Retrostyle: A Day in the Thirties

Doll House: Dixie Feldman in her thirties studio.Photo: Danielle Levitt

The Boogie-Woogie Beat

When Dixie Feldman was growing up in seventies Miami, she didn’t exactly fit in with the free-love, Farrah Fawcett Zeitgeist. While other 10-year-olds were into the Bionic Woman and Jordache, Feldman worshipped Gypsy Rose Lee, and prowled thrift stores for playsuits. At 12 she shaved off her eyebrows and painted on thin lines, à la Jean Harlow, and joined TV Guide’s Nostalgia Book Club, through which she gained an encyclopedic knowledge of thirties film history from sources like Love Goddesses of the Silver Screen.

“The beauty of the thirties stars was so much more accessible than the prevailing Cheryl Tiegs ideal of my day,” says Feldman, 43. “I have the looks of a truck-stop waitress named Tillie, not a Charlie’s Angel.” Through the book club’s classifieds, Feldman began amassing a collection of thirties movie memorabilia; when she later sold it all, it went a long way toward paying her University of Pennsylvania tuition.

Feldman moved to New York in the early eighties. Inside her pristine pink-and-green apartment (in the 1931 Parc Vendôme building)—“like a Singaporean bordello circa 1933”—a visitor will find Ruth Etting on the Bakelite radio and several parakeets in thirties birdcages. Feldman wears prison rings crafted from Bakelite and a picture of a loved one. She has multiple mini-collections—ten “Tijuana bibles” (little books that depict pop culture icons, like Popeye, in very explicit positions) from her “smut” phase, music boxes from her World’s Fair phase, and a Lindy Hop certificate from her swing-dancing phase.

As a schoolgirl, Feldman’s obsession didn’t exactly make her popular. It wasn’t just that she wore bed jackets or that her ideal catch was John Garfield. “The sexuality of the women in the thirties seemed brighter and more empowering than post-Pill times,” she says. Even now, as editorial director of Nick Digital Television, Feldman’s values seem largely out of step with today’s irony. “I’m patriotic in an old-fashioned, tear-up-when-you-hear-the-national-anthem kind of way,” she says.

Photo: Davies + Starr

Wake mid-morning and turn on your Emerson radio ($250 at Waves; 212-273-9616) or listen to the era’s swing and jazz on Radio Dismuke ( Start smoking Lucky Strikes, if only to use your freestanding Warren McArthur ashtray ($1,200 at Lost City Arts; 212-375-0500). Peruse your collection of pochoirs (fashion sketches from the thirties) ($250 each at Paris Apartment; 917-749-5089) to ensure you dress perfectly à la mode.

Photo: Davies + Starr

Settle on a chiffon dress ($650 at Cherry; 212-924-5188) and head to Tease, where Troye Evers will set your hair in finger waves ($55 and up; 212-979-8327).

Work up an appetite with a swing-dancing lesson at Hop Swing and a Jump ($90 for six classes; 212-255-7946), then stop at Eisenberg’s sandwich shop for a lime rickey and a pastrami sandwich ($1.75 and $7.50; 212-675-5096).

Photo: Courtesy of Geoffrey Clements/Whitney Museum

On the way uptown, flip through the glorious first edition of Jerome Zerbe’s El Morocco Family Album ($2,500 at Coconuts; 212-539-1940). Once at the Whitney, spend the afternoon soaking up the Edward Hopper show (till December 31); don’t miss his iconic Early Sunday Morning or New York Movie, which perfectly depicts the city’s moody vibe.

Photo: Courtesy of Caswell-Massey

By now you need a cocktail. Go home to your gleaming, custom-made Jules Leleu buffet stocked with Christofle cocktail shakers ($45,000; $400 to $600 each at Antiqueria Tribeca; 212-227-7500) and ruby-red glasses ($12 each at Mr. Pink; 646-486-4147). Fix a Manhattan for you and your date, who has arrived smelling of Michelsen’s Bay Rum cologne ($24 at Caswell-Massey; 212-755-2254) in a thirties three-piece suit ($225, at Cherry; 212-924-1410) and fedora ($150 at JJ Hat Center; 212-239-4368).

Photo: Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

Take a car uptown to view a shamefully unknown Art Deco wonder: the Loew’s 175th Street (212-568-6700), now a church and music venue. And then get your evening going at the splendid, zebra-striped Lenox Lounge (212-427-0253). Finish off at Employees Only (212-242-3021), where mixologists will serve you a White Lady (gin, Cointreau, lemon juice) to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, on December 5.

Deco Bracelets

Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby's

With their old European cuts and intricate designs, Deco pieces from the thirties have always been sought after. Lately, thanks to greater exposure on Hollywood’s red carpets and diminishing inventory, these pieces are rising in value yet again and are being seen as solid long-term investments. Instead of simply being prized for their jewels, “they’re now being looked at as small works of art,” says Lisa Hubbard, chairman of Sotheby’s Jewelry North and South America. A diamond-and-onyx “Russian Winter” bracelet from Sotheby’s “Magnificent Jewels” December 6 New York sale, for example, would have been valued around $30,000 to $40,000 ten years ago—it’s now estimated at $150,000 to $200,000.

Retrostyle: A Day in the Thirties