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Frothy spring clothes, fresh from the factory and with that crisp new smell clothes only have once, before anyone ever wears them, hang from every rack at upscale department storeswell, almost every rack. In two tiny boutiques at Henri Bendel and Barneys there are clothes that, despite their surroundings, exude a faint stale odor of dry cleaning fluid and just plain agea scent that clings to a garment, no matter how lovingly preserved, that has spent 30 years in the back of the closet.
What's this frayed stuff doing in shops otherwise hell-bent on convincing you to buy something simply because it's the next new thing? Their presence is probably due to the recent surge of vintage designer dresses showing up on red carpets and the backs of people like Kate Moss, and though their price tags are astonishing, so are their labelsthese racks present a rare chance for people interested in fashion history to see up close a hit parade of labels from the past 50 years.
The vintage clothes at Bendel's come from Resurrection, a dealership with a big branch on Mott Street; the Barneys garments hail from Decades, a Los Angeles shop that has dressed more than one Oscar attendee. In either case, these dealers have sent uptown a collection that is nearly museum-quality. But lucky for us, these aren't museums, where you can't try the stuff on. At Bendel's, you're encouraged to prance around in the fitting room and make faces in the three-way mirror while wearing, say, a $750 Studio 54-worthy, skin-tight Azzedine Alaïa gownor a $650 Pucci sundresswith tiny Emilios hidden in its print, a trademark as subtle and significant as those Ninas that Al Hirschfeld, the eminent theatrical cartoonist, buries in his drawings. For $1300, Bendel's will sell you a 1960s dressof nubby white wool from the house of Courreges, a master of French mod design. Courreges, when you can find it, is always expensive: A woman at a recent vintage clothing show looked splendid in a kick-pleated leather-trimmed Courreges frock, but admitted she could never get near the $1000 price tag. Still, she could have tried bargaining, a time-honored tradition at antiques shows but something that just doesn't float in department stores.
One look at that Courreges shopper's face and you know what makes vintage clothes so magical, whether you find them in a heap at the 26th Street flea market or on the third floor of Barneys: They offer a tangible shortcut to dreams. Old magazines and TV shows and especially movies have opened a door to the past, the imaginary history that people share whether they live in Bangkok or Brighton Beach. As designers scramble to re-create styles of the last 100 years, inviting you to look like Annie Oakley one day, Patti Smith the next, it may seem easier to just create your own look, using the vast and usually reasonably priced resource of secondhand garments.
At Barneys, there are not one but two dresses for women who want to look like Marianne Faithfull back when she was Mick Jagger's girlfriend. They're long and clinging, have goofy printed designs, and sport a $1500 price tag and a 30-odd-year-old label that reads, "Ossie Clark, fabric by Celia Birtwell." The iconic Ossie Clark was the darling of the London art and music set in the late '60s; Birtwell was his wife. He was murdered by his lover in 1996; she has recently resumed her design business.
Ossie Clark's visionary dressesrarely turn up at the local Salvation Army, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't look. With this in mind, I visited a couple of downtown vintage storesnot thrift shops, where the challenges can be daunting (but of course the effort can be worth it) and not the high end (no point in going to Resurrection in Nolita looking for bargains).
It isn't even necessary to go inside Stella Dallas at 218 Thompson Street to spot a treasure: Hanging out in the sun is a blouse of yellow and pink swirlsclearly created under the spell of the Pucci craze 30 years ago. It may not have miniature Emilios, but it's $15, a price that doesn't compel you to wear it forever or feel like killing yourself. At Alice Underground, a vast Soho store at 481 Broadway that is famous for attracting visits from high-end designers looking for "inspiration," the blouse collection includes not only a $35 flowery patchwork shirtthat shows the clear influence of Celia Birtwell, but also a $25 psychedelic blousein a print that is an homage to the prolific '60s graphic artist Peter Max. Though Alice's sequined topsmight seem intended for latter-day Lady Bunnies, this style wasn't always considered campy: At one time it was favored by everyone from country club matrons to the Supremes, who wore remarkably similar garments on the Ed Sullivan Show. A particularly fetching pullover in unworn condition is $35 and is covered with turquoise paillettes. It bears a tag that in itself is a time capsule: It reads, "Jo-Ro Imports, Miami, Florida," and evokes an era just a little before the heyday of Ossie Clark, when Miami Beach meant floor shows at the Fontainebleau Hotel and women who looked like the Gabor sisters strolling on Collins Avenue.
But sometimes a label hits closer to home. A narrow, expensive-looking dresstagged $45, made of a fabric in a gray and black op art pattern, lacks a specific designer name but has a label from B. Altman & Co., a lovable old dowager of a department store at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street that went out of business in 1989. (The building, now part of CUNY, still has its original art nouveau canopies.) But it's a $15 pair of bright orange patent leather sandalsthat might just bring a tear to the eye of the sentimental shopper: According to their insteps, they hail from a place once as familiar as coloring books and cotton candy: the vanished world of F.W. Woolworth.
Full vintage immersion is possible June 7 and 8, when the Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show takes place at 110 West 19th Street. Call 518-434-4312 for further information.