Friday, November 14, 2014

Shopping for Downton Dresses

A friend is going to a Downton Abbey party in a few weeks, and the two of us went prowling the vintage clothing stores of Lambertville and New Hope on Wednesday looking for the perfect dress.

Now that Downton has moved into the twenties, this meant a flapper-era evening dress, sleeveless, lightly beaded, perhaps, and for my friend's purposes, black, for she is a chic New York girl. At Mill Crest Vintage on Bridge Street in Lambertville we poked around the twenties rack for awhile without success until the salesperson asked what we were looking for. When we told her she disappeared into the back and emerged with two twenties-era evening dresses, black, beaded, with the soft hand and elegant drape of beautifully worked silk.

"Perfect," my friend said. "How much are they?"

"This one is eighteen," the salesperson said. And just as I was thinking, Damn, I could afford that, not that I could squeeze myself into it, she added, "Hundred."

Ah. Eighteen hundred.

"This one is twenty-seven," she said, holding up the other beaded beauty, one of those numbers with vertical slits every three inches all around the beaded skirt, so that when you do the Charleston in it, people can see flashes of your rolled garters, but when you stand still, it hangs down and respectably covers your knees. Twenty seven. Hundred.

"It's all hand beaded, of course," the salesperson said. I visualized a sweatshop full of little French peasant girls, ruining their eyes beading dresses they could never afford to wear. "And then with the Downton Abbey craze there's a huge demand. What were you thinking of spending?"

"Four hundred," my friend said miserably. I could see that the slinky one without the slits had seized her imagination.

"You could try Love Saves the Day over in New Hope." I had no idea they had vintage clothes there. I thought, from the window displays, that it was an emporium of kitsch and Elvis memorabilia. But when we got there I saw that they carried a respectable collection of vintage garments.

Alas, as far as Downton Abbey stuff went it was pretty much the same story as at Mill Crest, except that the exquisite silk frock that was hanging from the ceiling, the one with the matching black peau-de-soie jacket, wasn't for sale at any price. It was part of the owner's personal collection. No one ever wore it. No one was allowed even to touch it without cotton gloves. Who knew such treasures existed less than a mile from my house?

My friend found a cute black dress that wouldn't quite pass as a twenties garment, being too nipped in at the waist. She bought that one, at a reasonable price, figuring it would come in handy on some other occasion. We went back to the house, still dreaming of the long slinky dress with the beads.

I used to collect old clothes, before I realized I was unfit to take care of them. They need protection from dampness, from acid tissue paper, from moths, from all the things that damage delicate fabric. Caring for fragile old things requires single-minded dedication, and like most writers of fiction I am of many minds. Today I may behave like a meticulous museum curator, but tomorrow I might be a careless hippie, and the day after that a minimalist with no place in her life for extraneous objects like old clothes.

Nevertheless I still have a few pieces, as the knowing ones of fashion call garments these days. Two or three of my pieces are actual twenties garments. As we walked toward the house I suddenly remembered the royal blue silk lace dress I picked up at the flea market, years before Downton Abbey was a gleam in Julian Fellowes' eye. I paid fifteen dollars for it. I think it had been a bridesmaid's dress. Long sleeves snapped into the armscye with tiny little snaps, to be removed for evening wear. Some cunning dressmaker did this in 1925 or so. It has a blue silk underslip.

I found the dress crumpled in a ball in the corner of a drawer in my bedroom. It might work. It needs to be hung in a steamy bathroom to remove the wrinkles, but there's nothing like the heft and slink of real silk lace. You don't see that stuff any more. My word, what if it's worth a thousand dollars? I would hate that. I would have to be responsible for taking care of it.

© 2014 Kate Gallison


  1. And you know words like "armscye." What does that mean and could you supply a rough pronounciation? The Wintertur Museum is having a Downton Abbey exhibit that is running right now. It's showing British and American garments (forgive me, "pieces,' of the period). If I had such elegant pieces, I would hope to have enough money to hire someone as elegant as the dresses to care for them.

  2. I think it's pronounced arm sky. It's the sleeve opening. You measure somebody for it by running a tape under their arm, around the shoulder, and back down to the armpit again. I used to be a fairly serious student of clothing construction, not that I ever took formal training, but I read a lot and made things. Pieces. Yes, a ladies' maid would be nice. Also a seamstress and a tailor. But there's just me.

  3. I do love the idea of bespoke clothing

  4. This was a fun read! I was trapped all day Friday - as some jerk jammed my computer and it refused to take my password - the same word i've used every day since I got the computer, Oct. 19, 2010. i was frantic! Verizon, whom i pay monthly to help - refused to help! They sent me to India - I could not translate the guy - he wanted to charge me more than i paid for the damn computer in 2010! I was desperate! i remembered a NYC friend had given me the name of her computer guru - luckily, the man was available - he walked me through the whole metamorphosis til after 7 P.M. It finally got back to normal - a whole day - because of a simple glitch that was like WW 3 for moi! So, here we are, I can finally read your charming post! tjs, terrified I'll l have this happen again !!!