Vintage stores struggle to keep up with demand for 'Mad Men' fashions

Angela Grube quickly combed through the clothing rack ignoring several pristine looking garments before the prized item caught her eye: a black dress with a torn zipper and holes in the underarms.

Grube was shopping in the basement of a vintage store in Hampden when she found the treasure: a three-quarter length, cocktail dress adorned with bluish glass beads atop embroidered trees. She basked in her good luck.

The damage to the dress would be a quick fix for the self taught seamstress and vintage clothing store owner. More importantly, the garment appeared to have originated from the "Mad Men" era, which are the most sought after items in Grube's Hampden store, 9th Life.

"Mad Men", AMC's hit drama has captured fans not only for its Emmy-winning writing and acting, but for its fashion, which has inspired throngs of men to flock to a more tapered look, and has encouraged women to embrace their voluptuousness with simple designs, and high waists that accentuate curves. Although the show takes place in the '60s, many of the characters wear clothing associated with the '40s and '50s, which was common at the time, according to fashion experts.

The style craze generated by the show has been both a blessing and a curse for vintage store owners such as Grube. Before the show became a critical success, Grube would have simply gone to estate sales, relied on "drop-in" customers to bring clothes and sell her items, or gone vintage shopping for garments to stock her shelves.

Now she finds herself going online to sites such as eBay.com and Etsy.com to find clothes, and making trips to neighboring stores to not only find clothes to resell but to make "reproductions," a two- to three-day process that requires her to take an outfit apart seam by seam and then use the pattern to make a replica garment.

"We can't hold it in the store long enough to advertise the items," said Grube, who has owned her store for the past two years. "You barely get it on the rack and it's gone."

"Mad Men" joins "Sex and The City," "Miami Vice," and "Thirty something" as some of the more recent television shows to shape the fashion of the time, according to Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

"What is interesting here is that you have so many people who look so cool," Thompson said. "You wear the clothes and you look like you are going to have dinner with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr."

Only "Davy Crocket" in the 1950s had more of an ability to inspire viewers to dress in clothes from another era, according to Thompson.

"You had millions of baby boomer kids wearing raccoon hats," Thompson said.

While "Davy Crocket" might have had the largest reach as far as sheer audience numbers is concerned, the depth of "Mad Men's" influence will likely be greater. In addition to the boom experienced by vintage stores, the show has inspired a clothing line at Banana Republic. Hair salons now have walk-ins demanding flips, beehives and other "updos" from that era.

Shane Gullivan first heard about "Mad Men" a year ago when customers came to his Towson store, Ten Car Pile Up, demanding '40s cocktail dresses for their theme parties. Although the show is based in the mid- to late-'60s, many of the characters wear clothing reminiscent of the late 40s and '50s. Experts say people of that time would have worn older clothing because of economic constraints.

"The show has reinvented the theme party," Gullivan said. "It is more of a tailored look. The fashion industry wasn't exploiting that at the time."

In addition to the tailored look of the time period, Gullivan also loves the fabrics used to make the clothes, such as cotton, linen, raw silk, gabardine, and rayon.

"It has made people more aware of fabric," Gullivan said. "People's fashion level is much more astute as a result of the show."

While the look and feel of the garments of that period might be a fashionista's dream, the delicate, posh fabrics haven't exactly held up over time.

"Deodorants, hygiene, and the soaps of that time did a number on those clothes," Grube said.

You can see evidence of Grube's claims in the underarm region of the clothing. Holes where deodorants would have been used have almost become synonymous with vintage items from the "Mad Men" era. Wire hangers have also been a kiss of death for the clothes — essentially rusting garments to ruin. And because many of the items have not been properly stored, the actual age of the clothes is much older than the already decrepit designs.

"It has definitely gotten more expensive because there is less of it," said Gullivan.

In the Baltimore area, skirts from the era can range from $25 to $50; suits jackets can cost up to $150 at Gullivan's store; skinny ties cost as low as $15 at Grube's shop; and cocktail dresses can range from $45 to just over $100.

As a result of the demands of the customers, vintage shop owners have found themselves having to find new ways to please the public's thirst.

"Trying to find these clothes for everyday wear has become so difficult," said Grube, who rarely visited neighboring stores in order to find gently damaged clothing to restore and resell. She has also had to do more online shopping, which she dreads.

Gullivan has had to rely more on his "pickers"—freelance shoppers he pays to search for certain items at estate sales, flea markets, and garage sales.

"These women are out there beating the bushels," he said.

As the show ages, so will the clothes, according to Grube, who professes to be the show's biggest fan to have never watched more than five minutes of an episode.

Through her extensive research on the internet of the fashions of the show, Grube predicts that the future season's will be moving closer to the '70s era, which will mean more polyesters and brighter fabrics.

"I have more of that stuff," Grube said in reference to her inventory. "I'm looking forward to next season when they are a little more Mod."

Gullivan isn't as excited.

"I don't think the '70s are the most trendy," he said. "Polyester will outlive us all."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

Get More 'Mad Men' style

New duds, vintage look: Want more of a modern "Mad Men" fashion feel? Banana Republic has just unveiled its newest line of clothes inspired by the show. The store will debut more clothes for the fall season on Aug. 10 and 12, according to Sandra Christian, general manager of the Banana Republic store in the Mall in Columbia. The collaboration between the show and the clothing chain is a perfect partnership, according to Christian. "We are both mad about style," she says. "Banana Republic is defined by the era of dressing. And Mad Men is defined by an era of style."

Find the black and grey color blocked dress for $130, and the classic black trench for $198 at Banana Republic, 10300 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Call 410-772-0819.

A timeless scent: While many of the perfumes of the "Mad Men" era have come and gone, Chanel No. 5 has stayed on top. The perfume is synonymous with sophistication, and elegance — kind of like the outward appearance of Betty Draper ( January Jones) on the show. The fragrance has a strong track record. Fashion and beauty icons, including Marilyn Monroe and Nicole Kidman, have been the face for this best-selling perfume of all time. It must be doing something right.

Find the Parfum 1.0 oz. bottle for $260.00 at Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Macy's, and Lord & Taylor stores.

Hair with '60s style: Love Joan's beehive? Want to achieve Betty's fabulous flip? Sue Ebert, owner of Kumbyah Inc. in Hampden can do all of the updos featured on "Mad Men." Ebert, who has done hair for a number of period productions, is a veteran with the updos. In fact, she puts her skills on display each year at Honfest when she styles hundreds of beehives. The updos can last up to a week, according to Ebert. "With the spray I have available it could last that long," she says. "When I put it in, I really put it in."

Find it for $50-$75 at Kumbyah Inc., 824 W. 36th St. in Hampden. Call 410-235-3663.

Add a modern touch: It's a match made in heaven. Our fashion experts say that people are matching modern accessories such as shoes with signature "Mad Men" garments. Plus, what's more retro than a Junior League gathering? There will be more than 400 pairs of new shoes at discounted prices. Brands include Steve Madden and Chinese Laundry. Styles include wedges, flats, heels, clogs, and espadrilles.

Sale runs Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Wise Penny Thrift Store, 5902 York Road in Baltimore. Shoes range from $9.99 to $49.99. Call 410-435-5521.

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