The Commodification of Vintage & a True Wardrobe Virtuoso

nina ricci coatI remember the delicious irony of a fashion mag feature–back in the early 80s, I believe–which offered insider tips to its trend-tracking millions of readers on the creation of “individual” style. Two or three real-life clever women who had learned to outwit the mass market’s grip on their image served as models, with their signature transformative sleight-of-hand codified into handy gimmicks (the only “how to” I remember more or less clearly is the one that advised pinning a cheap contemporary brooch to a black velvet ribbon around one’s throat for nostalgic effect—I think the prairie look was “in” at the time…).

Equally bemusing were the ubiquitous candid shots of Kate Moss in the late 90s/early aughties, trolling flea markets in flip-flops and sunglasses above a caption trumpeting her genius at mixing the haute with the (well-seasoned) humble. Before too long, a whole slew of models and actresses had hopped a boxcar on the quirky/eclectic/vintage train, not to mention the designers who made them look good and the mere mortals who, without benefit of stylist or personal shopper at some new, big-bucks vintage salon in LA, still managed to look like themselves (and look GOOD) by ransacking smaller vintage shops as well as the virtual vintage market for cookie-cutter-defying treasures they could actually afford.

Since I’ve been absorbing vintage and thrift store finds into my wardrobe since high school (inspired in equal parts by the fun of the hunt, the sentient aura of cast-offs, and my anemic wallet), the notion of vintage as a lucrative mass trend is a bit unsettling to me: The feminist in me certainly can’t fault any woman who tunes out messages telling her what she should look like and spend her money on, but when the more authentic persona she’s encouraged to get creative and develop itself becomes a pre-packaged consumer phenomenon, I start to feel a little confused (plus I dread the ultimate aftermath to the trend, when wearing vintage gets relegated to the “totally passe” lifestyle rack).

Which brings me to my ecstasy-inducing visit, early in May, to see “Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel” at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida. (That the exhibit closed before Memorial Day, unfortunately, cements my place as slowest blogger this side of the Pecos, but it’s still worth a visit to the stretch of Dixie Highway the museum’s on, which is studded with antique stores and a terrific boutique, Glam Vintage, where among other goodies I scored the coolest travel-themed 60s charm bracelet).

Composed of 4 or 5 galleries of mannequins posed in tableaux and decked out in gorgeous, jaw-droppingly original, “exactly as she wore them” ensembles from the octogenarian style icon’s vast, omnivorous wardrobe (fed by everything from open-air souks to Loehmann’s Back Room, and enriched when necessary by designs of her own), the exhibit was a sensory feast as well as pure paradise for aficionados of vintage.

It was also proof that art happens not just on a designer’s sketch pad or in his/her atelier, but when a creative, talented woman, having put together a wardrobe that is also a world class collection, then approaches getting dressed as a matter of pooh-poohing stuffy fashion dictates and celebrating her own (slightly eccentric but thoroughly compelling) aesthetic preferences, design principles, and sheer joie de vivre.

Seeing Iris Apfel’s “collection” (much of which is apparently promised to the Metropolitan Museum of NY’s Costume Institute, where it was exhibited in late 2005) was so exhilarating an experience it even made me stop fretting that “market saturation” and “vintage” are terms destined for intonation in the same grim, oxymoronic sentence. After all, if a woman with hundreds of sumptuous designer garments (and a gazillion pieces of outsized jewelry, sigh…) can transcend her exquisite wrappings to look anything but “packaged”, then those of us with smaller budgets and less museum-worthy closets can surely also whip our wardrobes into self-expressive shape.

Here are some of my favorites from the exhibit (scanned from the catalog, which begins with a wonderful essay/memoir by Apfel):

A pink-sugared orange ’59 mohair cape by Norman Norell, with fabulous domed buttons the catalog describes as “orange crochet floss”, worn with a contemporary orange wool turtleneck and substantial tortoiseshell-colored bangles (lucite, perhaps?):
norell cape

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One Response to “The Commodification of Vintage & a True Wardrobe Virtuoso”

  1. missvintagelove Says:

    Wow, that cape is stunning!! Love it!

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