Thrift Store Jungles
Rivaling my love of genealogy is my love of vintage clothing. I grew up basking in my parent’s nostalgic admiration of the cars, clothes, films, and music of their youth. Also, it was the 80’s so there was a steady supply of sock hops and Donna Reed, Patty Duke and Dobie Gillisreruns on Nick-At-Night to fuel my obsession.
My hometown of Tucson had this popular 50’s-themed diner where the waitstaff dressed like James Dean and Doris Day and made me feel like I was transported back in time (especially when we drove there in our 1957 Chevy Bel-Air.) I was so inspired by the decor of the diner that I once scotched-taped a few of my parent’s 45 records to the wall of our family room. I am horrified (HORRIFIED!) to think of what the adhesive did to the vinyl, but my parents were surprisingly forgiving and let nine-year-old me off the hook. When I got older and had money to burn, I scoured flea markets, thrift stores, and boutiques eager to match the styles found in old family photos. I should have been out looking for records to replace the ones that I ruined, but … oh, pretty polka dot circle skirt!
I still hunt for pieces to add to my collection, but with less money to burn. My current haunts are shops like Playclothes and Toadstool Farm Vintage along Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank. Each time I scour the racks of vintage dresses, gloves, hats or shoes I can’t help but think about the owners who wore it first and wonder about the lives that they lived.
Over the years I have also been lucky to inherit key pieces of my family’s fashion history from generous relatives. My favorites are the pastel colored suits that my grandmother wore to her children’s weddings and the dresses that my grandfather brought back from a trip to Italy for his three teenaged daughters. My aunt also handed down a couple of her more casual shirt (or shirtwaist) dresses. What I appreciate most about my aunt’s dresses (aside from the fact that they fit me perfectly) is that they were saved despite being part of her everyday wardrobe. Pieces like this are normally discarded.
With a little bit of digging I found that one of my aunt’s madras shirtwaist dresses that I’m so fond of was made by The Villager, a popular Philadelphia blouse company that was established in 1958. The owner, Max Raab, is credited with creating the shirtwaist dress that kicked off the prep trend of the late 50’s – early 60’s. His dresses retailed for about $18, which would have been a huge purchase at the time since most dresses average around $5. Given the price and style, I can see why my aunt hung on to it.
If you or someone in your family has a closet full of vintage, give it a little love by taking a closer look. The cut, quality, designer and style of clothing will provide plenty of clues to aid in your genealogy research. Investigate the label to see what stores your ancestor shopped at. Look up newspaper ads from the era to get an idea of how much the clothes cost. And search through family photos to see it in action.
Here are a few resources that can help you ID your family’s fashion history.
Vintage Fashion Guild for timelines 1800-1970, historical trends, label and fabric info.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute makes me swoon. Their collection has beauties ranging from the 15th century to the present. You’ll get happily lost in their digital collection.
Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum has more examples on styles by date, materials and designer.