Sunday, January 15, 2012

Kids in a Candy Store

OK, really adults in a costume rental warehouse.

What better way to start the new year than by ogling thousands of vintage clothes from the past 150 years?!

On January 2, on our day off, we traveled just two subway stops out of Manhattan to Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing in Long Island City. We met Helen at the 2010 Easter Parade, and struck up a conversation with her because she was wearing a Bes-Ben hat adorned with horse heads while she chatted with a woman wearing a felted white teapot. See? Haven't we told you hats are perfect conversation starters? Here we are with the proprietress herself.

Click here to read the very interesting story of how Helen got into the costume rental business. The day we were there, she was displaying a dress worn by Beyonce in her role as Etta James in Cadillac Records. (Did you see that movie? It featured all sorts of great stars doing great jobs with a great script.) There was also a very sexy negligee worn to great effect by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, as well as a dress worn by Kate Winslet in Mildred Pierce. In her thirty years in the business, Helen has amassed a list of movie, television and theater credits as long as your arm, or longer. Click here for a comprehensive list that will boggle your mind and delight your imagination.

We were like very privileged kids in a 6,000-foot candy store. Helen's warehouse is normally to the trade only, so for her to invite us to enjoy these treasures in person was a treat beyond words. Helen has the place beautifully organized. The space was filled with row after row of meticulously maintained two-level racks, divided into men's and women's wear arranged chronologically. Naturally, with so much real estate to cover, we spent most of our time in the women's section.

Helen's system of classification is so thorough, and her inventory so broad, that if you asked for a pale blue cotton dress from the 1930s to fit an actress size 34-24-35, Helen could find one for you within five minutes.

Here is a rack of 1940s jackets in every imaginable color, all tagged for easy identification.

We were free to browse the aisles and pull out the pieces that caught our eye. Valerie chose this red and black 1950s number for closer scrutiny. Helen gave us carte blanche to remove the plastic coverings, but we could almost hear our mothers in the background, exhorting us not to court trouble, so we erred on the side of caution.

Jean selected this 1940s black crepe dress with marvelous bakelite buttons.

Sometimes, the little details make all the difference. In this case, the shape, color and angle of the bakelite buttons with their double XX stitching pattern combined with the tailored shape of the dress make it a film noir-type classic.

One Hat - Two Heads!

Sometimes, when we both like the same hat, it looks great on both of us. Other times, it looks better on one than the other. On rare occasions, we both strike out. You be the judge!

We both tried the stunning monkey fur hat that Helen is wearing in the first photo and both found it to be flattering.

We agreed that a sophisticated statement hat such as this requires a little attitude to carry it off.

For lack of a better descriptor, we called this vintage black grosgrain chapeau "the propeller hat". It turned out to be one of those instances in which we both agreed that the hat was great, and wanted it to look better on us than it actually did. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work for either one of us. It's a classic example of what Valerie calls "a ninety-percenter". (Almost everything about it is wonderful, but the missing 10% - not necessarily the item's fault - is a deal breaker.)

Sometimes, it is more flattering to have more going on in the front of a hat than, as in this case, the back. At least in our case. We both really wanted the hat to work its magic on us.

Although the garments in the warehouse are strictly rental only, Helen periodically weeds out the duplicate items and sells them. This little black felt 1940s felt cap with a curved tail was on the sale rack. We both gave it a whirl.

Because the price was right ($16) and because it cried out for a bakelite pin or something to spiff it up, Jean took this little number home with her for some Art Deco TLC. If you look closely, you can see a little lipstick smear on Jean's right cheek - a result of the exuberant holiday hugs and kisses when we arrived.

Helen, knowing we'd be wearing hats, greeted us wearing a black straw item she took off her sale rack. When she heard it was available, Valerie snapped it up. At ten inches in diameter, it's small enough to wear as a breastplate when it's not being worn as a hat.

While traversing the aisles, we hit pay dirt when we found this gown that screamed son-of-Elsa Schiaparelli! This modern day knock-off was created for a Roundabout Theater remake of The Women.

The beadwork on the lobster was amazing. These days, most of this type of handwork is done in India. Since sequins and beads are a staple of drag queen costuming, business there is booming. Just think of all of those Priscillas of the Desert in small towns across America in need of beaded gowns!

We loved the two lobster claws hanging from long straps that tie at the neck of the back of the dress and hang down. Wouldn't the claws look great on a hat?

These shelves held dozens of antique umbrellas, parasols and walking sticks.

It's hard to see, but this umbrella had an elaborately carved dog's head at the end of its handle. Many of the others were equally charming and quirky.

Helen gamely climbed a ladder to show us some of the hats in the boxes atop one of the display cases. She modeled this black felt with an orange butterfly detail.

Here is what we dubbed the great wall of hats. That's Helen's assistant, Dan, in the corner of the shot.

Other Things That Set Our Hearts Afluttering

A wonderful Edwardian period jacket with a Pennsylvania label on it.

In the 1960s, we would have run the other way if anyone had suggested circle skirts to us - SOOOOOO '50s. But aren't they wonderful? The one on the left is printed felt; the one on the right felt like flocked rayon.

The response to the poodle skirt? Felines, of course!

It was amazing how much detail one can find in the sleeves of vintage clothes. In the first photo below, small strips of fabric have been shaped into tubes, and sewn in intervals along a see-through arm. In the second, small bits of white fur have been shaped into leaves sewn onto small velvet cap sleeves. These are highlighted with stems in large stitch embroidery.

Helen showed us this glamorous hand-sewn fur trimmed jacket.

If you click on this photo, you can get a better look at the sleeve detailing. It's almost like a spur on an animal's hind leg. A working person today would complain that this marvelous detailing would get caught on everything. Perhaps this was worn by one of the ladies who lunched.

An assortment of bright cotton prints from the '20s.

Here's Dan again. Helen has a way of picking great assistants. Dan has a degree in musical theater. Albertus Swanepoel, who now makes hats sold at Barney's, among other fabulous places, was one of Helen's interns. (BTW, anyone interested in interning should contact Helen.) Just before we left, Dan modeled a red lumberjack plaid cape and hat that he'd found while thrifting upstate over the holidays.

Helen also sells assorted vintage collectibles on Etsy. Click here to see what she’s offering these days. And while you're at it, have a look at Helen's
BLOG, too!

What we're wearing:

Jean is wearing frames from Fabulous Fanny's; bag by Made Her Think; boots by Trippen; pants by Timbuktu; jacket by Kyodan; vintage black bakelite rings; vintage black & white bakelite orb ring from Sheila Strong -"Fool's Gold"; black skull earrings - gift from Jodi Head & RJ.

Valerie is wearing a Hattie Carnegie modified derby with figure eight cutouts (Stella Pier Show), metal whisk-like earrings from Jean's Block Association's flea market, a boy's cutaway morning coat labeled "Dynasty Collection" by After 6 (thrift shop), Express white cotton/lycra shirt, Comme des Garcons wool patchwork pants (consignment store), Aerosole shoes.


  1. What a fabulous treasure chest of vintage - how lucky you are to be allowed into the "inner sactum" so to speak! I love that monkey fur hat and the edwardian jacket. One of the things that draws me to vintage clothing is the marvelous details, like the bakelite buttons, or the sleeve embellishment. You rarely, if ever, find that kind of meticulous handiwork in off the rack clothing anymore.

  2. What an amazing vintage store!, I want one like that near home!!

  3. As I have found the rocking, classy and mind blowing outfits from this source. The existing collection is really looking great. Specially, the hat is really looking coolest stuff among them. Thanks for sharing.

  4. If you should ever like to sell the kitty skirt please let me know!