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a vintage story

A vintage dress is more than just a unique piece of clothing; it has a history. Coco Chanel once said, “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky; in the street; fashion has to do with ideas; the way we live; what is happening.” Is that why vintage clothing has gained such a high currency of late? Because people prefer a piece of clothing that comes with its own baggage?

Former Voguette and talented  designer, Clare Press of Mrs Press put it so eloquently in her piece for Sunday Life magazine when she said, “Fashion can be big business, entertainment and a cultural barometer of our times, but it can also be more than the sum of its parts. Clothes are the intimate artefacts that perhaps best document and chronicle our life and times. Who hasn’t pulled out a forgotten old sweater they lived in one winter only to be whisked back there with awesome force? Who can’t remember her wedding dress? Or the dress she buried her mother in?” But Clare continues, giving a beautifully authentic and richly emotional story to enforce the notion that clothes aren’t just something we wear, but have the potential to come alive.

It is a notion evocatively captured with her tale about an encounter with a woman named Maureen who walked into her store one day. She bought two vintage dresses from the pastel-pretty shopkeeper – loving the thought that her pre-owned purchases had a history. Maureen went on to sparkle in one of the 1950s-inspired dresses at her son’s wedding, even sending photos back to Clare in her Sydney boutique. When Clare saw one of the dresses return to her store a year later, she recalled the “petite brunette…with the dancing eyes” who’d previously walked out, happy and in love with her vintage treats. Clare called Maureen; Maureen’s husband, Mike picked up the phone and broke the news that his “sweetheart of 41 years” had passed away. Mike told the astonished Clare that, “It didn’t feel right to throw [the dress] away. I remember her smiling in it. She liked the idea of the vintage dress having a history, belonging to someone who had enjoyed it. I believe she would have liked me to pass it on.” There is a story right there.

The exquisitely written piece brought tears to my eyes; it wasn’t just Mike’s heartbreak at losing his best friend and wife, but the sentimental beauty of fleeting moments, and how a dress that made a woman feel beautiful for one night, could evoke such strong memories. It’s thought-provoking when you watch men, women and children walk past; thinking about what has made them sad or happy; what events they’ve encountered in their lives and what clothes hold a special place in their hearts. I was browsing through a cozy (insert incredibly suffocating, but in a good way) vintage store near the Forum des Halles in Paris when I spotted this 1920s sequined mini, still sparkling though the years had somewhat dulled the dazzle. It smelled of mothballs and itched when I slipped it on, but I bought it. Though I’ve never worn it, thinking it too flashy for my attention-shy self, I couldn’t help but imagine who might have worn it before and how it may have arrived unremarked in a tiny Parisian store. It could have been a 1930s travelling show-woman who danced and sparkled across the stage; perhaps a beautiful British rose whose mother and mother’s mother owned it; or even a lonely old woman, living out her days in an apartment along the Seine dreaming of days gone by. It’s actually pretty exciting to think that a lovely piece of cloth could have travelled more than you; seen more extraordinary things than you; and been loved more than you.

Isabel Wolff described in her book A Vintage Affair the attraction of conjuring up people’s stories in your mind from the pieces they wore. “What I really love about [vintage clothes]… is the fact that they contain someone’s personal history. I find myself wondering about their lives. I can never look at a garment without thinking about the woman who owned it. How old was she? Did she work? Was she married? Was she happy? I look at these exquisite shoes, and I imagine the woman who owned them rising out of them or kissing someone…I look at a little hat like this, I lift up the veil, and I try to imagine the face beneath it…When you buy a piece of vintage clothing you’re not just buying the fabric and thread – you’re buying a piece of someone’s past.”

Perhaps this is why vintage clothing in Australia has become so popular; it’s not just about owning something that no one else does but owning a piece of clothing that came from somewhere mysterious. If only clothes could talk, imagine all the extraordinary stories they could share.

By Danielle Hanrahan

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