Across the pond, edgy fashions from the past 400 years await shoppers with an eye for quality — and eccentricity
Edina van der Wyck
| Credit: Edina van der Wyck

"London's a great place for vintage clothes," Tracy Tolkien tells me. "English people have such an eccentric, eclectic style." It's a damp London morning, and we're surrounded by gently worn Guccis and still sprightly Schiaparellis in her vintage clothing store, Steinberg & Tolkien (193 King's Rd.; 44-207/376-3660). I'm on day one of my vintage shopping jaunt in London, and Tolkien's pleasantly musty boutique on King's Road, a street known for cutting-edge fashion ever since Mary Quant opened here 44 years ago, is the first stop on my crowded itinerary.

Though it's been more than a decade since I sat at a computer terminal inputting classified ads while dressed in a beaded 1920's dress and an opera coat (sure, laugh, but the rest of the staff was wearing power shoulders and platform boots), I haven't lost my fascination with antique clothes — even if I wear them a bit more judiciously these days, integrating a velvet coat or hand-knit ski sweater into an otherwise contemporary wardrobe. After all, who could resist the one-of-a-kind designs, French seams, hand-beading, and almost fetishistic attention to detail that make vintage fashion so special?Certainly not today's top designers, who freely plunder (okay, "borrow") from the first half of the last century in their quest to give us something new to wear.

In any case, spending a four-day weekend in London is the perfect way to indulge a love of fine old clothes. Dealers here are able to draw upon a seemingly bottomless supply of vintage treasures, leading one to speculate that England isn't just a nation of shopkeepers; it's a nation of attics.

TOLKIEN CERTAINLY APPRECIATES the English way of collecting; her British accent, however, is acquired. She's actually from St. Louis—her brother, in fact, still scouts the States for finds. (Could this account for the Neiman Marcus label in the pre—Stella McCartney Chloé suit hanging downstairs?) Her two-story vintage shop draws an international clientele (there are more downstairs signs in Japanese), and there's something for every taste, from a 30-year-old, floppy-collared maxi-dress by mod icon Ossie Clark to Tolkien's pride and joy, a 1912 eau de nile velvet ensemble by the renowned Venetian designer Mario Fortuny (priced at $9,600). "I had the Fortuny in my house on a dummy," Tolkien confides, "but it looked so fantastic I wanted to share it with my customers."

Just down the street at Antiquarius (131—141 King's Rd.), a multi-dealer center that occupies a former snooker hall, Margaret Williamson of Chelsea Lace (unit Q7/8; 44-378/659-783) shows me an exquisite mermaid-shaped crepe-and-velvet dress with beaded triangles, unfortunately in size "tiny." At Fothergill & Crowley (unit L10; 44-207/351-0011), Fina Fothergill follows my gaze to a stunning gold lamé twenties evening jacket—the sort of thing Gloria Swanson might have worn in Queen Kelly—and says, "That would suit you, Madame." She's right.

If the morning belongs to King's Road, the afternoon is reserved for Alfies Antique Market (13—25 Church St.), a 200-odd-dealer consortium in an old department store close to the Marylebone rail station that draws plenty of serious buyers. My first stop there is Tin Tin Collectibles (unit G38—42; 44-207/258-1305), whose owner, Peter Pinnington, has an eye for ferreting out unusual designs. His customers range from museum curators and private collectors who would never dream of wearing this stuff to glamour girls like Sadie Frost and Kate Moss, who can't wait to get it on their backs.

Today, Pinnington has a coat-and-dress ensemble in pink-and-gold cloqué trimmed with Lesage embroidery from Christian Dior's autumn/winter '65 season (the couture label is gloriously intact). It once belonged to Mrs. Chrysler—"like the car and the building," he says with a wink. Behind a showcase laden with metal-mesh purses hangs a circa-1900 gold-and-brown-plaid caped overcoat called an ulster that could have been lifted from Sherlock Holmes's closet. "We don't do many men's things, but being so near Baker Street, how could I resist?" Pinnington jokes.

Upstairs, in adjacent booths, Sarah Lewis (unit SO40; 44-207/723-6105) and June Victor (unit SO41—43; 44-207/723-6105) offer everything from twenties kimonos to Mama Cass muumuus, all priced to sell. "Sarah, show her the Mary Quant!" Victor sings out, and Lewis produces what may just be the world's first T-shirt dress—a minuscule black cotton knit number priced at a mere $45.

Just across the street, the Gallery of Antique Costumes & Textiles (2 Church St.; 44-207/723-9981) is far from the pleasant hodgepodge at Alfie's. Here, fear-inducing textiles (do you really want to be the first person to rip a pillow made from 16th-century Ottoman prayer covers?) are for sale along with a collection of antique accessories, including a pair of fuchsia silk stockings so bold, you realize why Mr. Porter thought a glimpse of them would prove so shocking.

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 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.

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.