Crazy for vintage

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns greets models supplied by Retropolitan, a vintage shop on Main Street Ellicott City, at a preview party for Burns's new documentary, "Prohibition," which will debut in October. (Photo by Jon Levi, courtesy of Maryland Public Television)

When Maryland Public Television called Cindi Ryland last May to request models to attend a reception for its major donors, the owner of Retropolitan vintage clothing store took the request in stride. After all, she’s had them before. What took her breath away was that the evening’s special guests were to be award-winning film producer Ken Burns and his co-producer Lynn Novick stopping in Baltimore to preview their new documentary “Prohibition,” which will air Oct. 2-4 on public television.

Ryland had less than a month to outfit a dozen models (employees, friends and herself) in flapper dresses and feathered hats so they could mingle with guests.

“They provided ambiance,” says Ryland of her models.

“We just thought they were a perfect match for this event,” says Michele Fitzgerald, MPT’s manager of major and planned giving, who made the call to Retropolitan.


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Luckily for Ryland, she had most of the clothing hanging in her Ellicott City shop.

Since 2003, Retropolitan has made more than a few perfect matches for customers needing a unique dress for a fundraiser gala or a vintage fur for a murder mystery dinner. Her clients run the gamut from actors to collectors to teenagers wanting to show off their sense of style. And they want the real thing.

“I just love to think that some other woman wore it or made it,” says longtime customer Patrice Shackleford, 47. The Catonsville resident has worn vintage clothing since she was a teen. Her favorite purchase from Retropolitan was a short-sleeved coral-colored Orlon cardigan with two vertical floral appliqué panels.

“It’s a dead ringer for cashmere,” says Shackleford of the synthetic fabric that was first manufactured by the Dupont Corp. in 1941.

“We don’t do reproductions,” says Ryland. She points out the authentic French art glass lamps hanging in her windows and the charming tortoise-shell Bakelite purse in a glass cabinet as examples. Her collection changes daily and ranges from late 18th century to “mid-century modern” -- what stylists now call the 1950s and early ’60s.

“I just love collecting things. Not one particular era -- I love it all,” says Ryland, who recently retired from 35 years of teaching French and Spanish.

“It was always my dream to just do my shop,” she says.

“Wherever I am, I am out hunting and gathering,” she adds. Earlier this year, while vacationing in Santa Fe, she found a turquoise and black dress from the 1930s, and bought it, of course.

She confesses an unabashed enthusiasm for crawling around in other people’s attics and basements.

Much of her knowledge of antiques and vintage style was gained visiting estate sales and auctions and talking to dealers and others who specialize in these things. She also spends time researching on the Internet.

Cyclical style

Style does seem to repeat itself, perhaps with assistance from the TV and film industry. Since the debut of the Emmy-winning “Mad Men” series, customers are looking for outfits to attend “Mad Men” theme parties. The Roaring ’20s has returned with the HBO drama “Boardwalk Empire.” Set in 1920 Atlantic City, N.J., the TV show, in its second season, chronicles the beginning of Prohibition and the cataclysmic political and moral changes sweeping the country.

Last February, the Howard County Library chose a speak-easy theme for its annual Evening in the Stacks. Retropolitan supplied models for that event as well. And now, with the premiere of “Prohibition” next week, look for a stronger interest in the era, with its issues of government involvement and a changing moral code that seem to mirror American current events.

Upstairs at Retropolitan, a rolling tabletop bar with a locked liquor cabinet sits politely on a glass table next to an Adrien Pearsall sofa. Behind it, a white fringed “flapper” dress with a beaded and sequined bodice hangs on a mannequin. Its complex detail and excellent condition would make it a beautiful wedding dress, says Ryland.

Most of the clothing is in Retropolitan’s basement. Real furs from the 1920s era and full-length coats to capes and stoles of the ’30s and ’40s line two walls. Ryland points out a lined cashmere sweater with a fur collar popular in the early 1960s. She also carries vintage undergarments.

“The lingerie is like butter,” she says, and is hard to find, along with frothy taffeta cupcake dresses. “I can’t keep cupcake dresses in the store, they are so popular for proms,” says Ryland.

Retropolitan carries a much smaller selection of vintage men’s clothing, not by choice.

“They (men) just wear their clothes ‘til they fall off,” says Ryland.

“Cindi has a really fabulous eye,” says Shackleford, who has bought vintage ties for her husband, who is a collector. “She chooses only garments that are in excellent condition and really well made.”

Besides clothing, accessories and furnishings, Ryland offers another service that some would call vintage -- but it’s something that some of her customers can’t do without.

It’s called “layaway.”