Tag Archives: vintage dress

Researching Vintage Fashion Leads To ….

It’s a good thing I love research!  Not a day goes by that I don’t need to do some research – style, date, labels, materials – the basics.

The best part is when I run across something that fascinates me – usually having little or nothing to do with the original subject, like this video that is a remix of several decades of Chanel fashion.  It’s kind of an odd video, a bit grainy and with a lot of strange background noises, complete with breaking glass (!) but the fashions are wonderful!  Toward the end are some close ups of gorgeous costume jewelry. You’ll see a dress where the fabric design has large leaves – oh, how I wish the film was in color! Then there are several Chanel suits, again – how I wish I could see the colors!


Looking at these suits brought to mind the wonderful pink and green linen and wool suit dress in my shop.  I have several wonderful pieces from the estate of a woman whose husband owned a local department store that closed in 1961.  Other that a couple of dresses, including the Mingolini – Guggenheim dress, it looks like she had most of her clothing made for her.  The pink and green dress has a lot of the same lines as the Chanel suits, specifically the slightly lower than natural waistline and boxy jacket.  I always felt this lady must have been quite tall because the skirts of her dresses are fairly long but, as you can see in the video, the style is a bit longer.  (I’m short, so one of the first things I notice about any garment is how much I’m going to have to shorten a skirt to wear it!)

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Didja ever wonder how I ended up with such a … lousy … shop name?  (I do.)  No fair.  I *know* how I ended up with this name and now, I’m going to tell you!  Let’s go in the Way Back machine ………

Many moons ago (many!) back when my husband I had just started dating, we had a standing joke that we were having too much fun together and, therefore, we were doing something BAD.    (As you might have guessed, our ex-spouses had managed to make anything FUN out to be BAD.)  One thing led to another and to make this long story short, we ended up calling ourselves Bonnie & Clyde.  NO, it is NOT our real names!

Many more moons passed and we decided to follow a dream and open an antique store.  I chose the antiques because a location smack in the middle of north central Indiana is NOT really conducive to becoming vintage fashion central.  But I could still have an area for vintage clothing and jewelry in the shop.  We combed the area for antique and vintage items for the shop and were soon calling them “treasures”.  (See where this is going?)

When it came to putting a name on the sign in front of the shop, I was just at a loss.  Some people have a talent for coming up with cute and creative names.  I don’t.  (Obviously!)  We were coming down to the wire and needed a name for our sign painter and “Bonnie & Clyde’s Treasure Trove” came out as the best of all the terrible ideas we were having at the time.  Exhaustion will do that.

Since that time, I’ve been called “Bonnie” or asked if our names really are Bonnie and Clyde.  (NO, they’re NOT!).  Repeatedly.  I have had people ask me if I want to buy the shoes the real Bonnie was wearing when she was killed.  (SERIOUSLY??? NOOOO!)  Some have asked if they can buy Bonnie’s clothes.  (Um, no .. at least not here.)  People have asked if we are related to Bonnie & Clyde.  (No!)  It really didn’t take long to see that we’d picked a terrible name for the shop, but it was too late and we learned to live with it.

Then came the internet.  I did a little bit on ebay, but honestly, never really got on well with it. Back then, it was a struggle to just get a website up and running but we got a little website going.   After a few years, the website actually became a viable stand alone shop and my vintage clothing and jewelry were overwhelming people looking at antiques, so we broke the antiques off to another website (craigantiques.com) and left the clothing and jewelry on the original website because we discovered our page rank was doing well and we had repeat internet customers.  Now we were REALLY stuck with the name!

I still try to think of a better name for my vintage clothing and jewelry shop … when (if) I think of something … YOU will be the first to know!

Martha Sleeper – Silent Film Actress to Fashion Designer

Maybe I said this before when I was researching a Nelly Don dress, one of the most enjoyable parts of selling vintage clothing – for me – is research and learning.  It seems selfish not to pass along information when I find it. Including a lot of historical detail  in a description can be overwhelming for some, so I’m passing some knowledge along here!

I purchased several pieces of clothing from the estate of a woman whose family owned a high end clothing boutique from about the 1940s through the 1960s or 70s.  Almost every item was either tailor made, designer (remember the Mingolini Guggenheim?), or at least had an interesting clothing label.

Now that we’re well into summer, I’m desperately trying to pull a few more summer dresses out to get into my shop.  This dress caught my eye because the turquoise and white cotton print looks so cooling.  One look at the label, “Martha Sleeper Creates For You  100% Cotton San Juan, Puerto Rico” and I knew I had some research to do!

Martha Sleeper Label

Martha Sleeper Label

It turns out that Martha Sleeper started her career in silent films and then moved on to Broadway in the 1940s.  Then, in 1949 she took a vacation to the Virgin Islands and ended up in Puerto Rico where she loved it so much, she stayed.  While looking for a way to support herself in her new life, she began designing jewelry – a hobby she enjoyed prior to WWII.  Finding that “too tedious”, she started designing clothing and in 1950, opened a shop. She designed the silk screen prints for her fabric and 80% of this printed fabric was processed in Puerto Rico.  By 1955, her island inspired clothing was being exported to other islands and to the US.

Martha Sleeper Vintage Summer Dress

Martha Sleeper Vintage Summer Dress

In 1964, Ms. Sleeper opened a shop in Palm Beach, Florida at the urging of her friends and divided her time between Palm Beach and Puerto Rico.

Martha Sleeper died on March 25, 1983 of a heart attack at age 72 in Beaufort, South Carolina where she lived with her third husband.

So now that I’ve found out just who Martha Sleeper was … can I really sell the dress?  Well it depends.  Does it fit me?!

Mingolini & Gugenheim – Italian Designers

Mingolini Gugenheim Italian Designer Dress Vintage 50s 60s

Mingolini Gugenheim Italian Designer Dress Vintage 50s 60s

From the first moment I laid eyes on it, it was obvious that this dress was special.  The label read “Mingolini Gugenheim Piazza del Spagna, 9-91- Roma”.  Honestly, I had never heard of Mingolini & Gugenheim before I found this dress

What little information I found while researching indicates that Carlo Gugenheim and his partner, Sergio Mingolini were designing clothing at least since the 1930s and into the 1990s.  Micol Fontana mentions a Mingolini Guggenheim jacket from the 30s in her archives that was once owned by Edda Ciano – Mussolini’s daughter – in an interview with Eugenia Paulicelli, the author of “Fashion Under Facism”.  She calls Mingolini Guggenheim “one of the best known fashion houses in Rome”.

In a Reuters article from January of 1960, Italian fashion designers DeLuca and Mingolini-Gugenheim are said to be designing with an eye toward the American market by creating fashions with a “long, slim line for a long, slim woman”.  Smooth fabrics are meant to emphasize “slimness, softness, and smoothness.”

An Associated Press article from January 1962 describes the coming spring fashions from Italian designers Mingolini-Gugenheim as being focused on capes and influenced by the Egyptian look due to the new Elizabeth Taylor movie, “Cleopatra”.   The new designs by Mingolini-Gugenheim were notably the cocoon-like capes, evening gowns with godet skirts, and suits with short or bolero jackets and narrow skirts.  They were described as having “lots of appeal for individual private clients but much too lush to be a pacesetter for mass produced fashions”.

Undeniably, one of the most outstanding tidbits of information I was able to find was in the Caribou Observer of March 10, 1955 (p.14).  Included on the social page was a photo of a drop-dead gorgeous evening gown (would have loved to have seen it in color!) on a .. shall we say “special” mannequin.  The caption calls it “weird” and “surreal” – the body of a woman with the head of an animal.

Mingolini & Gugenheim are now on my personal radar.  As I locate more information about these designers and their fashions, I’ll be posting more here.  And if you have any information to add, let me know!

What’s in a name: Housecoat, House Dress, Dressing Robe, or Bathrobe?

One of the many things I find so enjoyable about vintage fashion is coming across something I’ve never seen before and then learning about it.  Of course, part of that comes from needing to know as much as possible about an item in order to properly describe and sell it.  But really, I enjoy placing vintage clothing in its context.  It’s really amazing how understanding the clothing people wore at different periods in time tells one so much about HOW life was lived.  It’s history, yes, but with everyday people in their everyday lives.  I could yap on this subject forever but I’d never get to the point I was originally trying to make.

1930s/ 1940s Hostess Dress

1930s/ 1940s Hostess Dress

My latest “whatzit” is a delightful late 1930s / early 1940s house dress.  To be honest, when I first laid eyes on it I thought it was just Depression era cotton fabric yardage.  That is, until I discovered the metal zipper down the front that led from the bodice with the poufy sleeves and scoop neckline to the billowing bias cut full-length skirt.

To say I was stymied, is an understatement.  To my modern eyes and modern mindset, this looks to me to be almost an evening gown.  But in cotton calico?  With a metal zipper at center front?  And it’s so simply constructed that it could easily have been homemade except for the size tag and the manufacturer’s label – Modely.

Putting on my Sherlock Holmes detective hat and secret decoder ring, I made a list of things I knew about the dress:  1)  Cotton fabric in Depression era colors and pattern.  2)  Large metal zipper on cotton twill.  3)  Bias cut fabric in the voluminous skirt.  4)  Label.

Numbers 1,2, and 3 all scream 1930s to me.  An internet search brought absolutely nothing on the manufacturer.  I tried searching on 1930s dress, 1930s fashion, 1930s gown … some similarities but the cotton fabric kept tripping me up.

After exhausting my own resources, a quick turn of my decoder ring (aka a yelp for help from my buddies at the Vintage Fashion Guild)  brought me loads of information once I knew what this item is actually called!  It’s a house dress from 1939 – 1941, sometimes called a housecoat.  Proper terminology really helps, especially with internet searches.

Now after doing more research, it occurs to me that the words “house dress” bring the image to mind of an old, cotton, rumbled, frumpy dress that some old auntie wore around the house while cleaning and doing laundry.  Something I would not be caught dead wearing.  And the word “housecoat” makes me think of a shapeless, quilted nylon knee-length piece of “lingerie” (bathrobe) that covers up jammies and goes nicely with  those vile, bristle hair rollers with the pink plastic picks sticking out everywhere.You know, the hair rollers from h*ll.(Have you ever tried to SLEEP in those things??!!) Ok, so maybe I come from a family of hillbillies but also, I’m thinking of things I saw back in the 60s and 70s.

Obviously, the meaning of the words “house dress” and “housecoat” in the early 1940s has changed.  A page from a Sears Catalog from 1934 is titled “House Wear and Uniforms” and includes a “house frock” (a cute gingham dress) and aprons as well as nurse and waitress uniforms.  The house dress, at that time, was still nice enough that one could have a friend over for a cup of coffee, clean house, and run to the grocery without having to change to a day dress in order to be seen in public.  (This reminds me of a Letter to the Editor of our local newspaper that made a comment about how it’s nice that people wear their pajama pants anywhere now, especially when they get “dressed up to go to Walmart”.  Oooookay.  But I digress.)

After some thinking, I’ve been wishing for something to wear around the house in the evening that isn’t as frumpy as my nightshirt and bunny slippers.  I think I just might sew one of these pretty little frocks for myself – this one isn’t quite my size, or a color that could ever conceivably look attractive anywhere near my body.  It’s time to feel just a bit more feminine and fancy at home, in my house dress.  I might even ditch the bunny slippers.

Nooo … let’s get real!

Grandma’s Swirl Dresses

In your mind’s eye, I’ll bet you’re imagining a beautiful Victorian dress or a lacy Edwardian gown.  That would be my great-grandma’s dress and sadly, no one saved any of her old dresses.   Nope.  I’m talking about my grandma’s dresses from the 1950s.

For whatever reason – and honestly, I’m not really sure when I got 3 of them – I have 5 of my grandmother’s dresses.  Two of them are fairly recent vintage – one is a 70s formal dress and the other an 80s “church” dress that I will probably only look at and enjoy my memories.   The other three, I wear.

These three are from the 1950’s and two of them are very similarly styled “Swirl” wrap dresses.  The third is a shirt dress – it’s a bit smaller (ok, the reality is that it is less forgiving of my waist size. Ugh).   I don’t remember Grandma wearing the shirt dress, but I do remember the wrap dresses.

Searching the few old photographs I have of Grandma in the 1950, 1960s, and 1970s (after the 70s, she fell prey to double-knit pantsuits), there are none of her wearing one of these dresses.  But in my mind’s eye, I can see her plain as day.  I practically lived at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, particularly during the summer.  These were Grandma’s “housedresses”.  I suppose that is why, whenever it was that I saw them – probably during the sad days when we cleaned 70 years worth of memories out of the old house – I kept them.

Swirl Pastel Floral Sun Dress

Swirl Pastel Floral Sun Dress

Fast forward to about 3 years ago.  There is a tiny little closet in one room of our house and I keep my personal vintage clothing there.  Grandma’s dresses were also in there but I had never tried to wear them.  Frankly, I just figured … well you know what happens when food becomes a hobby … yeah … well, I just figured I couldn’t get my big toe in them.  But looking at them, I realized they were wrap dresses and maybe … just maaaybe … and they DID fit!  Well close enough, anyway.  LOL

So, I’ve worn them quite often since and always receive compliments, despite the fact that pink and pastels are NOT my color.

A common feature of 1950s Swirl dresses is the large patch pockets.  Grandma’s pocket would ALWAYS have a hankie or two tucked into one of those pockets.  Today, I find these pockets are superb for my glasses and cell phone.

This summer, when I put on the floral one, I noticed a big gap in the back.  The dresses fasten only at the back of the neck with a button and then wrap and tie in the front.  I’d never had the gap before!  OH NO.  Too much food.  Curses!

But wait.  Some hand-stitching had come loose where she had taken a tuck in on each side at the waistband in the back.  So Grandma had the same problem!  Somehow, that tuck – that I realized was on both dresses – made me feel so close to her.  Here I am, about the same age as she was when I remember her wearing them and we must be just about the same size and build.

Pink Swirl Sundress

Pink Swirl Sundress

When I first started wearing the dresses, I thought I “should” let the hem back down.   Grandma had shortened them and I remember being taller than her but then, we all shrink with age.  So, before the next time I wear these sweet memories I’ll return the hemline to where Grandma thought it should be … correct for US.   And as I sit here now, re-stitching those tucks into place and following Grandma’s stitches that guide me the way they used to and remembering how she taught me to take tiny stitches that wouldn’t show on the front of the fabric it’s almost like being in a time machine.

May you all find the entrance to your own time machine.   It is precious.

She Had It First

Meet Chloe, my most recent addition to the Wall of Fame.

Meet Chloe - the latest addition to our Women With Bad Attitudes.

Meet Chloe – the latest addition to our Women With Bad Attitudes.

I have no idea what this lovely lady’s real name is.  Sadly she is one of the “instant relatives” so often found tossed into a box in an antique store.  (Let this be a lesson to always identify your photos!  Do you want to end up with your face in a box with a thousand other unknown faces 50 or 100 years from now, with strangers making up stories about who you were?)

For some reason, she just “told” me her name was Chloe … so now she is Chloe.

Chloe caught my eye because, well, she has the Attitude.  And an awesome blouse.  Oftentimes, an old photo will catch my eye simply because of the clothing.  Chloe caught my eye because she has both.  Take a good look at her.  She KNOWS you want that blouse.

One of the great things about scanning an old photo is the ease of enlarging it to see the details.  And the details of this blouse, or waist, are wonderful!  Each shoulder has a small, probably ¼” tuck, then working toward the collar, it looks like a vertical wavy line of whitework embroidery, then flowers with 5 petals – they almost appear to be individually sewn on – then 5 or 6 tiny pin tucks.  Vertically, down the center is ruffled lace decorated with fabric covered buttons.  Sort of makes the graceful high neck collar look a little boring with mere lace insertions and pin tucks.

Was the blouse a ready-made, or did she make it?  What was the occasion of the photo?  A graduation?  An engagement?  Whose picture is in the locket?

So feminine.  So romantic.  And Chloe owned and wore it when it wasn’t vintage!  Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a vintage blouse AND a photo of the original owner wearing it?  Those are so rare.

Of course now I wonder what her skirt looked like.

It’s kind of thought provoking to realize that the antique or vintage dress we may be fortunate enough to own today originally belonged to and was worn by someone so many years ago.  The original owners would probably be surprised to learn that many of us today are so appreciative of the style, beauty, workmanship of the clothing that was taken for granted as part of their lives.

Ahhh … so that’s explains Chloe’s attitude, “Remember, I had it first”.

Women With Bad Attitudes

I have a Wall of Fame.  Or maybe it’s the Wall of Infamy.  Here at the shop, the wall behind the counter is covered with hats, purses, bodices … and Women with Bad Attitudes.

How it came to be was purely accidental.  I had come across a modern decorative tile that depicted a Victorian woman giving the proverbial “look that could kill” with the inscription, “Everyone’s entitled to a hissy-fit now and then” and it just seemed to address my … shall we say, state of mind … at the time.  I hung the tile on the wall behind the counter.

She has ATTITUDE - "Patience"

She has ATTITUDE “Patience”

Not long after that, I added a wonderful hand-tinted photograph of a Victorian lady in a beautiful gold oval frame to my inventory.  Being too lazy to haul out the ladder and out of space near the floor to hang the photo, I put it on the wall behind the counter.  One day, I realized that the lady in the oval frame looked like she could have been the woman on my tile!  Evil stare and all.  I call them Patience and Mercy.

Is this the same lady, or what? She *definitely* has ATTITUDE!

Is this the same lady, or what? She *definitely* has ATTITUDE! This is “Mercy”. Reeeally?

"Bonnie" definitely has attitude!

“Bonnie” definitely has attitude!

As happens in a vintage store, more and more things accumulate.  Occasionally, an item comes in that just SPEAKS to me.  A particular chalkware statue of a girl called to me.  Chalkware (really plaster of paris) was commonly given as an inexpensive prize at fairs or carnivals between about 1910 and 1940.  This particular piece is fairly common  – she stands about 16″ high and wears a cute pink jacket and wide legged, cuffed pants with a matching cap cocked at a rather sassy angle and a green striped (with glitter!) turtleneck.  Her hands are in her pockets and she has a sort of pouty “don’t mess with me” expression painted on her face.  Since she came to live here, I’ve mentally compared her to others I’ve seen out and about and no others have this pouty expression!  She sits on a shelf on the wall behind the counter – I call her Bonnie.

Back in 2006 the dear lady, Nedra Beebe, who owned the building my shop is in passed away.  I made a copy of her obituary that included her photo on pretty paper and put it on the wall.  Nedra and her husband had a very successful and well-known antique store here since May 1, 1940.  She was LEGENDARY.  I could do an entire blog about her.  She was quite the lady and one heck of a good businesswoman with a loyal following.  Countless of her customers have come in and the stories they tell … oh my.  She had THE attitude!  One story that has been told quite often was that occasionally a customer would invoke her ire.  Consequently, if that customer attempted to purchase something, it was no longer for sale!

About this time, it occurred to me that I had unintentionally covered this wall with photos of Women with Bad Attitudes.  And yes, my photo was already there.

Some years ago my husband and I had one of those old-timey black and white photos taken where you “dress up” in costumes.  Yeah … we did Bonnie & Clyde (don’t get me started on everything wrong with the styles portrayed there!).  That photo also hangs on that wall.  Now you know why I’m qualified to ascertain “attitude”:  It takes one to know one.

Bad attitude, for sure!

Bad attitude, for sure!

So what does all this have to do with vintage clothing?  Since realizing that I have this absurd collection of Women With Bad Attitudes, I’ve consciously collected a few more photos of Women With Bad Attitudes to study and admire the hairstyle, the dress, the hat, or some other fashion attribute. I find that old photographs are an excellent window into the past that, over time, becomes a learning tool that helps us understand a lot of the whys of fashion, such as how hairstyles affected hat styles and how certain types of jewelry were worn during a particular time period.   I’ll be posting these photos  soon with some thoughts and comments and, hopefully, some information about the fashions depicted.


Stay Tuned!

Fascinated by a Nelly Don dress

Welcome to my blog!  (How’s that for cliché?)  Like beginning a presentation, I always have trouble with the opening.  I’m fine once I get going.  In fact, just TRY to shut me up!  LOL

1950s Blue Floal Nelly Don Dress

1950s Blue Floal Nelly Don Dress

A dress inspired me this morning.  Isn’t that fabulous?  I always like to do a little extra research for my descriptions when I add anything to the websites, especially when there is a label or an interesting feature or history.  I’ve had other Nelly Don dresses, but this one just has that Pitty-Pat Factor.  I love it.  I would wear it in a second, but it will take longer than a second to return to my pre-marital, pre-motherhood weight and shape.  Liposuction, here I come!

The style is just adorable with the wide waist, cap sleeves, and pleated skirt.  One of my favorites.  But it’s the F A B R I C that really caught my attention:  a dark, royal blue with black sort of amoebas and bright pink, green, white, and gray spring flowers scattered throughout.  They stand out so –  almost starkly.  It’s very striking and THEN it fastens at the center front with small rhinestone buttons.

So I did a little research about Nelly Don dresses.  In an archive of Time Magazine, there is an article entitled, “Nellie’s Big Night” dated Monday, October 18, 1948 that gives a brief overview of her success story. (An interesting side note – did the original article misspell “Nellie” throughout the article, or is it a transcription error?)  A documentary book and film “A Stitch in Time” that was made, I believe, by a nephew reveals that, besides having started the “largest dress manufacturing company in the world” she was actually kidnapped and refused to pay the ransom!    It has been stated that her company made 75 million dresses between 1916 and 1978.  Check out the Nelly Don website!

It fascinates me to learn about the lives of women like Coco Chanel and Nelly Donnelly who were successful business women with multi-million dollar businesses at time when most women were happy housewives (or not so happy).  Yep, we’ve come a long way!

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