SATURDAY MAY BE THE DAY to visit Portobello Road, London's famous antiques neighborhood, but for vintage-clothing aficionados, Friday is preferable. I set out early, eager to see the Friday-only vendors who crowd an area everyone calls Under Westway, a no-man's land where Portobello Road runs beneath an overpass. Though it's constantly dank, Under Westway is nevertheless where some of the items that show up in London's fancier vintage shops first come to light. Victorian blouses and velvet frock coats hang from makeshift booths amid tie-dyed tees and embroidered jeans, and there are always surprises, like the array of virtually unworn Chanel shoes being hawked from a blanket.
There are also some refined parts of Portobello, and they too are a lot more peaceful on Friday. Sheila Cook, a vintage dealer with 30 years' experience and a worldwide reputation, has recently moved to a shop at the corner of Portobello and Westbourne Grove (283 Westbourne Grove; 44-207/792-8001), the very heart of the neighborhood. "Basically, I buy only what I like. If I can cope with it, I hope someone else will," she says, explaining a stock that includes a forties snood, a seventies hippie peasant blouse trimmed with embroidered baskets, and a circa-1910 stole made of baboon fur that I hope never to see the likes of again.
Not everyone wants a baboon stole, but there are plenty of desirable items. I'm tempted by a pair of hand-knit, over-the-knee, Heidi-ish socks with flowers scrolling up their sides. Cook may be in business, but she's a generous competitor, urging me to visit a store called Rellik (8 Golborne Rd.; 44-208/962-0089) and a host of other neighborhood newcomers.
SO I HEAD BACK UNDER THE WESTWAY, past signs that read we do dreadlocks and twists, and there it is, its cheerful sign blending with the sixties architecture of its public-housing-unit home. Inside, I'm surprised to find one of the largest archives of Vivienne Westwood clothes for sale anywhere. Here are the snub-toed, super-high-heeled Minnie Mouse shoes that caused even Naomi Campbell to stumble on the catwalk, the quirky plaid gladstone bags Westwood offers every season, and a funny red tartan men's suit for $640. Vintage Westwood is highly collectible, but for some reason the idea of lacing myself into an outfit that scampered down a runway a mere 30 years ago (her first store opened in 1971) just doesn't hold the same appeal for me as slipping into the sort of flapper frock Julia Mottram sported in Brideshead Revisited.
On Saturday, I go to the extremely chic shop Virginia (98 Portland Rd.; 44-207/727-9908) in the extremely chic neighborhood of Holland Park, which was described to me by Sheila Cook as the place to go when you need a gown that very night. Though it's before lunch, the owner, Virginia, is dressed in layers of cut velvet and a pair of killer red boots. "I like to think all my clothes are glamorous and sexy," she tells me, waving an elegant hand in the direction of ermine-collared cocoon coats, over- sexed bustles, and a row of beaded gowns like glittering exclamation points. (So what if my favorite, which appears to be made of molten gold, is $3,200?) Virginia's lair is more like a boudoir than a store, with merchandise so fairylike and featherweight that you're afraid to breathe, let alone touch it. But she believes that vintage clothes, however beautiful, are best appreciated worn and admired. "I have a Fortuny jacket, peacock-colored, that I wore to the Galliano show in Paris," she says, laughing. "Not only do I own it, I wear it—to death!" Would that I had that gold flapper dress. I'd be sitting at my computer terminal, wearing it to death, too.
A VISIT TO BATH
A day trip to Bath, about an hour and a half from London, can satisfy a love of architecture (there's block upon block of Georgian treasures, plus genuine Roman ruins) along with a love of vintage clothes. The Museum of Costume (Bennett St.; 44-122/547-7789) has a surprisingly jaunty collection, including 18th-century mantuas as well as shocking pieces, like the ensemble that won Mary Quant the Dress of the Year award in 1963 and Jennifer Lopez's notoriously nude Versace number.
The vintage shopping in Bath isn't half bad either. Here, the best of the boutiques: Ann King 38 Belvedere Landsdown Rd.; 44- 122/533-6245. Fountain Antiques Market 6 Bladud Buildings, home to Paragon Antiques (44-122/ 546-3715) and Collectible Costume (44-122/542-8731). Vintage to Vogue 28 Milsom St.; 44-122/533-7323.
VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM
Some of the best vintage finds in London aren't for sale at all. When your wallet needs a break, visit the spectacular V&A (Cromwell Rd.; 44-207/938-8500), where the renowned dress collection includes items that no shopper, no matter how assiduous, will encounter in a store. Though there are plenty of early items — 17th-century "slashed" ball dresses, Victorian corsets, Edwardian tea gowns — some garments of more recent provenance are arguably even more interesting.