Queen of the 60s Shift Dress

Posted On: Jul 01 2012 | 1 comments

Quite often I'm contacted by people trying to sell me their stuff. If I'm convinced they have something of interest, we arrange a meeting time and place. I then sort through their items, we agree on a price for the pieces I want, and that's that. These interactions are almost always pleasant, and, as with all dealings with our fellow human beings, sometimes a bit strange. 

Now and then, the experience is truly memorable. 

Here's the most recent of several tales I've been itching to share with you. All identifying details have been changed. 


I receive a text from a man looking to sell "about 400 dresses" that had belonged to his grandmother. "Would I be interested?" 

Who, other than Hollywood starlets, owns 400 dresses, vintage or otherwise? He assures me that these are mostly from the 50s and 60s. I'm skeptical and it's a long drive. But as I learned very early on, you just never know. 

So on a warm weekend afternoon I make the 45-minute drive to an upper-middle-class neighborhood in a mid-size town well outside the Atlanta city limits. David meets me at the front door. He looks to be in his early thirties, and is friendly and welcoming. I quickly learn he's married, that his wife and their elementary-school age kids are with relatives and won't be back until late, and that he comes from a mixed-race family.

I compliment his home, which is cool and comfortable, decorated with neutral tones in a spare, contemporary style. His grandmother Elizabeth's clothes are upstairs. As we climb, the temperature rises. As in my own home, it is well near uncomfortable by the time we reach the top landing. Southern homes demand, but few seem to have, effective zoned HVAC systems. 

He leads me down a hall and opens the door to a small bedroom.

    "Here's most of it," he says. "The rest is in the garage." 

The rest? You mean there's more? The room has no furniture, only a few large boxes pushed against the walls. In the center of the carpeted floor are three waist-high piles of clothing. I can already see desirable vintage goodies peeking from the stacks.

I begin sorting. David watches for a moment as I take an item off the nearest pile, inspect it, make a determination, and designate it a "yes," "no," or "maybe." He heads for the door, telling me he'll be downstairs if I need anything and to take my time. 

As I work my way through the first teetering stack, a few things become evident. 

First and foremost, the clothes are not just warm, they are slightly damp. I smell the first hints of mildew, and it's getting stronger. I also smell the cloying fragrance of scented laundry detergent. Have these clothes been washed, incompletely dried, then stacked in a warm room? 

Uncomfortably hot in my long-sleeve shirt, I begin sneezing repeatedly as the mildew sets off an allergy attack. I pause to search my purse for a tissue and mutter aloud, "Men!" 

There is no way anything will dry in here, stacked up like this. The ceiling fan is only moving the heat, and spores, around a bit. I can see items well worth saving. Perhaps if I act fast, and get the worst offenders out of the pile, these clothes can be saved. I switch gears, digging quickly to find the wettest items and isolate them, away from the stacks. 

Yes, mildew is contagious. Once it takes hold, it spreads like wildfire. If I don't hustle, we'll have penicillin sprouting from the bottom layers of clothes before I'm through the first stack.

I carefully extract something velvet and very damp (gasp! is this a New Look party dress?) and drape it over the open top of a box to give it some breathing room. I'm a sartorial triage nurse. 

Eventually, I work my way through all three stacks, flinging the drier clothes left and right as I go, giving them air and removing the dampest items. I relax a bit and with watery, red eyes and dripping nose, return to serious sorting.

I'm beginning to notice that there are many, and I do mean many, dresses of a certain style and silhouette. It's clear they belonged to the same person. And it didn't take long to figure out that Elizabeth liked shift dresses. A lot. She had hundreds of them. Yes, really. 

No wonder everything, dampness aside, is in such good shape! Who had time to wear it all? With only 366 days in the longest of years, and more than 400 pieces of clothing (200 of them shift dresses), no one piece could have seen much use. Thus, I'm seeing almost no damage or other signs of wear. With two mysterious exceptions.

First, many of the dresses have fallen hems.

It's not unusual to find a dress or two with a partially fallen hem. Even at the mall you'll run into an item that caught in the previous shopper's heel, leaving a back section of hem dangling loose. But these don't look like victims of that familiar accident. No. Dress after dress has its hem completely let down. I make a mental note to ask David about it, though I doubt he'll have an explanation. 

I don't relish the idea of hand stitching more than a few hems, or the cost of having my seamstress tackle the job. So I reassess and start over, re-sorting my growing "yes" and "maybe" piles, adding a "needs hemming" pile. Every minute (or dollar) spent fixing something is a minute (or dollar) not spent elsewhere. As the hemless stack grows so tall it threatens to topple, I know I'll be leaving most of these dresses, taking only those few I find irresistible enough to warrant extra time, effort, and expense. 

Second, where are all the belts? 

One or two lost belts is understandable. They can be misplaced by the dry cleaner, left behind in a hotel closet. But so many? For whatever reason, the belts must have been removed. I hope they've been stowed together, somewhere close by. 

A missing belt always bugs me a bit. You know how a song can infect your head, creating an "earworm" that threatens to drive you mad? For me, a missing belt is a similarly irksome little beast. Compound that for each beltless dress I pull off the pile, and I'm officially feeling anxious. Blame it on the OCD.

Sneezing threatens to dislodge my head and I'm out of tissues, so I jog downstairs and out to the driveway. I retrieve allergy meds, another tissue packet, and a short-sleeved t-shirt from a gym bag I keep in the car. I find the powder room, do a quick change, splash my blotchy face. 

Passing the kitchen, I gratefully accept the bottle of water David hands me.

    "Say, David, did you know that the clothes are damp?"
    "Really? I thought I'd dried them completely."
    "You know, some of these items have to be dry-cleaned."
    "Oh, wow. I thought I'd clean them for you."
    "It was a nice idea, but dresses with linings almost always require dry-cleaning."
    "I bet my wife knows that."
    "Yep, she probably does," I agree. 
    "Is everything ruined?"
    "No. But I'll need to rewash the washables in vinegar, then again in regular unscented detergent."
    "Oh, brother."
    "And I'll need to dry-clean everything else that survived."
    "Sorry about that," he says.
    "Oh, and David, do you happen to know where all the belts are?"
    "The belts? I think maybe they're in the garage, with the jackets."

Jackets? Uh oh. 

He tells me that when he went to collect his grandmother's clothing, which I now learn includes some of his great-grandmother's items as well, he thought it best to separate everything by type (say it with me: "Men!"). So, a three-piece set of dress, jacket, and belt was disassembled, and each piece stored with like items. Problem is, David no longer remembers where each multi-box collection wound up.

Good heavens. Was this damp, beltless scenario dreamed up to torment a hyper-organized, hand-sanitizing, can't-live-in-the-same-house-with-a-chipped-dinner-plate sufferer of mild OCD? No, I realize it's not about me (I'm not quite that self-involved). But honestly, at the moment, it sure feels like my own custom-tailored, shrink-to-fit hell. 

We head upstairs to review my stacks. The mass hem let-down remains a mystery. We gather up my "yes" pile, leaving the bulk of the world's most impressive and comprehensive collection of 60s shift dresses in a sad, steamy pile on the upstairs-bedroom floor. Also left behind are several exquisite 40s and early 50s party dresses, including that velvet number, irreparably damaged in the wash. They lay slung over boxes, looking, somehow, dejected. Gazing back wistfully, I ask him:

    "Just out of curiosity, which side of your family was Elizabeth on? The black side or the white side?"
    "The black side. Why?" 

I'd been informed by more than one friend able to make such a claim without accusations of profiling or prejudice, that black people, as a rule, don't hold on to their old clothes. Apparently, a dress is rarely considered sentimentally valuable or worthy of heirloom status. All the other typical stuff, yes: family bible, hand-made quilts, good china, military memorabilia. But clothing, no.
 
In fact, I tell him, one of my closest friends recently became pastor of a large church in a well-to-do black neighborhood in southeast Atlanta. "An unmined vintage mother lode!" I'd thought. She quickly disabused me of my debutante-ball-and-sorority-formal fantasies. But surely, I'd protested, their closets were bursting with mid-century fabulousness. I did not want to believe what she was telling me. "Oh, I'll ask them," she'd replied, "but don't get your hopes up. We black folks don't keep our clothes. After a couple years at most, we get rid of it."
 
Clearly, Elizabeth was not playing by those unwritten rules! She had the second-largest personally owned wardrobe I'd ever seen, and unless David knew enough to separate modern from vintage, the bulk of it was fairly old, indeed.
 
I'm intrigued. I want to know more about Elizabeth. How and why was she different from her peers? She fell neatly into the same demographic niche as my friend's congregants, but boy, did this lady keep her clothes. She didn't fit the mold, and that only makes her more fascinating. I wish I could talk to her.
 
But that's often the case. The problem with buying from an estate is that the owner is no longer around to discuss her possessions, her predilections, her experiences. Everything we know is assumed -- a woefully incomplete portrait cobbled from family recollections and the items themselves.
 
    Gazing into an 18th century American pier glass hanging on the wall of my childhood home, I asked my mother, "Don't you wonder who else has looked into this mirror? What they looked like, thought about, what was going on around them, what they wore, who they were?"

    "Never," she replied. "I just think it's a beautiful mirror."

Her reply made me sad, disappointed, and a tiny bit angry. Perhaps I'm overly sentimental. Ah, me.

I won't go into the details, but 6 hours after my arrival, I have located in the garage, in enormous boxes containing several hundred additional pieces of clothing, at least two jackets matching dresses already in my car. 

I am filthy and exhausted, David is surely eager to be rid of the crazy vintage lady, and I have my arms around a box containing an awful lot of belts. Problem is, we aren't sure which of the many belts match the items moldering in my trunk, and I sense that my time is up.

I propose taking the entire box home, reuniting each dress with the appropriate belt, and sending or carrying the remainder back to him within the week. I will never understand why, but David says, "No." 

After he and his family return from an upcoming vacation, he's heading back to Elizabeth's place to clear out the remaining items. Yes, he says, there's more. And he will contact me then to come collect the belts along with whatever else I might want from the final haul. 

I cannot convince him that he does not need this box of belts in his garage, nor impress upon him how my leaving without them is frustrating nearly to the point of physical pain. I have no choice.

We agree on a price for my 51 items. He takes my check. We shake hands. I drive away, hoping I am wrong in thinking I will never see those belts again.

Weeks later, I check in with David via text message. 

    "Hope your family enjoyed the trip. May I come get the belts? I want to list these items."
    "You can just have all the belts. I don't need them," he replies. "You can come this weekend."

Oh, thank goodness! What's another hour and a half of driving (at $4 per gallon) when the result is matched dresses and belts! I am so happy.

The weekend comes, I'm giddy as I text to set up a time. Back comes the single worst vintage-related text I've received to date:

    "I'm sorry. My wife donated all the belts. I know it's disappointing."

Yeah, like a knife through my heart, disappointing. But wait... donated to what cause? Maybe I can find the belts! Was it their church, a local charity, the "I Love Tormenting Vintage Sellers Club?" I just don't know.

But, if you know me, you know I've been looking. And looking. 

So if you happen to see someone scouring the belt rack at a thrift store on the outskirts of Atlanta, desperately glancing at snapshots of beltless dresses on her cellphone screen, crazed look in her eye, well, stop and say hello.

COMMENTS

  • Angela W.
    January 27, 2013

    I may have an answer about the fallen hems for you. My grandmother told me once that many women would “release” their hems at the end of a season before putting them in storage. Remember when you use to do that?
    This way, when you were sorting through your wardrobe the next season, anything that was still considered in style could easily be hemmed for that year’s fashion. ie. New hem lengths or heel height.
    Not sure if that’s what this lady was doing, but considering how many of her dresses had their hems released…makes sense to me!

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