I’m a firm believer that everything old can be made new again. That’s why when I was invited to cover the Black Cat Vintage event co-hosted by founder Claudine Villardito and Arizona Costume Institute—it’s a mission I gladly accepted!
Once upon a time, there was a young socialite named Peggy, who fell deeply in love with a college professor. When her mother Margaret learned of her daughter fraternizing with someone beneath her status, she orchestrated a trip around the world. Thinking it would distract her daughter, Margaret bought her daughter a dress in every country they visited, including Spain where they acquired a brown dress embellished with embroidered roses.
This may read like an episode of “Gossip Girl,” but it’s not a fictional TV show set on the Upper East Side in Manhattan—circa 2006, global travel wasn’t via a private jet, and Peggy didn’t ditch her controlling mom to tour the states with a rock band. It’s a true story set in Akron, Ohio, where mom and daughter took a grand tour of Europe via a Zeppelin, and as lovely and fetching her new designer wardrobe was, it wouldn’t stop Peggy from eventually marrying her beau. She got the dress, and the boy!
This is just one of the charming stories that Claudine regaled us with during the event. Claudine—a member of Arizona Costume Institute—showcased her vintage fashion collection ranging from an 1860’s Civil War frock to a 2002 Galliano gown, as well as gave a tour of her complete collection, comprised of more than 3000 pieces.
Amidst an audience chock full of fashion enthusiasts, the vintage collector regaled us about not only her rare pieces, but charming stories that accompany them such as a 1920’s dress owned by a young woman whose mother took her on a world shopping tour to rid her mind—and heart—from a man she loved, and eventually married. On this tour while visiting Spain, she bought a beautiful black dress embellished with a rose embroidery. To get more intel about her coveted collection, I caught up with Claudine for an exclusive interview.
How did you become a fashion enthusiast? My interest in fashion is entirely my mother’s fault. She is and always has been my style icon because of her immaculate taste, and in the heyday of mid-century fashion when the Gods of design—Dior, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Balmain—were personally producing their eponymous collections she wore the originals.
She has always had a gift for recognizing the classics before they become famous, and as a result she managed to acquire some of the most coveted designers and truly groundbreaking pieces just by following her instincts. Watching her get ready to go out for dinner or cocktails was the highlight of my childhood, and the following morning I would stand inside her dresses, smell her perfume, and pretend I was her. Her closet was the most sublime playroom I could imagine and I became intimately familiar with certain designers, fabrics and methods of construction before I was 10 years old. Once I had some expendable income I began to seek out items like the ones she had in her closet and collected them like some people collect art. Addiction soon followed.
How long have you been collecting fashion? I figure I have been collecting for about 20 years now, if you count the pieces I rescued from second-hand stores in college. My intention was never to make a business of restoring or selling them, only to make sure they were saved since they represented original examples of the designs we take for granted today. Moreover, the construction, materials and attention to detail found in vintage garments is only available now by buying couture, which is impossible for all but a handful of people in the world, so I thought of each piece as an investment in quality.
What is the period range of the pieces that you collect and how many pieces do you have in your collection? Counting clothing, accessories and ephemera, I currently have approximately 3,000 objects in my collection. They range from an 18th century whalebone corset to a Galliano gown made in 2002, though the majority of my items date from the 1920s-1960s.
Besides garments, what other fashion items do you collect? I collect day and evening wear, plus outerwear, lingerie, swimwear, purses, hats, scarves, gloves, sunglasses, shoes and some jewelry. Jewelry is a specialty in its own right, so I tend to concentrate on the things I know best, which are the clothes and purses as opposed to other accessories. I purchased the unpublished original sketches of a fashion illustrator who worked in Paris in the 1950s and printed them as blank greeting cards, which I also sell—though I won’t part with the originals. I even have a few men’s items, such as wool swim trunks and a tuxedo worn for induction into the French Legion of Honor in the 1930s.
What is the difference between Black Cat Vintage and Mrs. Robinson’s Affair? I have split the collection into two groups: one features rarer, museum-quality garments and the other offers the classic, but more plentiful, vintage pieces that filled the closets of most women in the mid-century. Both lines are lovingly restored to the same standards, but they are sold, stored and priced differently. The more readily-available pieces are modestly priced but immaculate, and are sold on my online store called Mrs. Robinson’s Affairs. The highly-collectible pieces are stored in a sealed, temperature-controlled archive and are sold on my other e-commerce site, Black Cat Vintage. Between the two lines, there is something for everyone in every style, size and price range.
Which piece in your collection is your favorite? Oddly, the most sacred piece in my collection is not a garment, but rather a letter. It is part of a 1925 wedding trousseau, which I purchased in its entirety including lingerie, shoes, wedding gown, bouquet, and wedding garter with a lucky sixpence still inside. The owner’s granddaughter gave me copies of the wedding photo, invitations, the newspaper article in which the wedding was reported, and a remarkable letter to the bride from her new mother-in-law.
Over six pages written in longhand cursive, she counsels her daughter-in-law about the importance of birth control and that her son should be expected to bear equal responsibility for planning their family. She includes a very candid discussion of the different birth control methods available and encourages her son’s bride to take control of her health and future. It is staggering in its candor, practicality, concern and modernity. Given that the Comstock Laws of the time deemed any discussion, literature or education regarding women’s reproduction to be obscene, the letter and the woman who wrote it (who was born in the 1800s) are remarkably progressive, and indicate the dramatic changes taking place in society. It’s fascinating.
If you could have an item from any notable person past or present, who would it be, and why? At heart I am a historian, so the pieces that resonate loudest with me are the ones that represent watershed moments in both fashion and history. Given those criteria, items like Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Marie Antoinette’s panniers, Josephine Baker’s Banana Skirt, Coco Chanel’s enamel cuffs or Jacqueline Kennedy’s pink Chanel suit would be the ultimate acquisitions. I don’t know that I could narrow it down to one and I’m sure I would be struck by lightning immediately after holding of any one of those items anyway!
What is the most interesting fashion piece you have seen? It was a black Junya Watanabe for Comme de Garcons bustle jacket circa 1999. The jacket had a flared peplum with a rear bustle that was constructed of coils of sprung steel; you could remove the jacket and collapse the coils together so it turned from a jacket into a purse in a single step. I’ve never seen anything like it since, and I’m sorry I didn’t buy it.
Do you have any vintage items that were worn by celebrities and/or were featured in films, if so what celebrity and which film? I do. I have a gown that was owned and worn by Betty Grable in the 1960s. Luckily I was able to authenticate it by speaking directly with the designer before he died in 2010, but I have yet to find a photo of her in the gown. I have an outfit from “Mad Men” season 5, episode 12, and a Chanel suit from the 1997 fall/winter collection worn by Helena Christiansen. I also have an unlabeled Jacques Fath gown that was custom made for the sister of a French war hero; both she and the gown have a very interesting past.
What is your favorite time in history for fashion and why? Without question, I should have lived in the 1920s—preferably on the French Riviera. I am obsessed with the decade not only for the amount of original design produced during it, but also for the shape of the clothing, which suits my figure and boyish haircut. The designs of the period were deceptively simple, but executed with such reverence for detail and quality that little else in fashion history can compare with the elegance of a beaded, drop waist sheath dress. My grandmother was a flapper, and even got arrested on a Chicago beach for wearing a white bathing suit. My mother tells me all the time that I resemble her so much I think a part of me was there with her in sprit.
Claudine’s tips for investing in your own vintage collection:
If you are collecting to wear yourself, know your era. Each decade had a particular silhouette most commonly associated with it, and not all eras suited all figures. Play to your strengths—if you are curvy, look to the 50s. If you’re triangle shaped, try the 1930s, inverse triangle, reach for the 40s. When you’re comfortable you look better and avoid the danger of looking like you’re in costume—you look like you’re making a fashion statement instead.
Whether you are collecting for yourself or to sell, spend the most you can afford to spend and choose one really exceptional item over three mediocre ones. Don’t necessarily be a slave to labels, either. I can’t tell you the number of traffic-stopping pieces I have that bear no designer label. Unless you’re planning on flipping a piece for profit, a label is only of moderate importance.
Know when to say no. I’m here to tell you, stains do not come out of colored satins without damaging the fabric; removing perspiration stains takes time, effort, skill and prayer; reweaving fabric to repair moth holes is painfully expensive. Know the limits of how much money and time you are willing to invest in a piece before you buy it. On the other hand, if something speaks loudly to you and you’re waffling, buy it. It won’t be there tomorrow.
Image source: Shane Baker Studios and blackcatvintage.com.