Cuffington reader Laura over in Brooklyn writes:
I love vintage looks. I would like to wear more of them. I am not sure how to start. I am usually a little too oversized for many of the styles I like, but I'm working on it. At the moment, I'm a slightly overweight size 10 with a large ribcage. I live in New York, so vintage styles should be easy to come by, I'm just unsure of how and where to begin. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks so much!
Reading your words instantly reminded me of someone I met at a party in Chicago about a year and a half ago. I can't remember her name, but she had gorgeous red hair like a 1940s Hollywood starlet, so let's call her Ruby. I was immediately drawn to Ruby at this party because, to be completely honest, her outfit was smokin.' She wore a light green vintage dress and dark brown shoes with a round toe and sturdy medium heel. As it turned out, Ruby worked at a vintage store (in Wisconsin) and had made the trek to Chicago just to attend the gathering that we found ourselves at.
As I mentioned, Ruby looked really great and I found myself coveting her outfit. But then I took a mental step back and realized that although the outfit was awesome and she looked great, it was something that I could not pull off. I'm not sure what size Ruby was, but she was probably around an 8 or a 10, plus she had an ample chest and a curvy booty. Ruby's dress had the cut and shape of something from the early 1950s or late 1940s - half sleeve, v-neck cut (great for tastefully showing your 'girls'), pronounced waist, and a skirt that went out, out, out, and stopped right around her knees. It was slim-fitting but not super tight, and hugged her curves wonderfully, while still leaving some parts to the imagination.
Do I have a curvy booty? Nay, my hips are that of a snake. How about décolletage that would enhance my outfits and silhouette? Truth be told, most of the time my need for a bra is debateable. This is why, although I love looks from the 1950s and 1940s, I tend to shy away from anything Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, or Kim Novak would have worn, and tend to favor shapes from the 1920s and 1960s-70s, where it was less about an hourglass and more about straight up and down. Ruby may have rocked her dress, but if I had sported the same thing, it would not have looked right.
Laura, as you stated in your letter, you are already well aware of a BIG part of vintage shopping, and also just shopping in general: knowing what works on your body type. You seem to know your body well, including this problem area regarding a large ribcage. Still, your wording was a little vague: "I am usually a little too oversized for many of the styles that I like." Well, what styles do you like? There are a lot of choices with vintage, which is what makes it so fun.
So, do you prefer dresses? Two piece outfits? Pants? Blouses and Skirts? Do you like prints, or just certain kinds? Do you favor solid colors? Stripes?
Also, what era do you prefer? I've already mentioned what I gravitate towards, but just because you're a certain body type doesn't mean you'll automatically like the era that suits you.
I hate to generalize, and also I don't know what you really look like from head to toe, but if it were me shopping for myself, I would start with a sheath dress and a skinny belt that can be cinched to a certain degree. Then I'd throw a cute, lightweight blouse underneath or a cardigan over the top. The thing is to draw attention to the top half of your body. Add a colorful metallic brooch or a fun necklace. Stay away from dresses that look like a sack and can veer into the matronly category. Define your waist. And I say skinny belt only because everyone is doing the wide belt thing these days. Also, depending on how you feel about your midsection, you might also like a cropped jacket a la Jackie Kennedy in 1961. Houndstooth and long black gloves! Jackie, is that chu????
Also, stay away from shoes with an ankle strap. They make the calves look huge on absolutely everyone, unless it's 1993, you're Kate Moss, and you're shooting the "Obsession" ad campaign. A t-strap sandal is a sassy alternative that still has a vintage vibe. Ditto with heeled spectator shoes, which will carry you through these next many months of approaching chilly Nueva York weather.
And size. Size, size, size, size, size. This is what can be quite frustrating about shopping vintage: you've fallen madly in love with a piece, but it's just not your size. Would this be a regular boutique, the salesperson could dash off and get you that exact same outfit in your perfect size. But does this just magically happen in a vintage store? How about NO.
Thirty, fourty, fifty years ago, American women were smaller. It's true! They were shorter, thinner, and their feet were smaller. This is why it can be difficult as well to find vintage shoes (in reasonable condition) over a size nine or so. But enough about me, Laura. Back to you.
Ahhh...Nueva York. You are right again, Laura, the vintage shopping in New York is out of this world. The last time I was in NYC was four years ago and I managed to squeeze in some fun vintage shopping on the Lower East Side. The next time I visit I will definitely expand my horizons. I can only recall one store by name and it was on Rivington Street....Edith & Daha, now only known as Edith, at 104 Rivington Street. Where would I go next if given half the chance? What Comes Around Goes Around has been a fantasy destination of mine, based soley on reputation.
If you are in need of inspiration or maybe want a fresh start as far as things to look at, I suggest watching some old movies. Or, better yet, films made recently that take place decades ago. This will guarantee you that you will be able to glimpse gorgeous clothes in full color. It may seem like an odd choice, but might I suggest Dreamgirls as a jumping-off point, only because that film spans several decades, body types, and income brackets. Also, the Todd Haynes film Far from Heaven is gorgeous and shows lots of great early 1950s looks, although most of it is the "suburban mom" sort of outfit. Also, the film Vertigo has good outfits for gals in their twenties as well as The Hours (especially those on Toni Colette's character) from the mid-late 1950s.
Have you ever seen the TV show Mad Men? This takes place in 1960, and in New York nonetheless. Lots of different female characters of different ages and income levels on that show too, and in full Technicolor as well.
You know what else there is a TON of in New York? Theaters. If there is a show in town whose costumes catch your eye, especially if it is at a smaller theater, contact the costumer or a costume assistant. You might be able to arrange time to talk to them about where they find their pieces (if they are pulled for the show) or how they would dress someone with a certain body type (cough cough) if they were to build one. I think it's fairly safe to say that just by living in New York you by default know somebody in the theater world, so you may already have an in right there.
Truth be told, it was my studying theater and its costumes that truly sparked my interest in fashion to begin with.
So, here are some parting quick thoughts:
1) When you go shopping, bring a measuring tape. Many stores arrange their womens' garments by waist size, not the size on the label (years of washing/wearing/hanging on a hanger may warp clothing to some degree, plus everyone knows that a size 10 in 1960 is NOT a size 10 in 2007).)
2) Don't let the numbers fuck with your self esteem! Pay no attention to the size on that tag. This will save you a world of hurt once you get in the dressing room. Bring stuff that you think might be too big. The bigger can always be made smaller, but never in reverse.
2.5) If you can sew in a straight line you can hem a dress or pants. Or, say there is a blouse with a cool pattern but the sleeves are too big and billowy and it's totally shapeless. Make it short sleeved and take it in on the sides. This might be especially good for someone who is wider up top - your top can be customized to fit the way it should! So buy bigger if necessary - you can always make it smaller in the right places.
3) Be super aware of what you are buying. Check for pit stains, food stains down the front, make sure the zippers work and no buttons are missing. 90% of vintage stores have an All Sales Final policy, and those that don't will probably just give you store credit at best.
4) Accessories are your friend. Think what a long scarf can do. There are so many ways to wear it, on your neck or on your head. And statement necklaces. Sometimes, petite ladies get devoured by their own jewelry, but not gals with some meat on their bones. Plus if you end up losing the weight later the accessories don't care - they are with you for the long haul!
I hope this was helpful, or at least got the wheels turning.