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.