Building a vintage closet, part 5: Putting it all together
By now you’ve probably come up with a respectable number of vintage separates and dresses (or whatever was part of your initial plan) and are starting to see what works for your body type and style. How well did you stick to your adjectives? Did you find yourself drawn to pink frilly things when you’re trying to be taken more seriously at work, and want to project a new image? How well did you resist the temptation to buy things that were not your style? It can be tough, I know. I look SO BAD in rose pink, specifically dusty rose, and mustard. How many blouses do I have that are pink or yellow? At least four that I need to let go of.
Tips for finding good fits for your body type
I strongly believe there is something flattering for every body. It’s a matter of proportion, scale and fit. Most often, your natural waist is a good place to draw attention to, even if you don’t have an hourglass figure. Bisecting the body at the hip (1920s flapper) or under the bust (1960s empire) is rarely flattering, unless you are tall and willowy and thin, because then, the lines flow. There are no major curves to distract, the eye can travel downward and upward and the look feels balanced. For those of us that are rounder, it helps visually to bisect the body at or around the natural waist. It is, after all, natural. It’s just a balancing act. Example:
- Balance wide hips with broad lapels, interesting necklines, or padded shoulders
- Balance broad shoulders with full skirts or hip pockets on slim skirts
- Pair slim pencil skirts and pants with loose-fitting blouses, and full skirts with fitted blouses, sweaters or jackets
- Belts are your friends. I belt almost everything. Combined with my waist nipper I can make anything look good.
- Look for pants that fit at your natural waist. This could mean 30s or 40s trousers, either vintage, repro or custom, or it could mean 50s or 60s cigarette pants, or even some 70s styles. It wasn’t really until the 90s that the dumb idea of fitting pants at the hip really caught on and became the norm, so that women had something new to feel ashamed about: the muffin top.
- If you want to hide a lower tummy (like I do), peplums are a counterintuitive solution. Avoid skirts that are fitted through the hip and flare out from there.
- Wide hips (particularly pockets placed on the hips to make them appear wider) create the illusion of a smaller waist.
- Drop waist styles can be surprisingly flattering on almost any body type.
Balance outfits in terms of color, pattern and texture.
I don’t believe in any hard and fast rules when it comes to color. I’ve heard 70/30 or 80/20 rules, where your outfit should be 70 or 80% neutral colors and 30 or 20% accent colors. I think this is a good guideline, especially if your style elements include simple and sophisticated, like mine do. I sort of half-assed follow this rule, though I often end up wearing all neutrals because I love navy and black. But the principle is sound. An exception to this rule, especially if your style elements include fun, daring or sweet, is that any color can become a neutral if you’re wearing enough of it. A bold red pencil skirt and matching swing jacket looks fabulous paired with a simple white blouse and black (or navy) pumps and bag. In this case, our 80% is the bold color, and the neutrals are the accent.
This is an example of the 80/20 rule in play. The dress, shoes and hat are all navy, but the bright accents help to balance the look and keep it from being too stuffy and boring. And speaking of balance, the hat here is working to balance out the boldness of the dress. Most of these 1940s and 1950s dresses were designed assuming you’d be wearing hats, so sometimes they can feel unbalanced until you top it off.
As a graphic designer, one of the primary principles I have in mind constantly is hierarchy. I am always thinking about the user’s experience and what the first thing, second thing, and third thing they see is. With the red outfit described above, the first read is “bold and fun”, the second read could be “smart” (because there aren’t too many things going on, the look is cohesive), the third could be “sexy” (because red is a sensual color, and heels are almost always sexy). In this case, the user is not only you, but all the people who see you an interact with you. There should be a great deal of overlap between your style elements and the hierarchy of what your appearance says about you. In fact, they should be essentially the same. Color is a great way to help establish your hierarchy and support those style elements. My preferred color set, neutrals in navy, purple, brown, black, and gray with pops of red, bright pink, bright blue, and kelly green, say that I’m primarily sophisticated and simple, with just a touch of sexy and a tiny bit of daring.
Patterns are closely tied to color and can work to support your style elements. I’m really drawn to 1940s novelty patterns, but they don’t fit my style elements, and lately when I wear them I have felt uncomfortable as my style is changing to be more sophisticated (this is another reason you should follow my flash sales). But you can end up breaking your own rules and having it work for you. Here is an outfit where I break my rules in terms of pattern and decoration, but still stay within my overall style:
If you said to me, hey, I have this pink polka dot set in your size, are you interested? I’d be all like nah. Both “pink” and “polka dots” scream sweet, naive and feminine, three style elements which scored way down on my list. But this set totally works for me because the cut is sexy (check), the silhouette is simple (check), the scale of the dots is large, and the pairing of pink with navy is a bit unexpected and dare I say—sophisticated? Check.
Creating balance in texture is interesting. You either intuitively feel it, or you have to think about it a little bit before you catch on, but it’s easy to learn. Basically, pair like with like, or go for a well-considered contrast. One way of thinking about this is to imagine for what activities certain textures are well-suited. For example, it’s easy to imagine beautiful silks, delicate rayon and lace in the boudoir or on the (ballroom) dance floor, but thinking about them on a hike makes me cringe. Similarly, tweed is a thickly woven wool that feels quite inappropriate near a fancy evening gown. It works best to pair fabrics that share common weights, weaves, or reflections, like rayon blouses with fine wool gabardine, cotton or velvet blouses with tweed suits, and silk with just about anything, depending on the weave. Dupioni silk has a rougher texture and works well for day dresses, suits, and light coats. Silk satin reflects a lot of light and doesn’t work that well with heavy wools that absorb light. You want all parts of you to feel like they belong to the same body, going to the same place. That said, it can work well to add a very different texture to an outfit, for example, a tweed suit paired with a shiny patent bag. Same principle as color: use contrast as an accent.
We haven’t talked much about accessories here, but they are important. I don’t wear a lot of jewelry—never brooches or earrings—because they clash with the simple and sophisticated style. I do wear scarves (“Men love scarves,” says Joan Holloway) occasionally and necklaces often, but I do it to support the outfit and not define it. Again, it’s a matter of balance and scale. For me, usually a beaded necklace with two or more strands does nicely, in either a pop color or metallic.
Basic accessories for me include
- A variety (about a half-dozen) necklaces in common pop colors and metallics, like pewter, copper, red, white, black, pearl and mint
- Gloves in black, white and brown, in either wrist length or near-elbow
- About a half-dozen pairs of shoes that can work for different eras, in brown, black, navy, red and marsala (cause that’s a thing now, right?)
- Handbags in black patent, navy leather, and a bright multi-color woven
- Bakelite bracelets in four basic color sets: brown, black, green, and red/orange; paired with copper or white
These things are pretty easy to find at estate sales and flea markets, with the exception of shoes. I have a few vintage pairs that I paid about $20 each for, and I have repro pairs from Remix (on sale, about $120) because they’re very well-made and tend to be more comfortable for all-day wear. People seem to really love 1950s Spring-O-Lators (shoes with a partial elastic footbed to help them stay on), but I have never experienced anything so uncomfortable in my life, so I never wear the pair I have unless it’s just for a photograph.
Putting together a vintage closet does take time, effort and attention. It’s a learning process both in terms of what to buy and how to buy it. But I believe it’s completely worth it, not only because you can look and feel fabulous, but because you’re giving a piece of history a new life. And that is a beautiful thing.