If antique stores, and their objects spanning centuries, are a peep into times past, vintage clothing stores are an insight into peoples’s actual lives and fashion choices. You pick up a dress and imagine what kind of life the person who inhabited it could have had. And if the dress happens to fit you like a glove, what does that say? Have we established a connection with a ghost? Or is it the circle of life doing its merry dance through inanimate objects?
I am drawn to the past, not mine, which I can discard rather quickly and look back at in fondness but not nostalgia, but other people’s. Yet, I seldom buy used clothes, even if Los Angeles is a mecca for what is chic-ly defined as “vintage” (still second-hand clothes).
There are four types of vintage stores: the exquisitely expensive and posh that specialize in couture from decades gone by (such as Decades), where movie stars shop and people like me don’t even look in the windows; there are emporia filled with 70s and 80s castaways where everything smells moldy and sweaty; there are Salvation Army warehouses where, in the richest neighborhoods, one can find veritable treasures discarded by affluent shoppers (but they require a patience and a nitpicking I don’t possess); and then there are little boutiques that cater to the movie industry and to those retro customers who tend to live in Silverlake, the trend setters who haven’t quite made it but maybe they will. Polkadots and Moonbeams is one of those stores, where the merchandise is arranged to look like candy, the clothes are meticulously cleaned and restored and the prices are affordable.
Polkadots and Moonbeams has been a Los Angeles mainstay for over three decades, its owner scouring estate sales all over the country, from private homes to small fashion houses that closed long ago. And it’s where I took my sister who was craving a one-of-a-kind shopping expedition. It turned into a shopping expedition to remember – not so much for the amount of money we spent, mercifully – but because she my mother and I ended up taking over the store, with the shop assistant excited at showing us dresses in small sizes that had been languishing for some time (how can it be? L.A. is the land of the über thin) and she piled on dress after dress in our dressing rooms which we both modelled in fits of laughter, parading in front of the blond and busty assistant and our bemused matriarch. We were game for anything: cherry print bustier numbers; polka dots 1950s proms; prim satin A-lines with bows for retro cocktail hour. It was like a mad hatter party and the most fun I had in years! All of the sudden I was on the set of Mad Men and Masters of Sex all rolled into one, not quite desiring I had been a grown-up then but wholly taken with the feminine allure of the items I was trying on.
Then magic happened: a purple and yellow stretch knee-length cocktail dress improbably fit me as if made just for me. The zip a touch rickety – who ever pulled it down for a night of frolicking? Who pulled it up dressed to impress? Whoever it was, the dress was now mine. And then my sister emerged from under a stack of clothes with a 1960 pantsuit like I always wanted. “Wait, I have two of those” the shop assistant said. “Never been worn, they were runway samples from some (long-forgotten) designer”. And there we were, in our matching, flowing and anachronistic pantsuits, in front of the mirror, laughing hysterically, all of a sudden not hating being dressed alike the way our mother forced us to when we were children.
“Shall we both buy it?” I ventured
“What the hell, we live on different continents” she replied.
Once home, looking for hangers for my new treasures, I sat down at the foot of the bed, wondering who partied in the white and yellow rose dress, who picked up children in it, or put dinner on the table some time in 1952. Her life must have been a far cry from mine, her preoccupations different but one trait we shared in common: we wanted to feel pretty. Funny how clothes have a way with that.
All photos copyright of C&S