When Linda Milne began wearing authentic old clothes from the ’30s and ’40s, the image she brought to mind was none so vivid as the little girl who has tripped upon a basement storage chest filled with remembrances of her mother’s youth. Strutting her stuff in the narrow, calf-length skirts, padded shoulders and dropped
waists of a fashion era predating her birth, she was, in her own words, an oddity. But that was several years ago, when searching out the styles meant digging through musty bins at thrift shpps and Salvation Army
outlets. Now Milne indulges her passion for Late Show glamor by working now and then at one of Toronto’s many antique clothing shops. “Older women come in here and they can’t believe their eyes,” she says. “To them, these clothes are junk they threw out years ago. They can’t understand why anyone would want to wear them. But I do. I think they’re beautiful.”
And if the recent boom in Canada’s secondhand clothing industry is any indication, Milne’s predilection for other people’s wardrobe rejects no longer distinguishes her as the odd woman out. Whether the cause is inflation, nostalgia or a combination of both, it’s becoming increasingly trendy to wear someone else’s discards. Out of it all, a nationwide business is springing up to cash in on the boom. The number of used clothing stores has soared in the past few years, and owners say yesterday’s threads are selling as fast as they can be found, cleaned, repaired, and put on the racks. Fred Norman, general manager of Ex-Toggery, a family-oriented resale chain which began during the Depression in the Toronto home of founder Ruth Allen, says the addition of five stores since 1971 has barely kept pace with the expanding market. “Shops like mine seem to be popping up all over,” says Viki Mandzuik, owner of Viki’s Fashion Exchange, a Vancouver store specializing in resales of better-quality women’s fashions. Forcharitable organizations such as the Salvation Army and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, whose thrift shops have been a traditional source of cheap clothing for the poor, the story is the same. Says Raymond Byrnes of the Society for Goodwill Services, which operates 14 retail outlets in and around Toronto: “I suspect if we got twice as much clothing donated as we do, we could sell it all.”
Undoubtedly, the most intense buyer demand is being felt in shops featuring original clothing from the Victorian era through the ’50s, as growing numbers of vintage clothing connoisseurs recognize the pleasures of dressing up in antique fashions. Says Milne: “When I wear the old silks and satins, it’s like taking on another identity. I can become some sort of movie siren.” But replenishing stock presents a growing challenge. “It’s getting harder and harder to find good quality,” laments Phyllis Suais, owner of a Vancouver store called Ruby’s. Estate sales, auctions, church bazaars, rag merchants, and even charity thrift shops themselves are prime picking grounds for dealers such as Suais. In the highly competitive Toronto market, where antique clothing prices have escalated dramatically over the past few years and now average 50 per cent more than in Vancouver, shop owners are increasingly circumspect about their sources of stock. “Just say the clothes grow in my basement,” says Early Terrible boutique owner Hannelore Batzel. Among the most sought-after items: kitschy men’s Hawaiian shirts ($5 to $25), vests ($3 to $ 18),
camisoles ($6 to $18), silk blouses ($ 10 to $25) and ’40s dresses ($25 to $75).
Lest anyone cling to the illusion that only the destitute wear castoffs, the majority of buyers today are middleand uppermiddle-income earners. So respectable has the idea become, in fact, that Toronto’s glossy Yorkville Avenue now boasts four used clothing stores. “People are coming in here now who five or 10 years ago never would have considered it,” says Joy KingWilson, whose Shoppe D’Or sells only lightly used designer fashions for onethird to one-half the original retail price— mainly to fashion-conscious career women “on the way up.” Nor is the swing to secondhand limited to women. Reuben Frankel of Toronto’s Frankel Clothing Exchange for men says that several bank managers are among recent converts. “Why should a man pay $300 for a custommade suit when I can give him three tailored-to-fit for the same price?” he asks. According to vintage clothing store owners, men make up an estimated 40 per cent of customers, looking for the pegged trousers and collarless shirts that have been newly reborn as fashion. “Secondhand is
‘in.’ The exigencies of the economy are making it so,” explains Goodwill Services’ Raymond Byrnes.
While the high cost of new clothing has gone a long way toward rationalizing the stigma attached to sporting other people’s closet rejects, it is certainly not the only factor governing the trend. “People are simply more discriminating today,” says Viki Mandzuik. “They are not willing to pay the prices demanded for new clothes even if they can afford them. Fashion changes too quickly.” Fred Norman believes Ex-Toggery shoppers reflect a segment of the “conserver society” in which clothing is seen as a commodity to be recycled,much like soft-drink cans and paper products. And according to Ruth Silverberg, owner of a Toronto resale store called Second Nature, more and more women are looking at the resale concept as a way to secure a partial return on their investment in new clothes. Among vintage clothing buyers, the motivation is a complex of economics, the nostalgia for fabrics and a quality of workmanship no longer affordable, plus the desire to create an individual style by intermixingclothesofdifferent eras. Lisa Ostrick, who counts many “new wave” artists, musicians, and theatrical performers among the clientele of her Parade boutique in Toronto’s Kensington Market, says her customers reject paying new clothing prices for copies of vintage
clothes they can buy as originals for a fraction of the cost.
While the scramble for saleable antique clothing requires more enterprise every day, Canadian dealers have so far been spared the crisis now facing their counterparts in the United States, where large department stores such as Macy’s, Abraham & Straus, and Bamberger’s have fueled the rivalry for raw materials by opening their own vintage secondhand clothing shops. Supporting the claim of one New York store owner that the mass merchandising of used clothing will lead to sky-high prices, the director of that city’s Salvation Army collection program has promised an aggressive pricing policy to meet the department stores’ competition. “Whatever they promote into fashion, we will set up special racks for and raise our prices to get in on the fashion action,” threatens Maj. Raymond Howell. The Salvation Army has already increased prices on many items to dissuade New York dealers from profiting on thrift-shop finds. Although some people might argue that this practice discriminates against the low-income group for whom thrift stores were conceived, Raymond Byrnes disagrees: “People who are really poor look for what’s cheapest, not what’s most fashionable.” Adds Linda Milne: “The people who come into this shop are looking for style, not for something cheap.” JUDY DOBBIE
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