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Some Observations on the English Vintage Clothing Scene
By Terry McCormick

(The English prices, as I found them, are given in pounds (£), with the U.S. dollars translation in parentheses ($). At the time of my visit the pound was worth $1.60, so that's the figure I've used here; but this changes almost daily.)

In general, there is a lot of vintage clothing of all types for sale in England. Most people think only of very old vintage clothing when they think of England; but I saw everything you can think of (and some you can't); from arack of 1940's bathing suits at one stall, to men's paisley dressing gowns (lots of these all over the place), to Victorian dresses, to vintage military uniforms, to embroidered shawls. It was noticeable how much very old clothing was around, and not just in the classier shops. There were some things that were mind boggling: I saw a lace court presentation train in the Kensington Palace Costume Exhibit; a glorious, obviously unobtainable piece of clothing. Next day I noticed one very like it for sale on a lace stall in the Portobello Road Market! (If you're curious about the price, I confess I didn't ask. Since the cheapest collar in that stall was £45 [$72.00], I felt it was safe to assume that the price was not included in my vintage clothing budget for this decade.)

Speaking of prices, in general they were not low, or even (for the most part) in the middle compared to the U.S. Knowing full well that one man's "bargain" is another's second mortgage; I hesitate to employ that term loosely. Suffice to say, unless you have unlimited funds; expect to shop in the street markets, and even then do some serious searching if you desire affordable vintage. Embroidered, fringed, 1920's shawls ran £250 - £350 [$400.00 - $560.00] in mid-priced shops or markets. Victorian dresses were in the £300 - £400 + [$480.00 - $640.00 +] price range in market stalls. A nice lace collar might be £45 + ($72.00 +), a great one £150 + ($240.00 +) in markets. Location affects this somewhat. A general rule of thumb is: highest prices in London shops; next, London street markets; then Bath shops; then Oxford shops; and lowest, Bath Wednesday markets. However, my two best deals of the trip (an Irish lace Edwardian collar for £6 {$9.60} andanl890'shatfor£10 ($16.00)) were found in London markets; so one must be awake for whatever experience presents itself.

Vintage clothing shops run the full gamut from the college town shop, with amix of second hand and vintage clothing; to places with fabulous antique clothing and attendant fabulous price tags. The Gallery of Antique Textiles & Costume, 1 Church Street, London (just off Kensington High Street) has incredible clothing; and charges £1500 [$2400.00] for a 1920's cut velvet coat. On the other ^nand, Bill Gibson, Second Gear, Oxford, sells a nice 1940' s woman' s jacket for £10 - £15 ($16.00 - $24.00). Incidentally, should a vintage clothing lover become homesick, she should immediately hide away to a vintage clothing shop. It's like going home. Vintage clothing addiction is alive and well in England; and those I talked to who were buying and selling the stuff were just as into it (and nutsy about it) as we are. Petticoats across the sea, so to speak!

I realized that something was missing. Ron Spark, author of Fit to be Tied, has often said that the wild 1940's necktie was an American style; but you have to see it to believe it. There is a brisk trade in paisley cravats which sell for about £3 - £5 [$4.80 - $8.00), but no neckties. Then, in Covent Garden Market, I bumped into Phil Russell, who imports and sells 1940's ties from the U.S. Phil sells his ties for about £35 ($56.00), more or less, depending on the tie. He asked me to pass along his address and phone number (32 Garden St, Stepney, London, England El 3DJ, phone 44-01-42-692-2031) in case some necktie buffs would like to get in touch with him. Other notes on the men's market I acquired from Bill Gibson, who owns Second Gear in Oxford. He finds that evening suits do well (he could almost sell them exclusively), waistcoats (vests), cravats and paisley scarves, Aran sweaters, Harris Tweed jackets and collarless shirts from WWII. The most popular WWII shirts have a "utility mark," which identifies them as made during rationing, and cost about £10 ($16.00). An item peculiar to England is used servants jackets. They resemble Edwardian frock coats: black wool with tails; and are wonderful - for both men and women. They run from £17 - £30 ($27.20 - $48.00), depending on style and condition. In shops which cater to trendy night club habitue's, or students; 1940's and 50's sports jackets and suits do well. I saw some market stalls which sold men's vintage, double breasted, jackets that had been cropped short and relined with bright print fabric. The sleeves were turned back to show the new lining, and these jackets were being sold as women's wear for about £30 ($48.00).

Holmes and Watson no longer prowl the streets of London, so I was unable to solve a baffling mystery: Where did all the hats go? English women have (until recent years) been the most intrepid of hat wearers; but hardly a vintage hat did I spy. And when I did see hats, they were nearly always of the duller 1950's - 60's variety. I never did solve this mystery; but I actually found two hats from the 1890's, that were, by some miracle, affordable. Truly, getting in, rolling up your sleeves, wearing orthopedic insoles in your shoes, and dredging for bargains can be worth it.

Costume jewelry was everywhere; quantities of it. To me, most of it was surprisingly dull; not to mention pricey. Frame of reference is everything, in this as in much else. Mine is that I regularly find costume jewelry at home that is enticing, and priced in the $10.00 -$30.00 range. To find myself looking at hundreds of pieces of costume jewelry without even lusting in my heart, let alone my pocketbook, came as a shock. The lowliest stuff tended to start at about £15 ($24.00), with anything even remotely interesting well over £30 ($48.00). Bakelite was scarce, and definitely on the high side. An exception to all this was Sue Turner's booth at the Quinea Steet Wednesday Market in Bath, which had very nice jewelry, and prices somewhat lower.

England is the source of some outstanding books on costume, so be sure to shop for books, new or used, as well as clothes. One of the small delights that made my trip was finding some magazines from the 1890's, at very modest prices; in of all places, the Westminster Abbey Gift shop! How they came there, I couldn't guess. It must have been fate.

GETTING AROUND LONDON

The only guide book worth getting before coming to London (don't waste your money on anything else in the states!) is Born to 5/icp,London,Gershman and Thomas. Bantam Books, $8.95. Once you get to London, get a copy of London AZ, £2.85 ($4.56) and The Guide to London by Bus and Tube, Judy Allen, £2.95 ($.72); along with a theatre guide and map. I also found the AZ Centre London Street Map helpful. All can be found in at the tourist bureau at Victoria Station, or in Selfridges' basement, or at newsagents. With these, and this copy of VCN, you can easily occupy yourself in the city of London for months. (My two weeks went by so fast, I barely had time to breathe!)

London streets are quite safe, even at night, at least in the areas that a tourist is most likely to roam; so you can feel free to go about pretty much as you please. And here is a piece of advice that will save you hours of agony: Don't neglect several months of body training, particularly your legs and feet, before your trip. Plan to walk, and walk, and walk; and climb stairs and stairs and stairs. This weary tourist spent most of her evenings soaking her lower portions in a hot bathtub, instead of hitting the night spots. But then, we all have our priorities.

STREET MARKETS & VINTAGE SHOPS IN LONDON

As you trip lightly, or shuffle tiredly, from one street market to another, remember to breathe thank you's along the way to Mr. Robert Forbes, London, England, who made much of this information available to us. May all his finds be treasures!! Anna Lisa Cox deserves credit for her contributions to this section as well. Many of the editorial comments are Robert's, although I threw in my own for those markets I had time to attend. Best to go early (get there by 8:00 a.m.) if you hope to find bargains. Don't worry about missing your breakfast; some of the best cheap food in London is available in the bakeries and cafes in the markets. I found I could get a tasty, substantial, breakfast or lunch for under £2 ($3.20) at the street markets. At Brick Lane the bakeries sell wonderful beigels (bagels) for 50 (80¢) a half dozen, or 10 (16¢)each; so two buttered beigels and some orange juice came to about 75tf. Ask at the tube station for directions to the markets, as well as carrying your indispensible AZ.

Portobello Road, tube station: Ladbroke Grove; opening day: Saturday, although some shops set up on Fridays. The cheap end is to the left, under the motor flyway; the antique end to the right (through the vegetables and fruit). There are a couple of vintage shops (as opposed to stalls) on the cheap end; # 290 Portobello Road has odds and ends of clothes and textiles, mostly not perfect, but some bargains; open Friday and Saturday. Another is around the corner and toward the end of the market. On the antique end there are a number of arcades, as well as the street stalls. There are hundreds of stalls, many with bits and pieces of clothing and lace, as well as stalls specializing in clothing. Do not miss this market! If nothing else, it comes under the category of Life Experience.

Camden Market, tube: Camden Town. Opening days: Saturday and Sunday. Best section: The underground ball room, a new, bigger open air section around the railway arch and shed, which is open only on Sunday. This is an expensive market that consists of four separate sections: The ball room nearest the tube is filled with punk rockers (perfectly safe); the next open air market has deteriorated to cheap cottons; the next "covered" market has bric-a-brac; and the largest section, furthest from the station, has the biggest mixture of second hand things. While you're here, check out a shop in Drummond Street that is worth visiting. (The Angel market tube station is close, so go on the same day.)

The Angel, tube: Angel. Opening day: Saturday. Superb market for late 19th and early 20th century items. Shops, indoor markets, and stalls on Saturday. Don't miss this one; very expensive, but good selection, usually. There are three vintage shops nearby at: Park Street, Cross St, and Essex Road.

Brick Lane Market, tube: Shoreditch. Opening day: Sunday. This is the lowest in status of all markets, consisting mostly of cheap imported goods and clothing, and used furniture and appliances; but there is some vintage clothing and jewelry here. I got a lovely Irish lace Edwardian collar here and found a stall with military uniforms and equipment. There's a vintage shop going south on Brick Lane, with 50's and 60'smen's and women's items, that is fairly inexpensive. (Note: the tube stops running at 2:00 p.m., so go early. Plan to go to the Greenwich Market on the same day, as they're both on the East London tube line.)

Greenwich Markets, tube: New Cross. Opening days: shops open all week, market is Saturday and Sunday. Best Section: The Emporium Shops, Burney St. Market.There's a small shop in Nevada Street worth checking out; and The Emporium, 330-332 Creek Road. Plan to explore the area, as there are a few shops around it.

Bermondsey Market, tube: Borough (the market is a fairish walk from the tube station). Opening day: Friday. This was once the biggest market, but is now down to around a hundred stalls, and is strictly an antique market; lace and occasionally clothing can be found here. There's a tiny vintage shop right by the market, Basia Zarzycka, which has lovely things. The most interesting things in this shop (two very old and unusual bustles, and the only really vintage hat in the place) were not for sale. Lovely 20's shawls, running £350 - 400 ($560 - $640), and a sort of scrounge basket outside (a pretty petticoat was £35 {$56.00} in the basket).

King's Road Market, Tube: Sloane Square. Opening days: Weekdays and Saturday. Check out used fashion shops just off the square; Antiquarius is close by; and there are odd little market days at the town hall.

Covent Gardens, tube: Covent Garden. Open all week, but Monday is "antique day," and there are many booths with vintage clothing, jewelry, and related odds and ends. There are other themes on other days (Sunday is handcrafts), and some days it's primarily new imports. Covent Garden is always worth a browse. Also in the area, are these vintage clothing shops: American Classics, 20 Endell St, WC2, Tube: Covent Garden. Large emporium of U.S. 50's and 60's (Also a branch on 400 King's Rd, SW10) Cenci, 31 Monmouth St (stocks 50's - 70's); Sam Walker, 41 Neal ST (mostly men's 30's - 50's); Spatz, 48 Monmouth St (Victorian lace 20's-40's clothing); Flip International, 125 Longacre.

Cornucopia, 12 Upper Tachbrook St, SW1 (tube: Pimlico). Robert says this is a very good shop.

There's a 1950's shop on Rupert Street, Robert didn't know the name, but worth visiting. Tube: Piccadilly Circus.

Antiquarius, tube: Sloane Square. 135 King's Road, SW3. Every day except Sunday; covered market. Everyone says don't miss this for vintage clothing and other antiques. Unfortunately, I did!

Butler & Wilson, has authentic and reproduction Art Deco, and just general glitzy, costume jewelry at two shops: 189 Fulham Road, SW3 (Tube Sloane Square) and 20 South Molton Street, Wl (Tube: Bond Street)

R. K. Hardy, J. Lyons Antique Dealers, 6 Lauderdale Parade, MaidaVale. (Tube Maida Vale) I met these folks at the Brick Lane Market and thought the prices were (comparably) reasonable. They told me that, when you get off the tube and go looking for them, the sign over the shop says "Fruits and Vegetables." They haven't gotten around to changing it yet (it's only been 7 years); but the window contents, they assure me, will alert you to who they are.

Anna Lisa tells me there are lots of shops tucked away around Kensington High Street, so plan an afternoon for browsing along this street. Tube: Kensington High Street.

I met a young man on the Oxford bus who recommended a trip to Brighton (about 45 minutes from London by bus), a famous beach and sightseeing area, for vintage clothing shopping.

SHOPPING IN BATH

Bath is 3 hours from London, so if you plan to be up and shopping for bargains at 7:30 a.m., Wednesday; you'd best arrive on Tuesday afternoon so you can get a map and scope out the location of the markets. (They are within a few blocks of one another and open only on Wednesdays). Stop at the Tourist Bureau in the Abbey square, and they'll supply you with a map and give directions.

Dealers elsewhere in England recommend the B ath Wednesday markets as "musts" for vintage clothing bargains; and I concur. First, go to the the market in the basement of the Great Western Antiques Center on Bartlett Street, early! It's a hodge podge of odds and ends, but a possible treasure trove. I found a silk coat, c. 1912, in great shape and a decent size, for £22 ($35.20) here. There are some great vintage shops upstairs, including one with fabulous lace; but save them for later in the day, you 're bargain hunting at the moment. The Paragon Market (on Paragon Street) is even hodge podgier than Great Western, but there are sometimes great deals: so stop in on your way to the Quinea Street Market. (Quinea Street). The Quinea Street Market is an enormous building with dozens of stalls, a couple of them dedicated to vintage clothing and jewelry; others with vintage mixed in. It's supposed to open at 9:30 a.m., but when I arrived exactly on time, I found it was in full swing, and obviously had been for some time. I met some delightful vintage clothing folks here, and enjoyed the conversation as much as the shopping.

After you've done the weekly markets, and if you have any funds remaining, return to the Great Western and the Bartlett Street Antiques Market (just across the way) and do the shops. Then, if your legs have anything left at all, walk up and down the streets, looking and browsing. Bath has innumerable delightful shops of all sorts; along with charming pubs, restaurants, courtyards, and so forth; and is considered the most lovely city in England. The Bath Costume Museum is outstanding; but it was closed for renovation (the plaster was falling from the roof) while I was there, and I was told it would be closed for 2 years. However, you might check to see if they' ve come up with something temporary by now. There is also a textile conservation center which may allow visitors - ask at the Tourist Information Bureau for the address and phone number.

SHOPPING IN OXFORD

Oxford is only an hour from London, and a wonderful place; even apart from vintage clothing. The Tourist Bureau has maps, and people are kind about giving directions, so have no fears about finding things. Just ask, it's easy. Anna Lisa Coxe deserves all the credit for discovering the vintage clothing possibilities in Oxford. Her research turned up the following vintage emporiums:

The Conservatory, in the antique market across from the train station, is really 3 shops in one: Mary Davis, Blue Bell, has vintage clothing, primarily 1920's - 1950's (some earlier); Aileen Stacey, The Button Lady, has buttons, costume jewelry, and accessories; Anne Wheatley specializes in Victorian whites. Open Tuesday through Saturday and every 3rd Monday. Some samples of prices: Embroidered, white cotton, 1920's dress £80 ($120.00); black, acid etched velvet jacket £60 ($96.00); necklaces £25^t5 ($40.00 -$72.00).

Second Gear, 25 Little Clarendon St, is a typical college town vintage/used clothing shop. Bill Gibson, who you heard from earlier in this opus, says that not many tourists find their way to his shop (although it's only a 5 minute walk from the bus station). Worth a look, however, if you like 40's and 50's clothes; and a good chat about vintage clothing.

Pom Pom, on Walton St (just around the corner from Second Gear) is a consignment vintage shop, with mostly 30's - 50's, but occasionally whites. It's been around for 12 years, is geared mainly towards students, but is worth a look in. Stock changes regularly, and you never know what will turn up.

Sweet Charity, 7 Cowley St, is highly recommended by Bill Gibson as having a good variety of vintage clothing.

Unicorn, #5 Ship St, is a nice, all around vintage clothing store. It was closed for August (apparently this is regular practice): but the window was intriguing, and Anna Lisa says they have lots of great costume jewelry.

While I was in Oxford a woman set up a rack of vintage and second hand clothes on a street corner, and started selling. She had some very nice things, at reasonable prices; so keep your eyes peeled - you never know when opportunity will present itself.

COSTUME MUSEUMS, LONDON

Victoria and Albert,Cromwell Road, SW 7, Tube: South Kensington. Words seldom fail me, but for this collection all I can come up with are the standard superlatives: unbelieveable, fabulous, don't miss it. I allowed four hours for it, and barely skimmed the surface - it deserves several days. A special treat for me were original Liberty of London dresses in the "artistic" style from the 1800's; a type of clothing that has intriqued me for years. It was a thrill to see some in person. The gift shop has a good selection of costume books; so be sure to give yourself enough time to browse. One disappointment: The V&A has its own book Four Hundred Years of Fashion, written by the staff and selling for£14.95 ($23.92). While it's beautifully illustrated and has information about the clothes in the collection; the general costume information is skimpy, dry, and badly written (you keep expecting someone with a bun and pince nez to give you a pop quiz).

Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Rd, E2, tube: Bethnal Green, has children's clothing, toys, and other delightful things. Anna Lisa tells me there is a collection of wedding dresses here as well. Well worth making an effort to see.

Kensington Palace, Kensington Gardens, W8, tube: Queen-sway or Bayswater; has a collection of court presentation clothing dating from 1700's to present. The clothing is extremely formal, and you'll see lots of men's dress uniforms. Princess Diana's wedding dress is on display here, and it's worth the price of admission.

Museum of London, 6 Burlington Gardens, Wl, Tubes: Barbican or St. Pauls. This museum has a wonderful costume collection (they provided some of the clothing for the Victorian Exhibit in New York this year), only some of which is on display; although fund raising is in progress to correct this. However, the special thing about this museum is that it has a group called Friends of Fashion; with an informative newsletter, and regular meetings where people bring articles of clothing to discuss. You can join this group (they said they'd be delighted to have any and all of us), receive the newsletter, and attend meetings when you're in town. Might even plan a trip around one. Cost is £10 a year. Get a £10 sterling note, or travelers check (be sure to sign in all the right places) from your local bank, and send it to: Friends of Fashion, Museum of London, London Wall, London, ENGLAND, EC2Y 5HN. My informant, a delightful vintage enthusiast I met in Bath, said the museum was cordial about letting members in for aprivate look at the collection.

SOME GENERAL TRAVEL INFO

One of the reasons it took me so long to travel to England is that people make it sound so darned difficult. Managing foreign money, personal safety, customs - I'd even heard it was hard to find food in England. Well, piffle! London is not exactly the Upper Zambesi! Also, it's much easier to manage all those travel details than I'd been led to believe.

Money: Get travelers checks in pounds sterling before you leave home. I used Thomas Cook because they're easy to get in the U.S., easy to change in England(any Midland Bank or Thos Cook office will exchange for cash free of charge), and lots of merchants will take them instead of cash. You'll be asked for your passport when you change travelers checks, so be prepared. You'll need cash when you arrive, but there's a place to change money at the airport. I decided to forget about translating every purchase into dollars and cents. If a ham sandwich costs £1 in London; what difference does it make if that's $1.60 in Cincinnati? Within a couple of days I was fluent in English currency. (Some might think far too fluent!) Until then, people were very nice about helping me make change.

Take a VISA or American Express Card with you, in case you run out of money. They're good almost every where; and if you need cash you can buy travelers checks with the VISA, write a check at American Express using your AMEX card as a guarantee, or get a VISA cash advance at some banks. Otherwise, a kind friend can wire money to a nearby bank (but it costs!) Important tip: get a pouch (mine was from Eddie Bauer) that hangs around your neck under your clothes, and has compartments for passport, travelers checks, and credit cards. You have your important stuff with you at all times, but are safe from pickpockets and purse snatchers. This doesn't look chic; but nothing is less chic than being 6,000 miles from home with no money and no passport!

Customs: I checked this information with the U.S. Customs office in London, so it's current as of last summer. When you return to the U.S. you can bring back with you $400.00 worth of goods with no customs charge. The next $1,000 you bring back with you, is charged at 10%. So you can carry home $1,400 worth of stuff for only $100 in customs fees, per person. Everything over this amount is charged at varying amounts, depending on what it is (it's very complex). Used clothing is not exempt. Some things that vintage clothing people might bring back that are exempt from customs: books, magazines, post cards, and pictures (any date); and anything over 100 years old. However, you have to have certification proving it is. If you buy something that old, call the customs office, it's at the U.S. Embassy in London; and find out exactly what they require in terms of documentation. You can also send back gifts valued at under $50, one box per address, duty free.

At the time it didn't seem like I bought much; but when I packed up to come home I found that my notion of much and the law of physics vis a vis my suitcases were at odds. I discovered I'd have to pay customs on dutiable items that weren't on the plane with me; so I mailed back some of the stuff I' d brought from home (mark the boxes Excess Baggage, U.S. Goods Returned), and took my English purchases with me. Packages with books and other printed matter, which are duty free (thank goodness, or my arms would have grown three feet; I got a little carried away in the book stores); have to be tied with string to get the special book rate. Postage costs are fierce in England, so I sent everything at the cheapest possible rate. Boxes, string, and tape are sold at most post offices; and British mail seals your book parcels into bags, so they sail through the U.S. mail with no problem. Everything I mailed arrived within 4 - 5 weeks in fine shape.

I carried a little notebook with me and wrote down everything I bought to bring home, so when the stewardess handed out the customs form on the plane; I was ready. I'd also asked for a signed receipt for the things I bought in the markets. I re-entered the U.S. ready to meet officialdom, armed with the virtue of the well prepared; and the customs agent just passed me through! He must have seen the glow from my halo.

VAT: Everything in England is sold with a 15% tax, known as VAT. If you take purchases out of the country you are entitled, in theory, to get this back. In practice, some places do and some don't, provide you with the necessary forms. This may affect where you choose to buy things. Don't expect market stall dealers to do this. Once you get the forms, fill them out and take them to the VAT man at the airport when you leave He may want to inspect your luggage and see the items you're claiming a refund on. He'll stamp the form, and you send it to the merchant (buy your postage and mail it before you leave) and eventually you should receive a check for the money.

© Copyright 1989 - All Rights Reserved, Terry McCormick, Vintage Clothing Newsletter