RETRO REVIVAL

FASHION REVEALS ITS CYCLICAL NATURE AS EVERYTHING OLD BECOMES NEW AGAIN.

A quick sweep of the crowd at the weekend farmers market or any hot restaurant is apt to deliver the same observation: The most stylish of the

.bunch are pairing on-season clothes with pieces from the past. Whether that translates to an embroidered cardigan from the 1950s, a soft felt cloche from the 1920s or an eye-catching collection of necklaces derived from multiple eras, it’s difficult to go wrong with a splash of vintage, regardless of whether your definition spans decades—or centuries.

“The word ‘vintage’ is bandied about so often now,” admits Mark Thompson, editor of MRNY Style & Travel, a leading independent travel website. “While at times it can mean little more than ‘used,’ the word can also connote something with provenance. The best of vintage, for me, is when you can detect the back story in the piece, where you can feel the history—and the care and the love that someone had for a particular article of clothing or piece of jewelry.”

Recently, a slew of television and silver screen hits including “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey” and “The Great Gatsby” have tilted the spotlight toward eras where styles reflected an abundance of dash and low-key dazzle. It’s no coincidence that these same eras inspired the imaginations of Yves Saint Laurent, Oscar de la Renta and Alexander McQueen. With designs that celebrated the reigning silhouettes of different eras and were crafted from high-quality fabrics that were meticulously sewn, many of the original creations from these same designers can still be found in shops across the country. And, though films and popular television series may be getting the credit for the resurgence of vintage styles, trend watchers and stylists beg to differ. As design icon Coco Chanel eloquently decreed, “Fashion changes, but style endures.”

TIME AND PLACE

Vintage hot spots around the country include Miami Beach, where owners Jean Marie De Bernardi and Maximiliano De Bernardi have operated Fly Boutique since 1995. The couple explains that their shop’s success is due in part to the area’s creative population that understands the allure of vintage fashion. The rule of thumb for the De Bernardis is that items must be at least 20 years old to be considered vintage, though the focus of their store is on the period between 1920 and 1980.

“Miami Beach has an amazing vintage fashion scene,” Jean Marie De Bernardi says. “Vintage has a quality and uniqueness that can’t really be found in new clothing—many pieces never even go out of style because of their quality, cut, style and durability. The fact that they can be worn over and over makes vintage a great investment.”

Trisha Brantley, owner of The Hip Zipper vintage shop in Nashville, Tenn., began her personal foray into the world of vintage in the 1980s when she began co-opting her dad’s sweaters to wear as minidresses. Her experiences in Nashville have only convinced her that the popularity of vintage is continuing to grow.

“It’s hard to know who will walk in your doors and what they’ll be drawn to,” Brantley admits. “I don’t have one specific demographic that shops with me; it could be a rockabilly person, hipster, college student, Nashville musician, Vanderbilt nurse, college professor or a hip-hop artist. They all migrate toward different aspects of vintage.

“In Nashville, the scene is a mixed bag of style culled by individuals wanting to mold their own look,” she adds. “You’ll see anything from bow ties and snap shirts, polyester day dresses altered with high-low hems and hippie halter sundresses, to leather biker jackets, corduroy sport coats, suspenders and cardigans, horn-rimmed frames and denim and boots.”

THE PERFECT FIT

In the realm of vintage clothing, sizing can present a particular challenge. As anyone who’s ever slipped an authentic sheath from the 1960s over her head only to have it refuse to budge past her shoulders knows, today’s size 8 is a far cry from yesterday’s size 8.

“Years ago, women wore girdles, and the shapes were different,” explains stylist Sharon Haver, who worked in the thick of New York’s fashion scene and is the founder and editor-in-chief of focusonstyle.com. “Narrow sheath dresses and a lot of those high-waisted capri pants from the 1950s can be very hard to wear. … While contemporary examples of these styles probably have a small bit of stretch in the fabric, the vintage versions were designed for women who were being held in by girdles. It’s something to keep in mind when you’re buying—try things on whenever possible or ask for specific measurements. Don’t just go by the size.”

Haver points out that during certain eras, many people also went to dressmakers or tailors to have pieces customized. So, while these pieces’ quality is high and their fabrics are gorgeous, they may have been made to fit the unique proportions of a specific individual.

In Washington, D.C., Refinery29 city editor Holly Thomas runs the retail collective Butler & Claypool with several friends, all of whom contribute to a curated selection of vintage pieces. Once each season, they host an all-day or multiday pop-up extravaganza featuring clothing, shoes, jewelry and accessories for both men and women. Wearing vintage, Thomas says, doesn’t necessarily mean confining oneself to a certain time period or fashion era that is believed to be particularly suited to a certain body type—attitude may be a more essential part of the equation: To pull vintage off with panache, those wearing it need to feel good in it.

“Of course, this all depends on whether you’re the kind of person who dresses to
flatter his or her figure, or someone who wears whatever you want simply because you love it,” Thomas adds. “… For curvy figures, pieces from the 1940s and 1950s can really work wonders, thanks to the admiration of hourglass shapes during those years. For the tall and slim, 1970s dresses and jeans can look amazing. For petite ladies, cocktail dresses from the 1930s through the 1950s are made for you.”

When it comes to a stunning item, the experts agree that alterations by a skilled tailor can be well worth the requisite effort and expense. Customizing the fit will make it uniquely your own. As the eternally wise Coco Chanel also said, “Fashion is architecture: It is a matter of proportions.” And that doesn’t apply only to size and shapes; it also means being careful not to overdo it.

“Don’t try to do it head to toe,” Haver cautions. “Styling is everything—you even have to be wary of hair and makeup. For instance, if you’re going with a larger shoulder with an item from the early 1990s, or big buttons and more volume in the sleeves, don’t fall into the trap of going with … heavier makeup or really ‘done’ hair. Looser hair and more natural makeup bring it all up to date.”

Thomas concurs. When dressing vintage, she advises, it’s best to stick with a few pieces, such as a scarf or blouse. “Don’t do head-to-toe vintage unless you’re starring in a play or modeling in a photo shoot—vintage looks much more natural and effortless when it’s incorporated into an ensemble that looks all-around modern. So, try a vintage scarf with a simple shirt … or an embellished evening coat with skinny jeans and pumps.”

THRILL OF THE HUNT

In today’s fashion world, wearing vintage is a highly individual pursuit. For some, it may be as simple as unwrapping their mother’s favorite silk scarf from her college days or discovering a cache of never-worn cowboy shirts from the 1950s, like those stumbled upon by Haver during one of her shopping adventures.

Thompson, who admits to keeping a fabulous vintage Brooks Brothers robe captive in his closet all year, only bringing it out on Christmas morning, says, “One of the best rewards of wearing vintage is the freedom it enables from fashion dictates. Vintage overcoats look incredible with the right jeans or a well-tailored suit, and a Harris Tweed blazer works as well at the office as it does at the weekend house. All that said, excess is overkill.”

Scouting for vintage can easily become something of an obsession. Haver, for one, remains hopeful she’ll eventually cross paths with an early, slim-line Hermès shoulder bag. Meanwhile, there’s no way to gauge the surprises that are waiting to be discovered behind the next rack.

“Every now and then, I see a piece and I just know it was meant for me,” Haver confesses. “It’s kind of like meeting an old friend—and I’ll think to myself, ‘I’ve seen you in photos, and now you’re mine.’ ”