Cherie Federau talks about vintage dresses, discussing the various types of dresses and how to identify the eras they originate from, as well as noting celebrity and cultural influences. Cherie can be contacted via her blog, The Shrimpton Couture Blog.
I’ve pretty much always been a little bit fashion-nutty, ever since I was about 16 years old and I discovered Vogue. I started like a lot of other people, buying vintage to recreate the looks that I saw but couldn’t afford as a teenager. Then slowly over the years, as my hobby turned into more of an obsession, I became interested in the designers behind the labels and it just snowballed from there.
Everyone I knew was constantly coming to me to dress them and lend them vintage clothes. They’d say, “I want this, can you find it for me?” I started doing private sourcing for people on a very informal basis until I decided one day to open a shop. It began as a hobby—now it’s what I do.
I’ve had the online shop for about two-and-a-half years now. This year I decided to really commit and make a go of it, so I had the site completely redesigned from scratch. I really tried to make it the optimal shopping site that I would go to if I was looking for vintage. My blog has also been around for about two-and-a-half years. I started everything altogether.
I think blogging has become a relevant way to pass along information. I’m also on Twitter now, which is an amazing social-communication tool. It takes blogging to that next level. There are more blogs out there now than when I started, so you really have to maintain a good, steady consistency to keep your audience. Vintage blogs will always be a bit nichey. I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those sites that gets millions of hits a month. But for the people that love vintage, I hope I’ll fill a need.
I try to make people see vintage as a relevant thing that they can use in their wardrobes now. For example, if you are in college shopping in the thrift stores and falling in love with vintage, you can learn how to pick really great pieces and then mix them into your wardrobe. That’s how people get hooked and buy better and better pieces. It’s just like a girl who starts out buying Forever21 and eventually works her way up the retail food chain to Saks. It’s the same sort of thing.
For my blog, I like to help people understand that vintage doesn’t have to be costumey, although I do appreciate women who do the full-blown vintage-pinup look. I think that’s very cool, but I can’t do it. It doesn’t work on me as much as I like some days, so I try to “work it” in the way that I understand vintage.
Collectors Weekly: How should one wear vintage?
Federau: It’s not just the dress: it’s also about your, hair, makeup, and the way you are styled. You see celebrities on the red carpet and they’re wearing a dress from the 1920s or the 1970s, and you can’t tell because they have on the latest shoes and their hair and makeup is perfect. There’s no way you can tell what era the dress is from. So vintage should be worked in just like anything else.
“During World War II, there were restrictions on fabric, so skirts got really narrow, and sexy.”
Before 1950, pretty much everything was hand-tailored. There was some mass-production, but that meant hundreds or thousands, not millions like now. If you’re a collector or a dealer, you do run into an occasional repeat, but that’s actually great. I have certain designs that I collect, and if I find two of them, I just buy them both because then I have a backup or I can sell one and keep one.
For the most part, the odds of you walking into a party and seeing someone else wearing the same vintage dress are pretty darn slim. That’s the best part about vintage—you know you’re guaranteed to always be the girl in the dress that no one else has and no one else can get, and that’s cool.
Collectors Weekly: What designs do you focus on in your own personal collection?
Federau: I’m a bit of a ’70s girl. I have lots of maxi-length dresses in my personal collection, which is full length, to the floor. I like the flowing, long goddess dresses. I love Ossie Clark. I love Halston. Pieces don’t necessarily have to have a label for me. I just like that long, flowy look.
I love the look of the 1970s. It was a very free and easy time, and the dresses are just gorgeous. I have a thing for over-the-top dresses. I like dramatic dresses, and I like party dresses. My guy says that I’m constantly buying clothes as if I was going to an eternal cocktail party. I’m the only girl I know where the Queen could call me tomorrow and say, “Can you please be at the ball in half an hour?” and I already have a dress. I would be like, “Okay, so which one do I wear?” That’s my closet.
The ’70s dresses have a lot of color. A lot of them are nice, bright jewel colors, and I really like that, but they also had some god-awful patterns. It seems like the ’70s was a decade of extremes. There are so many bad clothes, but then when you find the good ones, they’re so good. It’s just wonderful. But I love every era. I could go on and on about the ’20s or the ’50s. I’m a bit of an addict.
Collectors Weekly: How can you tell what era a dress comes from?
Federau: When you know your stuff, you can tell by the fabric, the way things are sewn, the zippers used, the buttons, the style. Every era had its silhouette, and then there are telltale clues in zippers. Zippers have a really definite history of when and how they were produced and what they look like. Certain fabrics were only produced up to a certain time period, too, so you can tell by looking at them. There’s also a definite progression from things being sewn completely by hand to clothes made on early sewing machines to garments being mass-produced, so you can tell by the stitching. There are all these little telltale signs; it just takes a bit of practice.
If you’re new to vintage, try to educate yourself and look at sites that have really great dealers who know their stuff. Watch how they categorize things into eras. It’s not terribly hard, but there are things that can fool you. Even I occasionally run across a garment where I just scratch my head. For example, sometimes somebody would make a dress by hand in one era, but they would use a zipper that was from 10 or 15 years earlier because they had it available. Those are the little things that can stump you. If you’re a reputable dealer and you have something that stumps you, you can turn to your network of people, start showing them pictures, and ask for help.
Collectors Weekly: So the zippers evolved with the eras?
Federau: Absolutely, yes. I think the zipper was invented officially around 1900 or so, but it wasn’t used in clothing until about the late 1920s. In the late 1930s, there was this really cool fabric-covered zipper that was only produced for about three or four years. Instead of seeing teeth, you actually see fabric. I don’t know how it works, but it does. It’s the coolest thing, and I’ve had maybe three or four dresses pass through my hands that have had that zipper.
There’s this whole progression of zippers. They started out as metal, and really good dresses had brass ones. There was that fabric-covered zipper I mentioned, and then they started to paint the metal to match the zipper fabric and the fabric of the dress, so you couldn’t see it as much. Eventually zippers became skinnier, and then they started making them out of nylon and plastic.
Where the zipper was placed can also tell you a garment’s age. If it was on the side, it was probably very early. It takes a lot of material to set the zipper in the side of a garment, so to save money and to make it easier to mass-produce them, they moved it to the back. So just learning the history of a zipper will help give a clue as to when your dress was made.
Sometimes things are still a puzzle, because obviously you can still find garments today that have zippers in the side, but it’s a good starting point. When you add knowledge about stitching and fabric, you can put all those pieces together to get a pretty good idea of when a garment was made.
Collectors Weekly: Do dresses tend to reflect the society and values of the time period?
Federau: I think historians and sociologists always try to draw those conclusions. There are definitely some general trends that you can pick up and draw from. After the ’20s and up until the ’40s and ’50s, dresses were often a reflection on how much fabric was available because the wars took fabric away from consumer uses. In World War II, there were actually fabric restrictions because it was needed to make uniforms for the troops. That’s why ’40s silhouettes tend to be very narrow. The skirts got really narrow, so you get what everyone calls a wiggle dress now, that very sexy silhouette. So yes, there are definitely some reflections on what was happening in society.
Collectors Weekly: Did styles completely change with each era or did they evolve?
Federau: I think a little bit of both. In the 1920s, you get that flapper dress shape—straight tube, no waist, no bust. It could’ve been to the near mid-calf, very ornate. In the ’30s and ’40s, you have that Hollywood look where things got really fitted at the waist and had strong shoulders. You could see a bit of military influence in them, but they were still girly.
Then in the ’50s, everyone got into the cupcake shape—the big, full skirt that we all know and love, and the little fitted bodice. In the ’60s and the ’70s, you start getting into various looses. You get dresses that are more flowy as opposed to fitted. And forget the ’80s, even though I know they’re back. I have a few pieces from the ’80s because technically that is vintage now, and I do carry a few newer pieces that I like to think of as future collectibles. They’re not vintage by any means, but I think they’ll be relevant one day. But boy, it’s tough to add those ’80s dresses. They go against everything. But like anything, just like the ’70s, there are some good pieces, I guess. Two, maybe.
Collectors Weekly: Is there a certain era that more people are drawn to than others?
Federau: It’s pretty split up. I think women eventually find the era that suits them. I think that vintage is defined a lot by body type. The ’50s silhouettes are great for a curvy girl with a nice waist who likes her curves. Women wanted their hips to look fuller and wore extra undergarments so their busts were bigger. Somebody who has a long, lean silhouette looks amazing in a 1920s or a ’30s dress. For someone with a little figure, those fitted wiggle dresses are fabulous. It’s just like shopping normal retail. As you start to buy and start to know what looks good on you, you get drawn to a certain era that suits you really well.
A vintage dress is so well constructed that once you put it on, it’s hard to wear a cheap, new item. There are definitely great modern pieces that are well-constructed, that goes without saying, but there’s a lot of not-great stuff. Once you start wearing vintage and you realize that you can buy a handmade 1950s dress for the same price as something from a retail chain at the mall, well, it gets harder and harder to shop at retail chains.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the groundbreaking vintage designers?
Federau: Dior was relevant in changing the shape of the dress in the ’50s that we talked about. He brought back that full skirt. And Karl Lagerfeld’s career has spanned decades now. Yves Saint Laurent, he’s also been an important person that’s contributed to the shape of things. If you go way back, Paul Poiret basically freed women from the constraints of corsets and being bound up and strutted about. He was an important predecessor to what we consider the modern silhouette.
I have strong loves for so many designers. When you do what I do, you really learn to appreciate designers across the board. I could have an example of each one of them, and I’d still look for more.
Collectors Weekly: What do you look for when you’re shopping for a vintage dress?
Federau: First and foremost, I look for a certain level of quality. I try my best to buy things in mint condition. Sometimes vintage has small flaws, and if they’re fixable, that’s great. If they’re not, I pass on it. Then I look at the aesthetics of it. I look for how pretty it is, because the reality is that everybody wants something that’s beautiful. I look for things that I think are beautiful and hope that my clients think they’re beautiful, too.
And then after that, I look at the label and who it’s by. Just because it’s labeled doesn’t mean it’s pretty or worth anything. Some are butt-ugly. No designer hits the mark every single time. So just because it has a label doesn’t mean that I’ll end up purchasing it. I definitely don’t disregard labels, but I cannot say that I’d buy something just because of the label.
I’m sure there are collectors that do collect just by the label. Sometimes I’m dead wrong. Sometimes I could pass up something because I don’t think it’s nice-looking and then find out that it was an important piece. But it’s part of the education process. No one can know everything. I think the day that you think you know everything about what you do is a sad day because then there’s nothing left to learn. If you know everything about what you do, you might as well do something else because it’s just not interesting anymore. Every single time I find out something new or discover a new designer I didn’t know about or just anything about it, I’m always researching and reading and seeing what’s going on. That’s part of the fun.
Collectors Weekly: Were there designs that came out that just didn’t work at all?
Federau: I think that you always see extreme designs, and then it’s always funny to see them modified and the public wearing them. Right now people are laughing at the ’80s revival and a lot of people think it’s silly, but you can see those extreme shoulders, for example, in the main collections now. What I laugh about even more is that you could see that shoulder back in the ’30s and ’40s, and those designers were probably copying the shoulder off some military uniform from the 1800s.
So it’s like an ever-evolving thing. Vintage dealers always giggle when they see the latest trend because it’s probably been done a few times already in some way or another. Just like designers now look back for inspiration, the designers then did, too—you get this continual cycle of ideas.
Collectors Weekly: Does vintage play a big role in what’s being designed today?
Federau: I think so. Like with anything, you use what you know as a base to move forward, right? If you’re a designer, knowing the history of fashion or having a favorite designer or a favorite look is going to influence you some way. Hopefully you use that as a springboard to create something new and wonderful. A lot of people really criticize designers for using vintage as an inspiration. Straight copying is maybe not so good, but I personally think it’s just an evolution. If you use vintage as your inspiration to create something new and add your own twist, it just makes future vintage for generations from now to collect.
Collectors Weekly: When did the current vintage resurgence start?
Federau: Sometime in the 1990s, celebrities started making regular appearances on the red carpet and saying that they were wearing vintage, probably in the mid- to late ’90s. With our culture being so celebrity-obsessed, and with people like über-stylist Rachel Zoe championing vintage, all of a sudden it’s everywhere. If you open up Vogue, you can almost always find at least one thing that’s vintage in every issue, whether it’s jewelry or clothes. It’s amazing. I think that women have always worn vintage, but now it’s become a cool thing that people actually talk about. It really went mainstream.
Older celebrities have an influence, too. If you watch a movie with Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn and you want to look like them, what are you going to buy in a store? You’d probably raid someone’s closet or thrift stores or your local vintage store and buy a dress from the ’50s or ’60s.
Collectors Weekly: Were women as influenced by Hollywood in the 1950s?
Federau: In the ’50s, there were only so many styles that women dressed in: you would’ve been able to buy that fitted silhouette or that full skirt at a store. Now we live in a world where there’s no defined style. What’s the last decade where you can really say that there was that one style and that’s it? In the ’50s, you would never wear a one-shoulder maxi-length toga. Now there are so many styles and trends that you can do whatever you want, and buying vintage is a way to be individualistic.
Collectors Weekly: You mentioned flapper and wiggle and maxi. Did each dress have a certain name?
Federau: I don’t know if they’re specific names. That’s just what they’re known as.
In the 1920s, you’d find flapper dresses, which are named after the girls who wore them. Flappers had a typical bob hair cut, and they’d tape their breasts so they looked flat because they didn’t want curves. They’d wear these long dresses and go dancing and smoke cigarettes. The ’20s girls were so much crazier than what most people think. I just love them.
Then in the ’50s you get your cupcake dress, very fitted with the big, full skirt, and a wiggle dress is a very fitted silhouette with a pencil skirt. Maxi dresses, of course, are long, to the ground.
What most people think of as a cocktail dress is from the ’50s, but again, that’s just a catchall phrase to mean a dress that is dressy enough for night but not formal.
Collectors Weekly: How important is the accessory to the dress when you’re wearing a vintage piece?
Federau: That’s how you update things. I almost always have something vintage on, no matter what, but I never do head-to-toe. If I have a vintage dress on, I’ll wear new shoes or a new bag, or sometimes a vintage bag and new jewelry. Sometimes I’ll have all new clothing on and just use my bag or jewelry as my vintage accessories. I think it’s important to mix it up. It makes it look fresh.
Collectors Weekly: What is reconstructed vintage?
Federau: Reconstructed vintage pieces are pieces that are reworked into something new by a designer. They take items that are damaged or not usable anymore, and they mix them with modern materials to make something new. More people are doing it recently, and people tend to get a little up in arms sometimes that you’re destroying vintage. But the designers that I work with really respect and know vintage, and they only use pieces that can’t be restored or are damaged beyond repair.
Say a skirt is still good: a designer will combine it with another dress whose top is good, and then add some new fabric and ribbons and stuff to make a brand new dress. It’s so cool. For people who don’t like vintage or who feel that vintage doesn’t suit them, this is a way to mix old and new. I’m proud to carry them just like I’m proud to carry my vintage designers. One day they’ll be collectibles.
You would be shocked at how many vintage designers did the exact same thing. There are a few that are actually known for taking pieces from earlier eras and mixing it up. Even in the 1920s, there’s a very famous pair of sisters that took vintage—well, antique to us now—pieces from the 1800s, lace and things like that, and mixed them in their designs to make new one-of-a-kind dresses for their clients. So it’s not like this is a new idea.
Collectors Weekly: What makes your jaw drop when you find that perfect dress?
Federau: I think it’s the same thing as any girl who’s shopping in a store and she sees “the” dress. You just know it when you see it. That’s a hard one to describe because it’s a gut reaction. A good dress is a good dress no matter when it’s from. You can tell something that’s gorgeous right away. There are a lot of pretty dresses out there, but the ones that are really exceptional, you can’t miss them. You know them right away.
Collectors Weekly: When you look back on your time collecting vintage dresses, what stands out?
Federau: The coolest thing I’ve ever done is actually shopping for vintage in South Africa. I went with a friend and we decided to go vintaging. We told our cab driver to take us to all the vintage stores. It took probably about 45 minutes to get him to understand what we meant, but then we toured Cape Town for the entire day, going to all these vintage stores.
I bought 1950s dresses there, which is sort of funny. Women travel and buy things to bring back home, so you never know what you’re going to find and where. Sometimes the most oddball out-of-the-way places are exactly where you’ll find somebody who has a big stash of high-end vintage because they’ve been collecting for years. Vintage is literally everywhere in the world.
Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for someone who might be new to vintage clothing collecting?
Federau: Buy what you love. Despite it not having a label and despite it not being perfect, if you fall in love with it, then you buy it. Vintage isn’t always perfect, but that’s part of what makes it special. Just follow your gut and buy what you love, and eventually you’ll figure out what’s good from bad. You’ll make mistakes, I certainly did, but that’s part of the fun.
There are a lot of great vintage books out that you can buy at your local bookstore right now. The Victoria and Albert Museum in the U.K. publishes books all the time and they’re exceptional. They have a great book out right now called The Golden Age of Couture, and they also publish books on individual designers like Ossie Clark. So they’re a great place to start.
There’s also a publishing house called Taschen that does great fashion and vintage books. There are lots of forums, too. I can’t really give you any off the top of my head, but I know that online there are forums and chat rooms and lots of blogs.
Everyone starts somewhere. Some of my very favorite pieces are the ones that I’ve had for a long time. They’re nothing special at all. They are just like little throw-it-on vintage pieces. That’s why I said you have to buy what you love. That’s the important thing.