Since I was a child, I have always loved old things: antique books all musty and yellowed, stuffed together in crates at flea markets; black iron candlesticks dripping with soot and a thousand stories told in the dark; once-magnificent homes sagging under the weight of neglect and rainwater, remnants of glittering chandeliers and ceilings medallions just visible to anyone willing to look hard enough.
Those things, those old things, filled me with wonder. Who had created them? Had it been a present for a loved one? Who left the mysterious inscription in that old novel, and who had it been for? And how do these special, sacred things end up in the hands of a stranger in a thrift shop?
The same enchantment happened when I fell in love with my first vintage dress. A gorgeous lace Edwardian dress, dripping in Victorian charm with a touch of gothic edge, made me feel the same way an old book did. Like there was a story I hadn’t uncovered, but when I did, it would make me part of something bigger, something older, connected to people I couldn’t possibly be otherwise. There were stories in vintage garments. Who had purchased this incredible 1970s Gunne Sax gown? Who had last donned the 1920s beaded illusion shawl, and where did they wear it? Who made this 1940s black taffeta gown with their own two hands, and who had they made it for?
I found myself inventing back stories for each garment the same way I grew up creating backgrounds for characters in the stories I was dictating to my mother before I could even write myself. The purple 1950s Saks Fifth Avenue dress with the full skirt and flirty neckline was obviously worn to woo a lover; the 1980s beaded silk gown could only be donned for a marvelous affair in Manhattan; the 1970s embellished tin purse, adorned with gemstones, had to have been worn by a half-mermaid, half-faerie creature, and I refuse to believe anything else.
To this day, I believe there is something special about a garment that was so special, so expensive, so well-made that someone kept it around for years, even if they outgrew, even if it gained a few stains. We’re funny that way — no, we’re never going to don that sequined prom dress again (nor would we want to!), but we keep it. We wrap it up, we put it away somewhere safe and we smile at it when it peeks out from the back of our closet.
Some might argue that’s simply because it was an investment, and investments are made to be kept and cared for. But I think it’s more than that. I think people cherish clothing for the memories. I think moments and feelings and the way the sea salt smelled on the air and the time she first said “I love you” is imbued in the clothing we’re wearing when it happens.
And I think that vintage clothing — when we admire it, wear it, sell it — gives us the chance to participate in all those little stories. We become the next guardian of the grimiore, the protector of the past, whenever we step into a new-to-us vintage garment. We can leave our own imprint before passing them onto the next wearer. In a small but precious way, we can be remembered.
There’s been so many times I’ve picked up a garment, turned it over a few times in my hand to check tags, seams, material and design in hopes of giving it a date, a tenuous thread to a year or a time period when things were different. More than once, I’ve found myself asking what kind of a woman had it been created for — what woman would have so elegantly donned the ecru-dotted handkerchief hemline dress in the 1960s, or the surprising open back on the 1940s rayon dress? They leave behind a faint trace, a mystery to unravel, a siren calling for us just beyond the breakers and the mist.
When I wear my vintage garments, I find myself hoping I can leave behind the same thing for whoever comes next. I hope they ask why I adored bell sleeves and mock necklines, Victorian lace and swishing midi skirts. I hope when they throw the 1930s velvet cape I painstakingly repaired over their shoulders, they catch a whiff of my perfume or hear my voice in the wind and ask themselves what kind of person the last woman to have worn this garment had been.
I hope the answer comes whispering out of the seams and gliding across the black velvet: “She was magic.”