The preternaturally hot weather of the last several weeks has made more burning than usual the question that haunts even the least fashionable people between Memorial and Labor days: What to wear as the mercury rises? How to look vaguely stylish without spending a fortune? Are there any affordable alternatives to a daily dose of T-shirts and shorts?
Eschewing department stores (too expensive) and discounters (too depressing), we spent a recent weekend reveling in the sunshine at a trio of Manhattan's longest-lived outdoor street markets.
The first place we visited was the best: the empty lot that has become a seven-day-a-week flea, at the corner of Wooster and Spring streets in Soho, a stone's throw from Louis Vuitton, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, and other tony shops with foreign names. Though there was plenty of traditional market fare silver earrings, long shapeless summer dresses in gauzy Indian fabrics, etc. more egregious assaults on taste tube socks, discount vitamins, sad piles of underpants were blissfully absent. In their stead, young designers were selling their own creations or the interesting efforts of others.
On a rack accessible from the Wooster Street sidewalk (please note: market booths don't have names, so we'll try to give directions instead) a slinky black cut-velvet dress with plastic-link shoulder straps sort of Laugh-In meets Donatella Versace was $55. A stretchy khaki shirt with a slim fit and the 3/4-length sleeves popularized by Daryl K was only $15, though its severity was compromised by the addition of a large embroidered flower.
Along the back wall, this season's preoccupation with clothing of the vanished peasantry was represented by a beige camisole that had a ribbon drawstring neckline ($20). The middle aisle offered a Miu Miuish white dress made of a curiously heavy stretch linen with an empire waist and a sweatshirt-style kangaroo pocket for $55; the same booth had a gray silk-shantung skirt that tied in back with a big bow for $65. Directly across the aisle, linen miniskirts had been hand-painted with field flowers ($30), while a series of clingy, pale garments skirts, tops, and shrugs ($25 to $40) made of slinky, superthin rayon) sported a smattering of silk lingerie roses.
Just when all this feminine delicacy was beginning to cloy, the front booth that faces directly on Spring provided an antidote: a take-no-prisoners bandolier bag in armed-forces camouflage fabric, meant to be slung diagonally across a no-nonsense shoulder, for $35.
Our next stop, the weekend market adjacent to Tower Records on Broadway, was likewise small but compelling. The large booth at the northwest corner had a gaggle of $40 slip dresses worthy of Courtney Love's drummer, hemmed with lace and made up in prints that featured Chinese calligraphy, vintage Hawaiian postcards, rotating planets, and other amusing subject matter. The same vendor offered a version of the Daryl K 3/4-sleeve blouse, in jewel-toned Indian silk and trimmed with a thick gold ribbon border at the bottom for $30.
In the center aisle, a guy was selling $12 baby Ts and $20 baby Ttopped dresses that had been dyed pale shades of puce or gray, embellished with a few subtle rhinestones, and decorated with printed patches depicting Botticelli Venuses, Renaissance cherubs, and similar classical themes. And along the easternmost wall, at the very back of the market, tables were laden with heavily distressed Levi's, all marked $17, and all eminently capable of transforming a bright-eyed teenager into a cheap hustler.
Unlike its lower-Manhattan counterparts, the Sunday-only flea at Columbus Avenue and 77th Street features fruits and vegetables, shrink-wrapped batteries, off-brand shampoos, and other staples of middle-American street life. One-dollar dish towels
greeted the visitor just inside the entrance; a few yards west of the Columbus Avenue fence, a passel of stolid muumuus, emphatically not Miu Mius, had taken up residence in a big booth that also featured terry-cloth bathrobes and virginal nighties. The stylish patina that clings to the fashions for sale at downtown markets was entirely missing here, replaced by velour cardigans, capri leggings, bike shorts, and bright orange, could-be-fake Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirts. But all was not as grim as it first appeared: interesting antique furniture inhabited a far corner of the market, and dead center in the middle aisle, a perfectly lovely sky blue beaded chiffon skirt from India was ready to liven up a summer night for $20.
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