From Courtney to Karen O

Thrift Shopping in Williamsburg

The four whiskey tumblers next to the sign that reads "sexist-saying glasses" at Williamsburg's Ugly Luggage, a friendly if vaguely moldy secondhand store at 214 Bedford Avenue, more or less define the peculiar charm of this shopping strip. The glasses, which are $40 the set, show naughty vignettes—one has a guy aiming a slingshot at a talking Christmas tree that is saying "Stop breaking my balls"—which 50 or so years ago certain wags no doubt thought hilarious; now, here they sit, miraculously intact, waiting to coax a postmodern, ironic smile from the lips of a very different crowd.

The shops in Williamsburg are full of such clever, twisted little items. At Pilgrim Home (202 Bedford), there are housewares to brighten the bleakest railroad flat: a repro Alice Kramden-worthy kitchen clock in a plastic that echoes Bakelite for $22; a paper lamp in the shape of a cartoonish, puffy-lipped fish that looks vaguely like the transgender performer Amanda Lepore for $32; even a miniature rubber duckie, tiny enough to slip down the drain, for $1.

Though this stuff is fun, we are actually in Williamsburg on a very different mission, in search of those mid-century thrift-shop dresses that you see, transformed by scissors and paired with ripped fishnets, on all the chic-est L-train girls. Deconstructing formerly lame cocktail frocks and Woolworth housecoats has a long history: This style has been embraced by anti-fashion fashionistas from Janis Joplin to Courtney Love to Karen O. In Williamsburg, the updated thrift dress is as ubiquitous as tennis whites in Newport.

Wearing the wares at Beacon's Closet
photo: Shulamit
Wearing the wares at Beacon's Closet

At the Girdle Factory (218 Bedford), which is ensconced in the former home of the Real Form Girdle company, we fall for a goofy, baggy, sheer blue 1950s dress that is $38; this seems a good deal until we notice racks where all the dresses are $30, along with accessories like well-loved if literally down-at-heel Ferragamo pumps for $28. Across the street, Amarcord (223 Bedford) specializes in Italian vintage. Though everything is in wonderful condition, and there is the added fillip of original tags (a circa 1970 orange-and-white dress was once 52,000 lire), current prices can be a bit imposing. Still, where else can you find a vintage Gucci polo shirt, even if it is $105?

There are no Gucci shirts at Lint (318 Bedford), which is a few blocks away from Amarcord, in a part of Williamsburg where there are not yet any bistros offering avocado soup. These relatively rougher climes bring lower prices: For $24 there is a dress by Lolita Lempicka—a hot Paris label 20 years ago—in a Tyrolean print with tiny red buttons to make the wearer look like a bodacious Heidi.

At Landing (242 Wythe Avenue), near the river, the specialty is local Brooklyn designers, which in a lot of cases means people who have monkeyed with old clothes and then stuck their own labels inside, à la Imitation of Christ. A blue velveteen top that surely began life a half-century ago as a dress has been crisscrossed with lace and ribbons and marked $73.01. (Think they'd take $73 for it?) This trend goes even further at Isa (88 North 6th Street), which is sort of the Kirna Zabete of Williamsburg. Alongside the Marc by Marc Jacobs sundresses and Martin Margiela purses is a black dress by the elusive Susan Cianciolo that is either made to look like it was once a thrift shop item or is indeed authentically vintage. In either case, it is available for those who wish to purchase instant bohemia for $400.

Since most people who live around here would prefer to spend $4, or at most $40, for a ratty dress, we visit Williamsburg's famous Beacon's Closet (88 North 11th Street), a vast emporium where, as a friend put it, "Everyone in Wiliamsburg goes to sell their clothes." (A sign informs patrons, "We pay outright 30 percent cash or 55 percent store credit of retail price.") On this 90-degree day, the odor of musty merchandise is almost overpowering, and we cut short an investigation that, to really pay off, must invariably entail long hours of rifling through the color-coded racks. Nevertheless, in the space of 10 minutes we manage to turn up a blazer of curious yellow and white polyester that sports a prestigious Jaeger label. There's another tag too: It says Bonwit Teller, the graceful department store that was torn down 20-odd years ago to make way for the hideous Trump Tower at 57th and Fifth. Beacon's Closet wants $14.95 for it.

 
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