A Designing Woman's Late Winter Fashions from a Thrift Store
Since my retirement, I have had to change my mode of daily dress significantly. When I was a high school teacher, I liked to dress up for my students and my standard outfit was a longish straight skirt in a solid neutral and a frilly blouse with cardigan, accessorized with vintage costume jewelry--the prim and proper little English teacher at the events of the school year: First Day of School, National Honor Society Induction, various banquets, dances, prom, and graduation. With a tight clothing allowance, my wardrobe was a little lopsided; I focused on career wear. Seperates and suits, nothing fancy, bought from department stores that I would mix and match myself. When home from school, I was so tired that I just put on my pajamas. There were very few casual outfits in my wardrobe except for shorts and sundresses for summer. Until my recent thrift store splurge, I had but two pairs of jeans.
Now my days are all about caring for my husband Robert who has been paraplegic for the past thirty years following a motorcycle accident and a recent amputee. Maintaining a clean and sterile sick room is one of my major routines and that means plenty of chlorox and ruined clothing. Frankly, I have been kind of schlepping about town the past year, paying little attention to my appearance, even cutting my own hair, and now something has got to be done about all this running around looking so slovenly. I want to make it clear that I do clean up well and look nice for important functions.
Spring is a busy season for me because all winter long, I am down in the dumps and suddenly I feel alive again. There are a number of events planned this season that I would like to dress up for and they are again mostly school related--this time spring semester activities at Eastern New Mexico University: Jazz concerts held at the newly remodeled music building and other fine arts events. My birthday is the tenth of March and so St. Patrick's Day is an important holiday to me; I'll need to be wearin' some green. The Jack Williamson Lectureship, a series of talks held for the past thirty-five years and attended by sci-fi writers from all over the world honoring Portales' famous Grand Master, is at the end of the month. I need to look pulled together to take Bob to see various doctors and since I am lifting his wheelchair in and out of a small car trunk, mobility and comfort are paramount as well as a cute look.
I want outfits to throw on and look good, but I have a limited budget. What to do?
A Wanna-be Fashion Designer
Observing me some days at Wal-mart or at the little cafe by the university where I meet my friends for a weekly lunch, one would see a slightly harried lady who is little overweight, hair windblown, her blouse stained with chlorox. You would never guess how much I love clothing and fashion.
I think that clothes DO make the man (or woman). As an English teacher, I taught my students not to judge a book by its cover, but really, you can tell a lot about a person by his dress and not just socio-eco. One senses whether a person is careful, stylish, or arty. Those things matter to me and a well dressed person seems, well, confident. My favorite transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way, "The feeling of being perfectly well-dressed gives a feeling that religion is powerless to bestow." I first ecountered that quote in an exclusive haberdashery and dress shop in Santa Fe called The Country Store. It was framed on the wall to the dressing rooms. Because I was raised by an avowed atheist, this caught my attention in a major way when I was about fourteen years old.
It's been a struggle like any kind of search for meaning. When we were young girls, my sisters and I didn't have much clothing or anything remotely resembling wardrobes. Still I admired the dresses I would see in magazines like American Girl and Seventeen and I longed for plaid Christmas coats with velvet collars and tennis whites. Occasionally there was a trip to Lerner's or The Hecht Company because I was the eldest of four sisters and the poor little things wore my outgrown cast-offs but mostly clothes just appeared in boxes from somewhere and often contained articles for little boys. My mother had no sense of gender when it came to clothing selection. I was the little girl in the navy blue snowsuit with the fire engine on it whose hair was home cut in a very short "pixie" style and it didn't help that my nickname was "Miki" and I had to wear corrective shoes--brown laced oxfords. I was certain that I looked like a boy.
I remember there was this pretty girl named Marian at my school. She had long red hair that was braided or curled sometimes and always beribboned. Her mother made the post precious dresses for her, lots of them--even a darling smock to wear for art lessons. I envied her mightily for her doting mother as well as the dresses because I looked bedraggled in my dad's old paint spattered white oxford shirt with the rolled cuffs but at least I was a pretty good artist.
To be a dress designer was my greatest wish and one summer I created a paper doll named "Alice" after a character I fell in love with in an old movie, "You Can't Take it with You." All summer I designed dresses and shoes for Alice gleening ideas from the fashions I saw in old films and movie magazines.
That fall, I read a cute book by Eleanor Estes called The Hundred Dresses with delightful sketches by Louis Slobodkin about a girl who drew a hundred dresses. I was so inspired that I designed 100 dresses for my first book report on the back of the old computer paper my dad brought home for me to draw on and Miss Schiff gave me an "A" on the report even though it was mostly drawings. She carefully picked out the ones she liked the best in a very sweet teacher-student exchange with this shabby little unkempt girl that I will never forget.
Thrift Shop Chic
I first learned to buy vintage clothing at thrift shops in the early 1980s when I was working in Washington, D. C. and had to supplement my college wardrobe for work on Capitol Hill. My practice designing dresses came in handy because the homemade skirts and bargain blouses soon gave way to beautifully crafted "originals" that I found for a song in places like Georgetown and Arlington. Back then the practice of shopping second hand was not widely done by the fine ladies who work on The Hill and so I had no problem whatsoever finding a personal style quite different from my female co-workers who would sometimes laugh at me. I didn't care; I got noticed. In a good way.
The dresses and gown pictured above were all found at thrift stores and what to notice about them, besides the incredible craftsmanship and details, is how impossibly small they are. Those girls during the Depression and through the 1960s certainly cast slender silhouettes! My daughters, who are impossibly small, wear them sometimes.
The beautiful jewelry in this post are all gifts from my husband Bob who spoiled me rotten when we were courting and I have drawers of fabulous turquoise and silver native as well as vintage jewelry to prove it. My jewels are better than Tiffany's because my beloved picked them all out for me and he has very good taste. Aren't those orange-y gemstone earbobs fabulous? You can always tell what kind of a person a man thinks you are by the earrings he gives you. Together with the old scarves and belts I have found, this Queen of Sheba can accessorize anything and throw an arm party with the best.
That Italian navy blue straw purse is immaculately clean, beautifully lined, and has bakelite details so it will look great with the kind of bluesy look I am going for. I pulled some scarves out of that nifty hat box that I thought I could work in somehow. My neck's been troubling me. Did you know Stetson made gloves? I only know because the label was still on these comfortable leathers I bought at a garage sale for twenty-five cents last summer. Dark shades for sunglasses are always right.
My Recent Thrift Store Haul
As I said earlier, I needed some clothes to spruce up my spring look. For shame! That is not even a true statement. The last thing I need is more clothing. Next to me is my closet with ten full feet of skirts and blouses and jackets jammed together. I can easily find things to wear. I just wanted something new (to me) and different. Accustomed to buying a few articles each season, these things die hard in a woman.
A couple of weeks ago, I was running errands downtown and entered Consigning Women, a church run thrift store. It is an establishment that I am familiar with because I collect rare dishes and art pottery. Most days, I hurry past the room with the old clothes that smell like a thousand people to get to the back room where the housewares are stored.
"All the clothes are priced half-off what is on the label," the lady at the counter told me and I paused.
Knowing that even if I found the beautiful vintage clothes I so admire, they would never fit me. I needed a different searching strategy and you would not believe what section I went to first. The Mens'! There is plenty of winter left this year and so I was looking for a cozy big sweater. As it turns out I hated wearing boys clothes when I was a girl but I love wearing menswear now. If you don't have a boyfriend, just buy a comfy men's sweater. It is almost as good as a guy, but I digress.
I found no such sweater but instead a cool trench coat for seven dollars and a Levis denim shirt with metal buttons. It was two dollars. Back to the women's section, I tried to keep in mind my daughter Hillary who lives in NYC and dresses very much as the sophisticated artist that she is. She teases me sometimes about my bright colors when she is dressed in all black. Next to her I look like Frida Kahlo. Neutrals, I told myself and found two pairs of jeans that fit as well as a dark denim Talbot's embroidered top. I tried to resist, but some pink and green things came home with me.
This Liz Claiborne jacket got plenty of wear from its previous owner who obviously loved it. Remember those thousand stinky people I smelled at the shop, well, this was a major culprit and so it was sent to the dry cleaners right away. The jacket cost five dollars and ten dollars to clean it! Still a good buy, I think.
This blackwatch plaid shirt-dress needs to be taken in slightly for better fit but that is okay because I know how to sew. The label says Stonebridge. When I showed this dress to my sixteen year old daughter, she asked me, "Are you really going to wear that?" I was surprised when she told me she thought it looked like the homemade floral dresses that the Amish women in our community wear.
Together with the nubbly Liz blazer freshly back from the cleaners, I think the blackwatch dress looks nice. I have a lot of pearls and chains I can add to give the ensemble more of a Chanel look than Amish. I can also wear it layered with a white turtleneck sweater and with the trenchcoat for a casual rumpled Columbo vibe.
I am crazy about this scarab pin from the 1960s probably. It is plastic and has some dangling earrings to match, but I think they would be too fussy to wear with this easy-going look. Instead, I will wear the multi-stone scarab link bracelet--one of my favorites!
The most expensive item I bought was this faux fur beaver jacket shown below that is lined with satin and is very luxurious. It was twenty-five dollars. I wore it to a production of The Marriage of Bette and Boo over this aqua super-embellished dress I already owned by Spencer Alexis.
Everyday Clothes to Knock Around In
The jacket paired with the coral camp shirt by the same designer, Liz Claiborne, makes another appearance and can be worn with jeans and other various sweaters.
Puddy Tatt wouldn't get off of the jeans for a picture. One of the things people may worry about when buying at thrift stores is the size thing I mentioned before. Frankly, a lot of the bigger sizes were really ugly and unfashionable often with shoulderpads that look like they belong on a linebacker. Good thrift store strategy is to go often to find the better items. These jeans are Rider and Lee--size 16. One pair is straight leg and the other wide leg. Neither are mom jeans but there were plenty of them there at the store. Look carefully and take them to the dressing room unless you are like me. I won't even try on clothes in a fancy department store where I know I can return the purchase. Not so at thrift stores but I figured if the jeans I found didn't fit, for two dollars a pair, I could throw them away. That is cheaper than a latte at Starbucks.
Here are a couple of cute tops to wear with jeans. I probably wouldn't don this spectacular vintage Zuni necklace (1950s) with the gray sweatshirt I placed it upon to show up in the photo, but I don't know. Maybe.
Since it is one of my long time favorites I will still wear the denim tiered skirt with the chlorox stains shown here with some other tops and the sleep masks I am making for Bob and me.
Shoes and A Very Special Purse
I do not recommend buying shoes second hand, ever; and so the footwear selections I am wearing this season are already in my closet.
I understand completely ladies who love shoes. You would not believe how delighted I am to see my favorites all shiny bright in this post because those in my closet are in various stages of wear. This morning I counted about thirty pair, but these are the footwear that I have bought over and over again for probably fifty years for their style and comfort. Perfect for my spring wardrobe.
Unfortunately, I have bad feet and cannot indulge in the incredible confections that I see in the fashion magazines and on my friends' feet. In addition to my bad feet, teachers stand up all the time and so comfort has always been my first concern and does not come cheap. I must wear a good shoe with solid support. I have never been able to wear heels. Alas.
To understand my shoe style this season, I would wear any one of these pairs with pants or a dress depending.
The lady at the thrift store kept urging me to look at the purses and I did but found what I expected. Mediocre or fakes that were kind of beat up--what I already have but not the fakes. Coach bags have never been in my budget and so I used to buy a purse for fall and spring each year. Kenneth Cole, Tommy Hilfiger--makers like that. For this spring I looked through the box of my still useables and found two that are unusual--the blue Italian bag I shared with you already and this one:
Believe it or not I got this leather purse from a family member for a graduation present from high school forty years ago. It has seen me through many, many adventures and shows it--I mean from crazy acid trips during my art school days at the university to important receptions with international dignitaries in Washington! I swear it was still the best of about ten in my box of bags that I have kept and it has been out of circulation for over twenty-five years. It looked matted, dull, and flat when I drew it doubtfully from the box two weeks ago. However, when I cleaned the old withered thing with neetsfoot oil and began using it once more, the leather purse kind of bloomed into beauty again. I had the cobbler whose shop was at Burro Alley in Santa Fe replace the braided straps in the early 1980s and when the cross section of an antler button used for the fastener was lost, I replaced it with this turquoise piece.
The rumor is that the purse was made by Cesar Chavez and when it was presented to me, it was that pinky beige color that untreated leather has. That luscious patina is all mine. Inside were the pen marks of the maker. I have no idea if Mr. Chavez really made it or not. The person who gave it to me had all the right connections to claim it to be so. It doesn't matter to me one whit. This is the purse of a lifetime, a friend.
My Inspiration for this Spring Thrift Store Wardrobe
Like any good designer or teacher, my spring collection has a theme--or rather an inspiration. To say the actress I had in mind is the epitome of style would not disputed by anyone and the film character she played was a girl from Texas. Can you guess who she is? There are lots of hints throughout this post and any real fashionista will know right away.
Thanks for taking the time to share my love of fashion and I hope you will consider the thrift stores in your neighborhood as viable places to shop for good clothes at great prices--and you are recycling! I paid fifty dollars for all the clothes here and remember that the fur jacket was twenty-five dollars. If I paid two dollars for a blouse, what do I care if it gets a little chlorox on it?
Ciao and happy hunting.