It Takes a Village

Shopping and Bohemia on 8th Street

If there are, as F. Scott Fitzgerald insisted, no second acts in American lives, someone forgot to tell Patricia Field, who has had a shop in the Village since the '70s and whose job description over the years has ranged from Drag Queen Den Mother to Chief Style Doyenne for Sarah Jessica Parker and her Sex and the City cohorts. We stopped by Pat's store the other day—not her fancy boutique in Bendels, nor her Hotel Venus branch on West Broadway—but her original place on 8th Street, in the heart of a neighborhood that over the last 100 years has been synonymous with American bohemia.

We were spending the afternoon thinking about second acts as we shopped on 8th, a street that at this point in the popular imagination is pretty much identified with shoe stores. Which is a shame, because alongside those sneakers is plenty of merchandise that has links—aesthetic, spiritual, even political—with the Village's wild history.

At Field's shop, always a beacon for customers looking for something a little sick and edgy, we saw a number of items that evoked the past while pointing toward the future. A mauve and black lace Betsey Johnson flapper dress was just right for an evening at Webster Hall circa 1920, where raunchy artists' balls and other bacchanalia once took place. (No doubt there are more recent Webster Hall events where this frock would fit in nicely as well.) Among the many can't-find-it-anywhere-else items—boxed sets of $24 nipple enhancers, anyone?—was a pair of rhinestone-studded net trousers by David Dalrymple, so exquisitely hand embellished they were chained to the rack. At $2320, they were clearly intended for a trust-fund trannie, though alas, with Wigstock cancelled this year, where will she wear them?

Just next door to the New York Studio School (originally Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's home and art gallery), Freaks Lounge offered the kind of transgressive clothing guaranteed to light up the imaginations of suburban teenagers who enjoy listening to their parents' Clash albums, just as a previous generation used to read Howl under the bedcovers. These young people can, if they wish, even dress like Nancy Spungen, for here is a minuscule, zipper-laden red plaid skirt with "Angelic Upstarts" scrawled three times on its abbreviated back ($45). Black vinyl pants with lacings up their sides, alluring if excruciatingly uncomfortable, were $52; a matching $120 coat had orange vinyl flames flaring up from the hem—an indication, perhaps, of how you'll feel when you're wearing it. But not everything here is so hard edged—a black dress had demure lace at the neck and a pretty gold pattern that turned out to be the word Fucker rendered repeatedly in delicate script ($48).

Not to be outdone by Freaks Lounge in the épater la bourgeoisie department is Versailles, on the corner of 8th and MacDougal, where a famous Village tearoom called the Jumble Shop once stood. "Are these clothes for prostitutes?" a visitor whispered, taking in the racks of halters and hot pants. The answer is no, but they are for young ladies who are not shy about the serious flaunting of bosom and booty. It was heartening to see women with widely differing physiques shimmying into the merchandise and not whining about how this body part is too big and that one is too small. After all, if you're going to wear buckskin-fringed denim short-shorts ($98), or see-through tubes decorated with 3-D silver flowers ($380), or a pair of jeans with one leather leg truncated high on the thigh, you'd better have confidence.

A rather different kind of young woman is the intended customer at India Imports, but this shy flower is as much a part of the Village's legacy as her libertine sisters. The flowing cotton clothes here not only evoke the days of folk singing in Bleecker Street basements, they are in fact in many cases the exact same styles. A printed $25 blouse sported not only little mirrors but tiny bells, to tinkle along with a 12-string guitar; a matching maxi skirt was $36. If any store has a right to sell peasant stuff, it's this place, and guaranteed they'll be selling items like their $25 black-on-black embroidered gathered blouse long after the department stores have dumped the leftover serf outfits at Century 21.

Though bare feet would probably suit these wistful agrarian-fantasy duds best, appropriate footwear, should the weather change, is easy to find at Saga Shoes, at 17 West 8th, in the building that once housed the beloved 8th Street Bookshop. Now, instead of volumes of Engels and Hegel, the windows offer baby blue suede clogs ($39.99) exactly like the ones Village girls used to buy at Olaf Daughters, which was on Sixth Avenue and 11th Street, the current home of Sammy's Noodle shop.

For a more finished look, a suitable hat can be procured at Joyce Leslie, across the street from the site of the famous old Lafayette Hotel at 9th and University. (That's why the block-long red brick apartment building that's there now is called the Lafayette.) A floppy suede Easy Rider-ish hat was $7.99, and there was also a leatherette motorcycle cap, reminiscent of the one Marlon Brando wore in The Wild One, for $12.99. You might think bohemian heroines and a cheap fun store like Joyce Leslie would have little in common, but there you would be wrong. Who says a free spirit like Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of the guy who authored that famous second-act remark and a woman not above knocking a few back at the Lafayette's famous café, wouldn't have relished Joyce Leslie's tight sexy clothes? Had she lived 80 years later, she might just have worn the store's spangled Midnight Delite T-shirt as she bellied up to the bar.

 
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