Vintage Shopping Isn’t What It Used to Be

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Photo: 2/Ryan McVay/Corbis

The first time I went to Angela’s Vintage on East 11th Street in the East Village, I was looking for a wedding dress. When I told the middle-aged blonde woman behind the counter what I wanted she did not offer her congratulations, no “What kind of dress do you have in mind?” She just looked my body over for what felt like a full minute. Then she walked over to a rack, reached in, and pulled out a creamy off-white silk dress with beading up the front and a million little buttons down the back. “This one,” she said. Not: “What do you think?” Just: “This one.”

“Maybe,” I said. I didn’t like it.

“Just try it on,” she said.

I pulled out a few other dresses, too. I tried on each of the ones I’d picked and each time the same thing happened: I walked out of the dressing room, and she said, “No,” then waved her hand as if being attacked by flies.

When I finally tried on her dress I walked out of the dressing room triumphant: “It doesn’t fit!” I said, as though I had won a bet.

She smiled. “Yes,” she said. “That’s it.”

I looked in the mirror. The high neck and the ruching and bias were, now that I studied it, weirdly flattering. Made of real silk, and from the late 1930s, it was an unlikely dress, but it grew on me. Angela charged me $100, plus $50 for the alterations, which she had finished within the week. The dress was beautiful and historical, but also so reasonably priced that I didn’t fret if someone hugged me while holding a glass of red wine.

***

When I was in high school in the 1990s East Village, buying used clothes was part of a shopping culture founded on the twin pillars of research and serendipity. I carried around a wish list, to which I added recommendations from liner notes and from people I was hoping to sleep with.

On any given day this list might include a host of treasures like P.G. Wodehouse’s Luck of the Bodkins, Rollerderby zine No. 4, Live With Lou Reed, or a '70s denim wrap-skirt.

I passed weekends touring the Village — from Tompkins Square Books to See Hear, to East Village Books, to Sounds, to Venus, to Tower, to the book tables at Astor Place, to Unique, to Canal Jean — trying to effectively deploy my babysitting money.

Between stops, my friends and I might sit and smoke in Washington Square Park or lounge on rooftops and stoops or have pierogi at Odessa. Back then, it was almost as if our full-time job was to piece together an identity out of sounds and pages and fabric. Were we the kind of person who wore '50s tulle and listened to Nico? Or who read Shakespeare and wore '60s prairie dresses? Decades of fashion and all of recorded human cultural history was ours to plunder.

According to a recent poll, even the small percentage of teenagers who do wear secondhand clothes these days don’t go in for the older stuff. They prefer resale or consignment shops with well-culled, on-trend, in-season stuff, like Beacon’s Closet and Buffalo Exchange, to thrift or more traditional vintage stores. Most of the used clothes they buy are from the last few seasons rather than from 30 years ago.

It makes sense. When Crossroads has a recent Marc Jacobs dress for $28, and H&M has a variation of it for $19, why would anyone spend a full day tracking down a 1960s Puritan Forever Young shift that costs $75? Teens today who want to look like Seinfeld’s Elaine don’t have to sift through 200 floral prints at a Salvation Army; they can just get a '90s-esque dress at Urban Outfitters and spend the rest of the day launching billion-dollar tech companies.

“I wish I could wear more vintage things,” says one young friend of mine. “I guess it’s because everything that I like is very expensive at this point because things are so ‘curated.’ Also, being a slightly larger lady with hips and a bust, it’s really, really hard to find things in my size that are also affordable, cute, and in good condition. I looked for about a year for a true vintage dress for my sister’s wedding and everything I found that came close to being the right thing was either $300 or more, or built for a tiny person.”

“People that shop vintage today are usually collectors, like antique dealers,” says Adele Meyer, executive director of NARTS, the Association of Resale Professionals. “Some collect vintage that they never wear because it’s too delicate. Then there are those that buy vintage to wear but that’s more accessories and small pieces. True vintage is really old. It’s collectible.”

There also just isn’t as much of the old stuff left. “The competition for finding good vintage garb has become somewhat fierce,” says Rico Giordano of American Vintage Classics, who has been selling vintage clothing online since 1996.

My chances of ever again stumbling upon a $3.99 Victor Costa evening dress at a Salvation Army are now, in other words, essentially nil. Jonathan Walford, curatorial director of the Fashion History Museum in Ontario, has been collecting vintage clothing almost 40 years. He says that anything vintage with a designer label is now especially overpriced. “I used to go out on a Saturday with $50 to $100 and keep shopping until it was gone," says Walford. “I’d come home and have a ton of stuff, including Dior. I once found a Courrèges dress in a Value Village. Now: nothing.” Online clearinghouses have de-democratized the hunt. “If you go to 1stdibs,” Walford says, “they’ve got the goods. But you have to go in with an amazing checkbook.”

On a deeper level, seeing the state of thrift stores today means coming to terms with the fact that if you were a teen in the 1990s, you are vintage. “Unlike in 1992,” my friend Liesl says, “there's no guaranteed jackpot — no '60s purse or '70s boots or '80s leather jackets, just a bunch of shitty oversize Express tunics from, well, 1997. I mean, mathematically it makes sense, right? In 1995, there wasn't generally stuff from like 50 years before, just 10 or 20 or 30 ... but that shit rocked. Now, clothes are uglier and more badly made, so people’s dregs feel like just that.” (Indeed, I have 1950s dresses that have made it through the washing machine 50 times without showing it at all, and then shirts from Zara that didn’t survive one garden party before the seams fell out.)

Most of the other young people I polled named the same two reasons why they don’t do much vintage shopping: They don’t have time to hunt and things are too expensive. I both envy and pity young people now, that they don’t have to go to five places to find a secondhand Philip K. Dick novel or oversize cardigan. On eBay right now there are 598 listing for denim wrap-skirts.

But they’re not missing out on the wish-list quest experience. “When it comes to culture, young people hunt more than we did,” says a college professor I know. “How many bands could we even be fully into back then at one time — ten? You physically could not go to that many stores in one day, especially if you didn’t live in New York.”

***

I still keep looking at thrift stores when I’m out of town, with occasional bolts of good fortune, though they hit further and further in between. Luckily, in New York I still find Angela’s reliable. She sells things cheaply and rotates stock three times a week, thanks to dealers around the country she knows personally and who aren’t online.

Still, a couple of years ago, Angela lost her lease on 11th Street and started helping her son, Victor Nechay, with the second Angela’s location he’d opened next to the Hare Krishnas on Second Avenue near 2nd Street (they are very friendly, and bring her incense, she says).

Over the years, I’ve bought dozens of dresses from Angela and Victor, usually at $40 to $100 each — a pink Bill Blass party dress with a belt ringed with fake pearls, a gay Pauline Trigère suit that could have been in a Doris Day movie, a slinky purple-and-white Pucci dress, a couple of $30 Hawaiian day dresses from the '60s, and a brown beaded minidress that makes me feel like I’m in a party scene from The Great Gatsby.

I like to go there and let Angela boss me around. The other day: “That skirt, no … This dress, yes, but with a—" it took a second for her to find the word—"camisole underneath.”

A function in part of the fact that English is her second language (having come from Ukraine as an adult, she lives in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn, and speaks Russian), she offers blunt advice. “You need a wide belt with that,” she will say. “You should wear your hair up.”

Her brusqueness is mitigated by compliments and wise general advice buried in her commandments, like, “That is good because you have a small waist and a nice neck,” or, “You don’t need to wear black shoes all the time.” (I barely knew, before I fell under her spell, that shoes came in colors other than black.) Her personal style is European with hints of Yohji Yamamoto draping and tattering. “She likes to look like a super-rich mummy,” says Victor.

I was there recently and some young women came in asking for costumes for a '70s-themed party. Angela tried to pull some lovely things, like a white Halston-ish blouse, but one of the young women said, “No, like '70s,” and began describing more garish disco looks. Angela rolled her eyes and returned to watching TV. I think this is why even though she is a genius, some of her online reviews are middling.

Going to Angela’s today isn’t like wandering the same Village with friends back when I was young, flipping through racks of old clothes and records and books, looking for identities to try on. The clothes may be similar, but the prices are higher, and the overall experience is sort of the opposite. Where once shopping for secondhand clothes was at once challenging and leisurely, now it is easy and efficient. This works out well, though, as I now have less time and more money.

“This isn’t old,” Angela said the last time I was at the shop, handing me a low-cut brown Anna Sui sundress priced at $40, “but it’s your style.” I didn’t like the look of it. I was so happy in the middle of the 20th century. Now suddenly my closet was being dragged into the mid-2000s? But of course Angela was right; I wear that brown dress all the time.