it to Beaver ” TV show. Women wore fitted waist dresses, bright colorful fabrics with big skirts, and a coordinating apron of course. Watch the old classic shows on TV and you will see what I mean. Cotton “Pedal Pusher” pants, what we refer as Capris. Very feminine but modern. Growing up in the 1950’s I can still picture my Mom and her sisters’ clothing and remembering playing dressup with them. Many items from the 50’s are still around and very much in style. 1950’s jewelry and purses are great fun.
Coming of age in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Bohemian and Hippie style was in. Notice how styles keep coming back, nothing is new in fashion just recyled and reinvented. That bohemian look is being designed for this decade. The fun of wearing vintage clothing is finding just the right piece. Whether it is a jacket or an accessory, you can create a fashion statement that is just your style. With vintage, less is more, 1 piece rather than a whole ensemble or outfit is better. As an accessory it makes a striking statement , but to completely dress vintage from head to toe is dressing more like in costume, so unless you are going to a theme party, use sparingly.

Collecting vintage clothing is a lot of fun and and an interesting way to learn history and look back at styles and trends, personalities and events in the world. It is a connection to the past and a way of reaching out and touching the women of generations back, learning what was important in their lives, the sentiments they cared about in how they dressed. Many current day designers use vintage clothing as their muse to spark their creativity for their new designs. You never have to worry about someone showing up wearing the same outfit, by accessorizing with vintage. You have developed your own individual style.
When shopping for wearable vintage clothing always take a tape measure, sizes on vintage labels are very different sizes from clothing sizes today, they tend to run much smaller than today. Look fabrics over, look closely at points of stress. Rips or tears in seams can be mended if there is extra fabric but thinning fabric can’t be repaired in other places. Check for stains, most set in ones are hard to remove, light soiling is no problem. Buttons, zippers ect. can always be replaced.
MY friend Sandy Michaud, owner of Vintage and Retro , who is a vintage clothing dealer and myself , owner of Lavender Path Antiques of Harwinton, Ct. are putting together a Vintage Clothing Trunk Show, bringing in pieces from both our collections for sale on Feb. 6th at the Burlington Inn Antiques shop, Spielmann Highway (rt 4) Burlington, Ct. . We will have clothing from the Victorian times upto 1980’s. Lots of wearable vintage including a special group of Paris fashions and American designer pieces, also featuring designer Bonnie Cashin. Refreshments, door prizes and a lot of fun for the vintage collector. Also vintage accessories, jewelry, lace trims, buttons ect. will be there. Time : 12pm to 4pm. Snow date following Sunday. Email me at for more info. We are also looking for new items for our collections.

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One Response to “Vintage Clothing, To Collect, Display and to Wear”

  1. Sidonie, la mode au masculin…

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