It all started with a nightgown. Or should I say a former nightgown: heavily smocked, meticulously embroidered, and lavished with lace. I found it 20 years ago at Clignancourt in Paris, freshly starched and ironed, as if it had been sewn yesterday rather than 70 years ago. It looked like an elegant summer dress, and I wore it that way for years.
Once you've braved the streets of Manhattan in a nightgown, you're primed for other adventures, like carrying your files in a turn-of-the-century alligator gladstone bag or dancing under the stars in a mod-sixties Rudi Gernreich mini. Of course, uncovering these treasures has been an adventure in itself. Some of my finds have surfaced in settings that couldn't be considered stores at all (grungy garage sales, stuffy auction houses), but by far my most successful forays have been at thrift shops, where the stock is as carefully curated as a gallery show.
Enter one of these boutiques and you have instant access to an encyclopedia of fashion, and a chance to wear the originals on which so many current designers' collections are based. (Even casual observers note Ralph Lauren's reliance on the 1930's tea gown, or the resemblance between Marc Jacobs's cheerful fall line and the work of Courrèges.)
Over the years, I have cased the country for the finest dealers, in whose shops you won't see anything that wants mending or is simply too tired to stand the light of day. Here, 26 shops where you're bound to find that perfect flapper dress or crocodile clutch.
VERMONT Karen Augusta Antique Lace & Fashion N. Westminster; 802/463-3333; by appointment only. A vast corset collection is joined by beautiful silk lingerie with all the handmade details—fagoting, eyelets, appliqués—that make prewar underthings so special.
MASSACHUSETTS Bobby from Boston 19 Thayer St., Boston; 617/423-9299. Anglophilia runs rampant at this vintage shop, which offers a full line of gentlemen's clothing and haberdashery—1930's smoking jackets, Fair Isle sweaters, patterned socks (plus the garters to hold them up).
CONNECTICUT RetroActive Milford; 203/877-6050; by appointment only. Joel Weber started collecting folk art and furniture decades ago, then segued into clothes. "I believe that an 18th-century Philadelphia highboy and a 1965 Norell dress both have artistic merit." He has a penchant for American designers like Claire McCardell, Adrian, and Bonnie Cashin.
NEW YORK Cherry 19 Eighth Ave., New York; 212/924-1410. Radford Brown's selection emphasizes sexy clothing—even the rare Victorian piece has a modern feel. So you'll find labels like Zandra Rhodes and Pierre Cardin, as well as rare rock-star leathers from the 1960's and 70's.
• Deco Jewels 131 Thompson St., New York; 212/253-1222. The specialty here is box-shaped Lucite bags from the 1940's and 50's. "They were made for only 10 years and were expensive back then," says owner Janice Berkson. Purses that were originally $20 to $70 now sell for $200 and up.
• De Leon Collection Antique Showplace, 40 W. 25th St., New York; 212/675-1574. This is the place for handbags, many made of alligator or crocodile and sporting Gucci, Fendi, and Chanel labels, plus an impressive selection of Pucci silk scarves. Marc De Leon, the owner, recently spotted a Dior portfolio dangling from Sarah Jessica Parker's arm on Sex and the City: he sells the prototype for $345.
• Jim Smiley Vintage Clothing 128 W. 23rd St., New York; 212/741-1195. This studio in Manhattan's Chelsea district stocks classics, from Victorian gowns to Op Art frocks. Smiley is especially proud of his collection of mid-century cocktail dresses, but not everything here is meant for evening: a fifties housedress, still bearing its original $2.99 Gimbels tag, can be had for $55.
• Mary Efron 68 Thompson St., New York; 212/219-3099. Efron, whose shop in SoHo deals in "fine and rare antique wearables," will find you the perfect circa-1951 suit with a Bergdorf Goodman label and the air of a Dior, or a whimsical butterfly-patterned dress that recalls Schiaparelli.
• Resurrection 217 Mott St., New York; 212/625-1374. Co-owner Katy Rodriguez calls her store "cutting-edge and edgy." The shop was first on board with punk revival, rock-band T-shirts, and Vivienne Westwood/Malcolm McLaren clothes, though other labels from the latter half of the 20th century are always on hand, including plenty of Pucci.
• Timeless NYC 1148 Second Ave., New York; 917/617-6951. Very much of and for the Upper East Side, Donald Portlock's place offers couture labels from the 1950's through the 70's. Chanel and Balmain couture pieces are often on tap; a rare 60's St. Laurent leather trench is currently marked $4,500.
• Mark Walsh/Leslie Chin Riverdale; 914/963-1694; by appointment only. A leader in the field for decades, Walsh has been known to turn up the virtually unfindable—Chanel couture suits from the 1920's, impossible-to-locate Schiaparelli trompe l'oeil sweaters. But he is hardly mired in the past: he attends the Paris couture shows and counts the Metropolitan Museum of Art as one of his clients.
PENNSYLVANIA Katy Kane Antique Clothing New Hope; 215/862-5873; by appointment only. Though Kane loves lush evening wear—beaded dresses, gold lamé shawls, velvet Fortuny cocoon coats—not everything here hails from the early years of the last century. Kane recently sold a trio of tie-dyed Halston caftans—yellow, red, and purple—to a private museum for $3,000.
VIRGINIA Halcyon 117 N. Robinson St., Richmond; 804/358-1311. Owner Constance Carroll specializes in pre-1960's garb, and though there are plenty of 50's promdresses, you may also find a lacy 30's bias-cut gown, a bargain at $165.
GEORGIA Stefan's Vintage 1160 Euclid Ave., Atlanta; 404/688-4929. Open since 1977, the first vintage outlet in Atlanta's bohemian five Points neighborhood has what the co-owner, Rebecca Birdwhistell, calls "old black-and-white-movie type clothing." There are also vivid sorties into Technicolor, in the form of kimonos, Pucci, and mid-century Vera scarves.
FLORIDA Miami Twice 6562 S.W. 40th St., Miami; 305/666-0127. When you enter the nearly 5,000-square-foot space, a dry-cleaner-style conveyer belt catches your eye; that makes it easy to change the stock seasonally. "We wash every piece of polyester!" says proprietress Mary Holle. Currently turning heads: sixties palazzo pants and Joan Crawford-inspired suits.
MICHIGAN Rage of the Age Lansing; 517/482-2560; by appointment only. Designers flock to Paul Shore's showroom "just to copy the prints" of his archival clothes. Shore collects Danish Modern jewelry along with 1970's Halston pantsuits—and a Claude Montana jacket from the 80's.
ILLINOIS Silver Moon 3337 N. Halstead St., Chicago; 773/883-0222. One side of this shop is devoted to day wear; the other, decorated with white satin curtains, to evening styles. A must-have?A 1920's heavily beaded silver dress—"very Chicago-esque," says Liz Meyer, the owner, referring to the movie, not her hometown.
TEXAS Gratitude Vintage Clothing 3714 Fairmount St., Dallas; 214/522-2921. The 1,000-square-foot space is crammed with jewelry, hats (both cowboy and other), boots, and highly desirable Western shirts. Rare gabardines from the 1940's and 50's are especially sought after by fashion-forward Japanese shoppers.
ARIZONA Vintage Fashion 4700 N. Central Ave., Suite 117, Phoenix; 602/462-1478. From his tiny shop, David Sheflin sells vintage clothes that work well for conservative Phoenix. But he also has Frederick's of Hollywood cocktail dresses and a checked maxi by Rudi Gernreich. (Last spring, Sheflin donated several items to the Phoenix Art Museum's Gernreich exhibit.) The store functions as a mini-cultural center: when John Waters was in town, Sheflin threw an AIDS fund-raiser bash for him.
NEVADA Coral Rose Vintage 1196 N. Rock Blvd., Sparks; 775/324-1953. Vicky Rodriguez is so proud of her 1940's green lizard platform shoes, she keeps them in a locked case (she'll part with them for $275). Her shop is filled with 120 years' worth of merchandise—1860 to 1980—with a heavy emphasis on Nevada glamour: zoot suits, spats, and Marilyn Monroe-style dresses. What did singer Deborah Harry buy on a recent visit?Underwear.
WASHINGTON Isadora's 1915 First Ave., Seattle; 206/441-7711. People fly into Seattle from all over the country to shop the store's exhaustive collection of antique wedding gowns. In addition to bridal dresses (many dating from the halcyon period of satin and lace, 1900 to 1930), there are all those extras meant to be worn just once in a lifetime: white kid gloves with pearl buttons, Victorian tiaras, and hundreds of veils.
CALIFORNIA Decades 8214 1/2 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; 323/655-0223. This legendary boutique boasts a phenomenal roster, from Biba to Givenchy, Mary Quant to Stephen Sprouse. The focus is on clothing of the sixties and seventies; the shop's mantra is "vintage clothing that looks modern." The celeb clientele includes Nicole Kidman, whom Decades dressed for the Cannes Film Festival in 2002.
• Lily et Cie 9044 Burton Way, Beverly Hills; 310/724 5757. What brings Renée Zellweger, Demi Moore, and Kate Moss to owner Rita Watnick's lair?Signature pieces from 20th-century design houses, including Trigère, Saint Laurent, and Givenchy. Warning: this place is not for the price-shy.
• Paperbag Princess 8700 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; 310/358-1985. Owner Elizabeth Mason opened a 300-square-foot store in 1995; now she reigns over 3,000 square feet divided into three boutiques. The celeb-friendly labels include Cardin, Balenciaga, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and what Mason claims is the world's largest collection of Pucci.
• Paris 1900 2703 Main St., Santa Monica; 310/396 0405. "We're really known for our Edwardian whites, although we go up to the 1930's," owner Susan Lieberman says. These range from fin de siècle camisoles (from $85) and petticoats to cotton-lawn day dresses to Deco bridal gowns.
• Resurrection 8006 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; 323/651-5516. This L.A. outpost caters to a young clientele of actors and musicians who favor sexy evening looks by Holly's Harp and Halston—and a little more color than their New York counterparts.
Boutiques may be the most convenient way to shop for collectible frocks, but they're hardly the only sources. Here are some hints for buying successfully elsewhere.
Garage sales and flea markets
Dress in a catsuit or form-fitting garment so you can try on clothes out in the open. (It isn't likely there will be a fitting room.) Hold the garment up to the light to look for moth holes and weak spots. If it doesn't fit, remember: too big is better than too small. It's easier to have a tailor take something in than let it out.
Vintage fashion shows
The sheer volume can be overwhelming—these multi-dealer events gather thousands of garments under one roof. Decide beforehand what you're looking for—a sixties party dress, a pair of platform wedgies—to avoid coming home with nothing but a splitting headache.
Come armed with a tape measure and a raft of numbers: not just your body measurements, but also the waist, hip, and bust measurements of your favorite clothes, as there will be scant opportunity to try things on (you can sometimes slip into a coat—under the disapproving glances of auction employees). Or confine your bidding to handbags, accessories, and jewelry, where fit is not an issue.
There's no question that a Callot Soeurs flapper dress or a fifties manteau with a Givenchy imprimatur are highly collectible, but which styles and labels are being sought out by dealers as the next big thing?
Joel Weber of RetroActive says the new old thing may very well be those slouchy 1980's Japanese pieces from Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons, Matsuda, and Yohji Yamamoto, along with their stylistic opposites: stiff-shouldered Thierry Mugler creations from the same era. Weber is also seeking out early examples of Nicole Miller's distinctive novelty patterns, such as her famous toothpaste-tube print. • Paul Shore at Rage of the Age has his eye out for early Halston, including the designer's electric-blue pantsuit with a plain jacket and ruffled trousers. • At Resurrection in New York and L.A., the owners are always searching for British invasion labels like early Vivienne Westwood and Jean Muir; the store was a major contributor to a recent gallery exhibition of clothes Johnny Rotten might wear. Katy Rodriguez, one of the co-owners, always pays attention to what fashion designers are buying. She's stocking up on early club wear by eighties brands like Body Map and Boy of London, as well as the Holy Grail of downtown fashion: Fiorucci.