Winters Past

20th Century Fashion from Deco to Disco

February 26, 2020
by Winters Past

Classic Cars, Vintage Clothes

I have a sign in my shop explaining that the 1980s are vintage because 1980 was 40 years ago. People are shocked, just shocked about this. I try to explain in terms of automobiles since most people recognize that a 40 year old vehicle is a classic car.

With that in mind, let’s look at American cars and their sartorial counterparts through the decades. First up, the 1940s.

Cars and clothes from the 40s are practical yet stylish and both look great on film. They’re classic and classy- film dames like Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck exemplify this stylish maturity. They feel solid and grounded; both 1940s cars and and clothes (and the shoes!) are chunky and built to function. Both have wonderfully dramatic architecture and really stand out when it comes to accessories-hats and jewelry for the ladies, chrome and grilles for the cars.

In the 1950s, American fashion and automotive design were exuberant, bold, attention-seeking and fun. The skirts were wide and the cars were huge. Both were lush, rounded, curvy and colorful. The aesthetic was mirrored by Hollywood bombshells like Jayne Mansfield and Sophia Loren.

Exaggerated proportions were 1950s design hallmarks. The sharp fins on cars, echoed by bullet bras and stiletto heels on ladies, are memorably and identifiably 1950s flourishes.

1960s design was all about the emerging youth culture. Proportions were lean and spare, more like Audrey Hepburn and Twiggy than the womanly ideal of the 1950s. The space age 60s were focused on the future and the visual cues were streamlined, aerodynamic and modern.

The 1970s aesthetic veered wildly from Studio 54 sparkle to hippie commune chic. For our purposes, picture the 1970s California cool portrayed by Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen: lithe, louche and languid. It’s nicely paralleled by the muscular minimalism of an early 70’s Chevy Chevelle.

Next, the 1980s. I’m picturing the more-is-more, big haired glamazon style of Kathleen Turner and Joan Collins. American made cars and clothing tended to be big and bold with lots of wild detail. Women wore boxy oversized shoulder pads and sported dramatic silhouettes while those big square gas guzzlers were designed to make an impression in the “greed is good” years.

After 1990, automobile design was no longer intertwined with fashion. Modern cars are much more generic looking and harder to pin down to an era.

Some might argue that the 1980s is the last decade of great stylish American made automobiles. It also marks the end of the American garment industry. By 1990, almost all clothing sold in the US was made elsewhere.

February 12, 2020
by Winters Past

On Enjoying The Good Stuff

You know how fancy people in movies have wine cellars where they save their special expensive bottles of vino? They have wine stewards who talk about developing complex flavors and softening tannins and such. But it is possible to save wine too long-eventually even the finest wine will turn to acid.

I thought about the unintended consequences of “saving the good stuff” when I purchased this embroidered Chinese silk jacket:

I bought it from a lady whose husband brought it back from China after his military service in WW2. It was so lovely, special and precious that she never wore it. But textiles can degrade over time, especially if you put them on wire hangers in the back of the closet for decades. By the time she brought it to me, 75 years later, it was splotchy and faded and mostly unwearable.

I pictured how it could have been worn with linen trousers in the 40s, black cigarette pants in the 60s and velvet palazzo pants in the 70s, how it could have been her signature dressy look, how she might have paired it with blue jeans-so chic!

In the spirit of that silk jacket, let’s eat our scrambled eggs and toast on the fine china and drink orange juice from the crystal stemware. Our heirs won’t care. Let’s enjoy the expensive perfume before the scent changes and wear the good lingerie that’s in the back of the drawer while it still fits.

Let’s make a toast with the fine wine and be true hedonists, enjoying the pleasures of the material world while we can.

January 28, 2020
by Winters Past

Ode to Gunne Sax Dresses

Remember how we used to think about the future? Thanks to mid century comic books and TV shows, we envisioned a slick utopia filled with picture phones, robotic cleaners, space travel and modernistic furniture. Some of that has actually come true- we now have Skype and Roombas, yay! – but we no longer have that futuristic fantasy in which technology solves everything.

When the future is an unsettling idea, perhaps we gain inspiration and security from the past-even if that past is reimagined. I’ve written about the modern, subversive take on prairie style before.

Today let’s dive a little deeper into one iconic 60’s-does-Victorian dress designer, Jessica McClintock for Gunne Sax.

First, take a look at a few vintage examples of her romantic hippie frocks:

Gunne Sax was created at the very epicenter of hippie culture: San Francisco, 1967, the Summer of Love. There was anxiety about the future then, too, and these designs expressed a desire for the return to an idealized simpler time.

McClintock culled and reconfigured elements from Victorian finery, American pioneer styles, and Renaissance dresses. She combined frilly collars, lace up bodices, flounced hems and empire waists to create a reimagined era of innocence.

Gunnel Sax dresses perfectly captured the late 60’s hippie/folkie zeitgeist. McClintock was able to create garments that expressed a desire to live a more natural and less complicated life-a desire many people currently have.

Her designs did not just crystalize a cultural moment. They’re well-cut, flattering pieces made of quality natural fibers that are a joy to wear. These dresses celebrate the female form in a way that is both womanly and innocent. The full skirts and balloon sleeves encourage movement while providing a modesty to the wearer, attributes are as desirable today as they were in 1967.

I like the idea of double nostalgia. Think of a modern woman picturing an idealized hippie era wearing a dress once worn by a 1960s lady who was fantasizing about an imagined pre-industrial time. Whew!

Best of all, while wearing an original Gunnel Sax maxi, you could dance at your prom and look like you’re ready pick a bushel of blackberries on a sunlit golden prairie at any moment.

Here are a couple of Gunne Sax dresses I have in the shop right now:

December 22, 2019
by Winters Past

Millinery Masterpieces

Have you seen that TV show about British headwear called The Crown?

Oh, sure, it’s about the tribulations of royals within an archaic aristocracy. It’s about how they cope with feelings of boredom and pointlessness while surrounded by so much luxury. Got it.

The hats, though!

Season 3 takes place from the mid 60s to the mid 70s. It’s a challenging time for millinery but the royals triumph over the hatless masses with great flair.

First, a young Princess Anne (played by Erin Doherty) pushes the concept of matchy-matchy to it’s absolute limit with this hybrid pillbox/snood confection:

Next, Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, who’s consumed by seething jealousy of her sister. Here she is, expressing her ennui with debauchery, drinking and divorce while wearing these inexplicably wonderful fluffy hats.

Olivia Coleman plays the Queen as a woman who places duty over desire in all aspects of her life.

Here, she expresses a bit of whimsey with these playful yet dignified toppers:

Elizabeth may be the Queen but the supporting cast tends to outshine Her Highness sartorially.

Here we have some head-to-toe monochromatic splendor brought to us by a family who truly embraces their love of pastels. The Queen Mum, on the left, dazzles in an otherworldly woosh of acid green plumage while Margeret seems to have crossed a nun’s wimple with a powder room hand towel to cunning effect.

I will leave you with one last image. This creation draws inspiration from both old school leather football helmets and Roman centurions. It makes some sort of statement about power, the monarchy, seed pearls and winged creatures, all in one hat.

November 29, 2019
by Winters Past

Vintage Holiday Cheer

What are traditional Christmas colors? Red and green, right? Did you ever wonder how that got started?

It seems to date back only to 1931, when a Coca Cola ad showed Santa in red robes against a green background. Pretty soon those colors represented the holiday in the popular imagination.

Just for fun, let’s look at some vintage holiday wear through the decades and imagine the beverages and music that went along with them..

First up, it’s 1945. You’ve been jitterbugging all night. Now Louis Armstrong is playing Cool Yule while you sit back and sip a Rum Brandy punch in this candy striped rayon dress and peep toe wedge heel shoes.

Next, it’s 1958. You’re dipping into a punchbowl filled with classic eggnog while a 45 record of Brenda Lee singing Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree plays. You’re wearing this strapless fit-and -flare dress over three crinolines.

It’s 1964. You’re listening to Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas by Carla Thomas, drinking a candy cane Tom Collins and wearing this empire waist dress.

Now it’s 1968. You’re in your dorm room celebrating the end of final exams. You put on I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You by Margo Guryan while your room mate fixes a Brandy Alexander for you both.

You’re in Aspen at the ski lodge having a hot buttered rum in front of the fire, wearing this prairie style dress with Frye boots and turquoise jewelry, listening to Christmas For Cowboys by John Denver.

It’s 1978. You order an Amaretto Sour, feed another quarter into the jukebox and play The Kinks’ Father Christmas while wearing this slinky red halter dress with a matching bolero.

It’s 1980. You pop the cork on a bottle of Cristal champagne and get down to Kurtis Blow’s Christmas Rappin’ while wearing this elastic waist jumpsuit with platform sneakers.

You’re in London watching Live Aid on MTV in the hotel lobby and having a Buck’s Fizz at the bar. The finale, Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas comes on and you raise your glass. You’re wearing this dazzling red gown with sequin detail.

How will you enjoy a little vintage holiday cheer this season?

November 8, 2019
by Winters Past

Vintage Bed Jackets

Today’s vintage musings are about a type of lingerie one rarely sees in modern form: the bed jacket.

Think, if you will, of those 1930s Hollywood films featuring glamorous ladies lounging languorously in silken bedrooms. They’re wearing bed jackets, pretty little bits of boudoir wear made of sheer  fabrics with ultra feminine trimmings and details. Picture organza extravaganzas with ostrich feathers, swan’s down, pleated tulle and shirred lace worn by pouting platinum femme fatals, like these:

Nothing captures the decadence of old Hollywood glamour quite like this!

I often come across lovely vintage bed jackets. I’ve got them in bias cut silk from the 1930s, in rayon from the 40s and in nylon from the 50s.

You can certainly wear them for their original purpose, to cover your shoulders while you sit up in bed sipping tea laced with brandy while reading a racy novel.

They can also be worn while out and about, as a little cardigan with jeans or over a silky slip dress, like this:

Bed jackets are a sweet bit of vintage luxury that can be adapted, worn and enjoyed in a modern context.

October 19, 2019
by Winters Past

We All Shine On!

I’ve thought about the pendulum of fashion before, about how styles return cyclicly but with a new twist each time. 1940s shoulder pads came back in the 80’s, albeit in an exaggerated fashion. Waistlines on jeans have gone from low to high.

So, after a few years of seeing teeny tiny understated jewelry, the pendulum has swung back: big, bold pieces look new and fresh again.

Chunky chain link gold tone necklaces from the 1970s and early 80s look both modern and timeless right now.

Let’s think for a moment about stylish women in the 1970s wearing gold chains. Here are a few images to get you started:

Anjelica Huston, Marissa Berenson, Jackie O (twice!) and Cher

Let’s assume you want a look that suits you to a T, but you don’t want to look like Mr. T. Just keep the rest of your outfit modern, simple and clean-lined, like these ladies:

Bold gold tone chains mixed with basics
make an effortless statement
giving polish to tees, button downs, turtlenecks and blazers
paired with visually weightier necklaces

Here a just a few that I have in the shop right now:

September 27, 2019
by Winters Past

Classic Alligator Bags

Have a look at this gorgeous 1950s handbag I acquired a few days ago. This 60 year old purse is in pristine condition. It is made from the hide of a horn back alligator, notable for the interesting raised textural detail on one side. Those half circle shaped discs are the alligator’s back scales; the other side is made of the reptile’s smooth belly skin.

What’s the backstory on these treasures?

Alligator bags of varying types have been around for 200 years. In Victorian times, gators culled from the Louisiana bayou were used to make carrying cases. In true Victorian fashion, they were treated like curiosities and had a real yuck factor, incorporating the paws, faces and other less savory bits.

By the early 20th century, alligator skin was treated as a luxe material; Louis Vuitton and Gucci made small suitcases out of it.

They increased in popularity, peaking in the 50’s. With a rising American middle class, alligator bags became a coveted status symbol. Hollywood style setters such as Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman and Marlene Detrich were photographed with their exotic skin purses, adding to the mystique.

Women in the 50s loved the idea of a “good” handbag and it became the marker of a certain kind of success. These were classic 50s frame bags with short handles that were carried on the hand or wrist.

Here are some more classic 1950s bags I have in the shop right now:

How to wear an alligator bag? Take a cue from these modern ladies and pair them with anything, from evening wear to sweatpants.

September 6, 2019
by Winters Past

Designer Spotlight: Lilli Ann

Picture the classic Film Noir dame, as played by a mysterious and gorgeous move star like Lana Turner, Veronica Lake or Barbara Stanwyck. What’s she wearing? Maybe something like this:

Or this:

All of these crisply tailored garments with fantastic details were made by Lilli Ann, a California-based maker whose suits and coats are considered the holy grail of forties fashion.

Founded by businessman Adolph Schuman in the 30’s, Lilli Ann relied on several female designers including Jean Wright in the 40s and Billie Jean Dugan in the 50s to create its spectacular looks. Dugan, in particular, created the label’s iconic sharp-waisted, sculptural pieces.

Their advertising copy refers to “round the clock” clothing for fashionable ladies, perfect for “matinees, cocktails and evenings about town”.

Lilli Ann definitely delivered the drama. They made statement suits that used creative draping, asymmetry, and wild sleeve detail to great effect.

Just imagine my excitement when I first came across this suit:

I purchased it from a charming and funny retired university professor who, as the only woman in her department, wore it to stand out and be seen by her colleagues. Her strategy was apparently successful; she had a long, successful academic career in a male dominated field.

I researched it and–woo hoo!– found this advertisement for my suit:

I love to see how it looks on the model. The jacket’s flare against the slim lines of the pencil skirt is just spectacular. And that collar!

The outfit was a high-end piece in it’s day; it cost $100.00 when it was new, which is about $1,000 in todays dollars. As befitting a piece with this price tag, it was made with the highest level of quality in both materials and workmanship.

The ad is from 1956, which surprised me because the suit has such classic 1940s design elements. I learned that Lilli Ann used the strong shoulders, narrow hips and peplum waists we associate with the WW2 years well into the 1950s to great effect.

A contemporaneous review of a Lilli Ann fashion show lets us know how it was perceived in its time:

By combining the practical points of the tailleur with the feminine appeal of a beautiful dress she [Wright] has given a distinctive new look to her suit costumes. 

Fay Hammond, LA Times, November 3, 1944

August 31, 2019
by Winters Past

Vintage Detective

Finding vintage pieces is always a treasure hunt; the element of surprise keeps it exciting. But after the thrill the hunt comes the research, which is slower, more methodical and, in some ways, more satisfying.

Let’s research a piece together.

Here is this this unusual silver and turquoise necklace I recently acquired along with some Native American pieces:

It does not have the look or feel of any Native American or Mexican jewelry I’ve ever had; it has more of a rustic-meets-Art Nouveau aesthetic.

The hallmark on the reverse side is worn but still readable:

I took a deep dive into Google and found references to The Rokesley Shop, a metalworking design cooperative that operated in Cleveland from 1904 to 1912. Rokesley designers were fine artists who were part of the Arts and Crafts movement, a trend that flourished between 1880 and 1920. It’s proponents stood for a return to traditional craftsmanship as a reaction against industrialization. Sounds a little like the modern era with the current desire for craft beer, handmade soap and other products that feel less industrial.

Another mystery: why is this necklace so long?

Here’s the deal: an extremely long necklace is called a sautoir (“soo-twa”) from the French word for jumprope. Soutoirs that fall almost to the hips used to be worn only by royalty. In the early 20th century, these lengthy pieces began to be worn by fashionable ladies. They reached the height of fashion in the flapper era of the 1920s. It was worn full length, not double wrapped, which I imagine would cause it to swing wildly when dancing.

Mystery solved!