I’ve got a thing about wearing clothes that were once someone else’s. It’s the romance of it, I suppose; the only-imagined histories of these items – those scuffed shoes, that mini dress. And the forever unanswered question: "What happened when she (or he) wore this thing before I did?"
Vintage clothing usually draws people first to the decade of their birth. Who is not enchanted by soft-focus photos of themselves as a baby in the arms of their mothers at their most picturesque? My best-ever vintage dress is a brown and orange maxi dress from the mid-70s that sounds awful – looks amazing – and was bought from Kitts Couture, in Penzance. This little gem of a place has none of the pretension and insane price tags of its London counterparts, and the thrill I got from purchasing here lasted all the way up the A303 at the end of my Cornish holiday. The irony is, my mum hates the dress, in the same way that I shudder at recent fashion revivals of the early 90s. It’s the decade I avoid. Don’t want to go back to that time. Not in those flower-print leggings, anyway.
I have inherited/stolen several quite excellent items from my mum. Two multi-coloured Ralph Lauren cardigan-coats from the mid-1980s, a pair of snakeskin boots from Pied A Terre, and the most incredible blue velvet Biba dress from 1973. They’re cool because they were hers, and remind me of being collected from school, feeling mildly embarrassed by her style. Why couldn’t she just wear flat shoes and a tweed skirt like all the other mums? And why did she only wear one earring on purpose? Now, of course, I thank goodness she was like that. She has always dressed in an incredibly modern way, which suits me, as all the good things she bought new back then work just great for now. The upshot of this is: always keep friends and family who are more stylish than you close by. Another dress that I adore was given to me by a friend who is without doubt one of the best-dressed women on the planet. She found it in Italy and I’ve worn it non-stop. It’s a great dress, but I have a feeling that if she gave me a bin bag covered with Post-it Notes and said it was vintage Italian, I would probably give it a go.
It’s not just the latter part of the last century that I love. The 1880s give great vintage. Oh, yes. I once sent my husband to queue outside Oxfam for a top hat I had seen in the window resting discretely on a Barkers of Kensington box. Months later, I was in the middle of writing a synopsis for a book about the extraordinary life of William Whiteley (who makes Mr Selfridge’s life look distinctly low-key) and recognised James Shoolbred’s name sewn on a black, lace beaded shawl in the window of a wonderful shop called Jessie Western on Portobello Road. A contemporary of Whiteley, I actually felt my heartbeat quicken at the sight of Shoolbred’s name, and had to have it. Leave your mobile phone at home and wear the shawl walking around some form of heath, and it’s like the last hundred years never happened.
But there’s a danger, too, in vintage things. They’re the psychologically damaged members of the clothing community – rejected by their families, and flung out into the unknown to be picked up by goodness knows who. They might rip at any moment, they can be uncomfortable, itchy and smell funny. Occasionally, there are stains that can’t be removed. But, like all damaged goods, they’re also the most interesting, arresting, sexy and, if handled correctly, will always rise to the occasion when you really need them to work. How they got to your bedroom doesn’t exactly matter, so long as you’re prepared to look after them now, and give them a pretty good time.
Eva’s top 6 vintage shops
28 Milsom Street, Bath, BA1 1DG
104 Golbourne Road, London, W10 5PS
51 Market Jew Street, Penzance, Cornwall, TR18 2HZ
245 Westbourne Grove, London, W11 2SE
81-83 Grassmarket, Edinburgh, EH1 2HJ
52 Fore Street, Redruth, Cornwall, TR15 2AF