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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Wedding Gowns; 5; silk/satin gowns; some with sequins and beads; $440. Photo courtesy of Winter Associates
I remember being fascinated by a vintage clothes exhibit at the museum when I was a kid. Imprisoned in their glass cases, the mannequins clothed in 18th century brocade robes and silk slippers seemed the stuff from which fairy tales were woven.

It was a world where fabric and craftsmanship merged to become a magical language, a nonverbal system of communication.

Every day, every person communicates through what they wear. “Clothes are inevitable. They are nothing less than the furniture of the mind made visible,” wrote James Laver in his “Style in Costume.”

For some collectors, it starts with inheriting a trunk full of heirloom clothing. For others, it starts with a particular era in dress. No matter the spark, the underlying outcome is always the same, uncovering history through fashion.

Prices for vintage clothing vary enormously depending on where you find them. A white Edwardian blouse spotted in a thrift store. A young girl’s corset uncovered at an estate sale. A men’s waistcoat dating from the 19th century found at a specialty antique shop.

Not such rare or expensive finds. The reason is that people fail to recognize what they have and some vintage clothing items are not rare.

The value of any single item is determined by age, condition, style, construction, type of fabric and rarity. The original sewing is a must for the serious collector. A simple homemade dress dating from around 1830 with original sewing intact is going to be more collectible than a brocade ball gown from the 1700s that has been completely remade.

You can get a feel for dating a piece of clothing by studying books on costume history, visiting museums and historical societies. If you’re serious, it’s well worth the investment of time.

Style often indicates period and in terms of dating a piece, it’s useful to note that machine-stitching didn’t come into general use until right after the Civil War. Looking at the seams under a magnifying glass can reveal a great deal. The small, closely placed stitches of a master seamstress or tailor might at first glance appear to be machine-made.

That’s why you can’t make a judgment about the age of a garment by stitching alone. You have to focus on the entire piece. Even after machine sewing was well established, the finer more visible parts of the garment were still sewn by hand as is the case today.

Nowadays, 1920s and ‘30s designer clothes from the salons of Chanel, Dior, Norell and Balenciaga are favorites among collectors and can sometimes be found at rummage sales and thrift shops.

Textiles in general are fragile, sensitive to light, humidity, dust, body heat and oils. Lightweight clothing belongs on padded hangers. Heavier clothing is best stored flat. Cardboard and tissue paper used around a garment should be acid-free.

On April 8, Winter Associates in Plainville, Conn., featured an assortment of vintage clothing at auction. Here are some current values.

Vintage clothing

Leather outfits; ladies; including fringed jacket and skirt; 14 pieces; 20th century; $192.

Evening dress; woman’s; mutton sleeves, brocaded tan silk, yellow flowers; circa 1890; $385.

Silk dress and cape; hooded cape with tassels; dress with ornate sequin decoration; early- 20th century; $440.

Wedding Gowns; 5; silk/satin gowns; some with extensive sequin and bead decoration; $440.

Day dresses; 2; long sleeves, button front, chiffon under skirt; circa 1870; together with 1870s 2 piece, long sleeve dress with ruffled tiered skirt; $412.

Waistcoats; men’s; 3; including cream matelasse; circa 1850-90; $605.

Shawl; Indian paisley; signed; circa 1850; 125 inches by 55½ inches; $1,100.

Coverlet; bird and flower pattern; appliqué and quilting; 99 inches by 102 inches; English 18th century; $2,420.

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