Saturday, January 26, 2008

"What do you expect? It's Portland"

This week I went to hear Ian Bostridge, a tenor of rock star caliber, sing Schubert lieder. It was an icy night, so I wore a black wool dress from the 1950s and a long Lilli Ann coat with velvet trim. I also wore a pearl necklace with a flower in the middle made of shimmering crystals, also from the 1950s (and purchased from The Xtabay, naturally). As I entered the Kaul Auditorium with the crowd, I felt like a tropical fish swimming in a sea of guppies. Everywhere I looked I saw fleece.

The friend who invited me to the concert said, "What do you expect? It's Portland." We Portlanders take pride in our no nonsense, anti-high-falutin' attitude, and I like that about us. But there is a point where bucking society's expectations becomes an excuse for laziness. After all, Ian Bostridge showed up to sing in a beautifully-cut tuxedo. Can't we show him the respect of leaving our Danskos home for the evening?

I love getting dressed up to go out. I don't mean being "fancy", but taking the effort to find an interesting combination of clothes to wear. I'm setting the tone for my night out, and I hope that my choice of a rhinestone brooch or beaded cardigan will set this night apart from the rest of the week's evenings of trips to Trader Joes and dinner in front of the television for other people, too. After all, a concert, or dinner out, or party is only as special as you make it.

And I don't mean that we need to spend a lot of money on how we look. At the concert I saw a man who wore a 1970s patterned knit vest over a patterned cotton shirt, with tailored 1960s trousers. He looked great: smart, interesting, thoughtful. His whole outfit probably cost less than $50, shoes included.

So, Portlanders, get off your butts and out of your fleece and put on a cocktail dress to go to dinner, even if it isn't your company's annual holiday party. The next time you stop by the Press Club to listen to music, try a vintage jacket and cocktail ring. I'll be the woman at the next table with the patent leather evening bag.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Vintage Clothing 101: The Coat

Every once in a while I run into someone fascinated with vintage clothing, but who says, "Oh, I could never get away with wearing vintage." She seems to think that to wear vintage clothing you need Kate Moss's body and Cher's courage. My advice is to start off with a vintage coat.

Coats are one of the great bargains of the vintage world. For less than $100 you can walk away with a 1960s cashmere coat with a silk lining and buttons more spectacular than jewelry. Try that at Nordstrom and you'll be at least $1,000 poorer, and the coat's lining will rip out before the season is over. Coats made more than 40 years ago were made to last, and last they do. I have one coat with seams reinforced with velvet patches. It wears like iron.

Style-wise, a coat is relatively low risk, too. People who are self-conscious about wearing vintage know that they take off their coats once they're inside. (I love my vintage coats enough that I'm tempted to parade around a bit first.) Plus, vintage coats come in fabulous colors and patterns that you can't find today. When you're wearing mostly black, as many people do, nothing beats a vibrant coat. Some vintage coats even have designer provenance--Balenciaga designed for Lilli Ann from time to time, for instance.

Xtabay has a great selection of coats right now. We have a vintage Burberry raincoat, a camel-colored vicuna coat from the 1960s, a gorgeous orange and green tweed swing coat, a pink leather jacket perfect for Fonzi's girlfriend, a pumpkin orange mohair coat with a princess skirt, and a black 1930s evening coat, among many, many more.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Good Energy

I heard once about a woman whose aunt warned her not to wear vintage clothing. She said that they carry "bad energy". If that's true, what kind of energy do you get when you wear department store clothing--"exploited Malaysian seamstress" energy? I'm not buying it.

To me, the energy that comes with vintage clothes comes with the stories that that attach to them. For instance, a few weeks ago Liz bought over a hundred pieces of clothing from the estate of two sisters who lived together in Sellwood and died in their 90s.

The sisters liked to shop, and they bought the good stuff: black silk dresses from I Magnin, rayon 1940s dresses in gorgeous prints, coats in Balenciaga-esque designs, and beautifully finished suits from the old Nicholas Ungar and Charles Best department stores downtown. Most of the clothes are in immaculate condition and show a life full of lunches with the ladies, high-end office work, and swanky parties. Liz even found a bottle of Tigress perfume in the estate.

From looking at the clothing, one sister must have been smaller, from size 2 to 6, and the other was bigger, from size 8 to 12, depending on their ages. I think the smaller sister was a redhead since so many of her clothes were gold, green, or brown. But then again, she wore a lot of blue, too, and she loved polka dots. The larger sister liked blue, pink, and flowing dresses and had more conservative taste. Both sisters had a keen eye for pattern and quality. I wish I knew them.

So many of the clothes at Xtabay have stories like this. The clothes have lived through love affairs, break ups, new babies, family dinners, and road trips before the interstates were built. Just think of all the cocktail parties alone the dresses here have been to! If this is "bad energy", I say, bring it on.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

What does "Xtabay" mean, anyway?

One of the most common questions we get at Xtabay (besides "Where do you get all your clothes?" and "How come everyone was so tiny?") is "What does 'Xtabay' mean, anyway?"

Xtabay Vintage Clothing is named after a record album by Yma Sumac called, naturally, "Voice of the Xtabay". The story goes that Yma Sumac lived in Ichocan, Peru, high in the Andes, and she sang for Indian rituals. Capitol Records--who must have had talent scounts everywhere--discovered her stupendous range and ordered up a record contract. Her first record, "Voice of the Xtabay", was released in the very early 1950s and is purportedly the oldest record in uninterrupted release.

The back of the record jacket describes the Xtabay:

The Xtabay is the most elusive of all women. You seek her in your flight of desire and think of her as beautiful as the morning sun touching the highest mountain peak. Her voice calls to you in every whisper of the wind. The lure of her unknown love becomes ever stronger, and a virgin who might have consumed your nights with tender caresses now seems less than the dry leaves of winter. For you follow the call of the Xtabay...though you walk alone through all your days.

So now you know.