Figure-flattering clothes from the '50s lure collector


When Elisse Wright turned 33 last month, she didn't celebrate at home or in a restaurant. She went shopping.

She and several friends spent hours at a vintage clothing store matching jewelry to Ms. Wright's collection of '50s clothing.

"It's my hobby. Some people do model trains. I collect clothes," says Ms. Wright, the assistant dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland College Park.

Even her Irvington home -- brimming with pictures and statues of women in hats -- shows her love of fashion.

"Both my parents are clothes horses," Ms. Wright says. "I didn't expect to turn out differently."

How did you first get interested in '50s clothing?

It was 1983, and I was about to start law school in California. I was helping my aunt clean out her mother-in-law's house. One of the things I found was a '50s taffeta dress. It was blue-gray with polka dots and a flared skirt. I tried it on and fell in love.

What happened next?

Everywhere I went -- San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose -- I shopped at vintage stores. One of the best collections I've found is in Columbus, Ohio. My parents live there and I stop in that shop whenever I go home to visit them.

How large is your collection?

I have about 20 pieces -- dresses, suits and hats. I even have a couple pairs of shoes. I recently bought a great '40s swimsuit with a floral jacket. It's very Esther Williams. I modeled it recently during a fashion show at Vanessa's Vintage Treasures in Federal Hill.

Why are you attracted to the '50s?

God knows, I wouldn't have wanted to live in the '50s. The opportunities for African-American women were no great shakes then. But the clothes are a different story. With my body type, the '50s stuff is very flattering. I have extravagant hips. Fifties stuff isn't fitted after the waist. It's all crinolines.

What are your favorites?

I have a wonderful brown wool crepe suit with a fur collar that I wear with a matching fur hat. I also have a short floral taffeta dress that screams garden party.

What kind of reaction do you get?

One of the disappointing things about having this collection is that I realize people don't dress up anymore. When I wear my '50s clothes during the day, people ask me if I'm going out after work. They also think it's neat. In this fashion show, I wore a mustard-colored velvet jumpsuit with palazzo pants. Everyone said it reminded them of Joan Crawford.

What's the rest of your wardrobe like?

The vast majority is modern. I don't only wear '50s clothing with '50s clothing. I mix and match. I have a '40s suit that I'll wear with a modern black turtleneck.

How would you describe your style?

Tailored. I like clothes that follow the lines of my body. I have two fashion rules. One, your clothes have to make a statement. And two, your clothes have to flatter your figure.

But I'm a formal person. Even in college when everyone wore Nikes, jeans and polo shirts, I wore skirts. They were more comfortable. My clothing is also my best incentive not to gain weight. I like variety in my clothes. When I'm fat, the wardrobe gets very limited to things that stretch.

Is there anything in your closet you wouldn't dare wear today?

In '92, I lost 21 pounds. I bought some things then simply because I couldn't believe I could wear a size 7. One was a sleeveless orange and magenta dress with a big white bow across the chest. Even when I bought it, I was thinking, "This is either so cute or so ugly." I ultimately decided it was ugly.

Where do you shop?

Vanessa's Vintage Treasures, Retro Vintage Clothing in Fells Point, T. J. Maxx, Syms and Marshall's. I never shop in department stores. I find them overpriced and annoying.

If you could choose anyone, whose closet would you raid?

Grace Kelly. To me, her wardrobe typified the '50s.

Do you know some dressers? Let us know. Write to Mary Corey, The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

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