In a season when fashion seems to be turning back in time, vintage clothes aficionados have a jump on the trend.
Designers are again following the lead of the hip and smart who manage to pull off major style with a minimum of money. Department stores and holiday catalogs are overflowing with Victorian-inspireddresses, suits with a '40s line and fussy blouses with yards of ruffles. The young trend-setters who started this run on nostalgia years ago, rummaged through thrift stores for faded velvets and costumey hats. They raided grandma's attic storage for old evening ensembles, funky purses and retired costume jewelry. Those with some extra ready cash, haunted vintage shops where the clothes had already been hand-picked and deemed quaint or interesting.
Now these young stylists have matured into chic women who find that a touch of vintage separates them from the fashion pack.
"Vintage is my hobby," says Reesa Woolf, who with a degree in psychology speaks to business groups on topics such as "Humor in the Workplace." "When I travel, I constantly check out antique and vintage stores for the classier stuff," she says. It may be a jacket, shawl or old piece of jewelry. "I have to look like Dr. Woolf," she says, "but I will use vintage jewelry to make a businesslike suit interesting."
An open mind and alert eye is the best way to stumble across unusual vintage finds. "You may be looking for a jacket, sometimes you find it, but a lot of it is the thrill of the kill. In psychology they call that intermittent reinforcement," she says. "If the search paid off every time, you would lose interest. If you only strike it lucky once in a while, the interest is maintained."
However, she does not allow her love of vintage to turn her into a walking costume. "You have to integrate the old things with the new," she says, "and the trick is not to hang things in the closet by matching tops and bottoms. If you hang them separately, you make up new outfits because the items are independent. When you walk in the closet you lean to what looks niftier."
Tim Potee, owner of Dreamland, the Charles Street vintage shop which attracts a young club clientele, believes in a freer hand with a vintage wardrobe. "The way to work it is to mix periods," he says. "Now we have overlay over overlay -- a '70s-type big-collared shirt with a Victorian jacket over it. Add some mix of pattern and you have something very flowing."
That sort of mix takes a sure hand. Sandy Redelius, owner of Earth Angels in Mount Washington, says most of her customers tend to look for one beautiful item, although what will sell is highly unpredictable.
"Designers are now showing Victorian looks. We have had some lovely items and they may just sit and sit. It takes just one customer to see the beauty of it."
She says trends do drive prices and vintage shoppers who saw the value of Victoriana five years ago beat the run on it.
"What happens when something vintage gets hot is that the prices get outrageous. For example, Bakelite, the early plastic that was made up in jewelry, purses and accessories has gone so high that the price stops people."
But she finds there are still surprises in a business that has been carefully picked over.
"I never thought the '70s stuff would come back, but it did with the fashionable crowd. Not in Baltimore. I've had really kicky '70s stuff and it just sat."
She sees mainstream Baltimore shoppers turning to vintage but with a selective eye. "I'm seeing people you never dreamed of being in a store like this and they're doing some really creative dressing," she says.
"What is new is that so many women now are not afraid to try old things," she says. "When I first opened up, so many Mount Washington shoppers thought of 'vintage' as used or second-hand clothing. Now they see vintage dressing as compatible with the Ralph Lauren of Donna Karan style."
Ms. Redelius says the woman who wears vintage is secure with bTC a sense of her own style. What is changing is the endorsement of old-fashioned looks at the designer level.
"Clothing costs have changed the way women perceive vintage," she says. "Now they are seeing retro looks in the magazines priced in the thousands. Buying the real thing for less than a hundred is being really smart about fashion."
BUTTONS 'N' BOWS: What to look for
Half the fun of foraging for vintage clothes is the excitement of finding a special item that speaks to an individual style. It may be a bit of jewelry or an entrance-making evening coat, but there are key vintage elements that define a modern way of dressing. Here's what to look for:
* Fine tailoring. Look for details that show the touch of craftsmanship -- scalloped edges, fabric self-buttons, bound buttonholes, sculpted lapels or interesting cuff details.
Fitted '30s and '40s jackets often have bias gussets in the armhole that allow freedom of movement while maintaining a body-conscious line. The feel is as important as the look.
* Labor-intensive trim. In the days when women kept to the home, they applied their sewing and embroidery skills to personalize production garments. Embroidered or beaded one-of-a-kind garments are today's treasures.
* Early exotics. Asian style has fascinated 20th-century Americans. Old Chinese pajamas and Japanese kimono robes today can mix comfortably with simple wardrobe basics.
* Buttons. They have a way of getting lost, so finding garments with all buttons intact can be difficult. But two or three carved or ornamental buttons may be worth the price of the garment if they can be switched to a new jacket or dress.
* Fabrics. Luxury weaves and brocades have been priced beyond most pocketbooks for decades. A '50s or '60s evening coat, which may still be found paired with a matching dress, can be cut down to jacket length to wear with simple velvet trousers and silk shirt. The dress can be cut to a miniskirt and worn with a silk jersey top. And old lace, by its very nature, can never go out of style. So if it fits, buy it.
* Scarves. Carefully stored and gently worn, scarves are the best-preserved accessories on the vintage market. These small squares of fabric can add so much panache to a dress or suit. The strong favorites now are silk or rayon fringed men's dress scarves which work naturally with tailored designs.
* Funk. Travel and shopping are a long-time American pastime and vintage stores are chock-a-block with tourist acquisitions which were bought on a whim and quickly retired. There are Hawaiian floral "hostess" dresses, embroidered Mexican shirts and fiesta skirts, and Hong Kong-made Susie Wong dresses. Today, they can again be the life of the party when a little black dress seems too predictable.
ON THE COVER
Vintage Oriental dressing gown, $60, from Dreamland. Velvet gown from Dressy Affair.
Styling by Suzin Boddiford
Modeled by Kimberly Isemann/3 West Casting
Hair by Ericka Riggs/Gadabout Inc.
Makeup by Eric Spearman/Zoli Illusions