Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Why am I called "denisebrain"?


My name is Maggie, so why is my business called denisebrain? I get this question regularly...today as a matter of fact.

My name isn’t Denise Brain, but it has been a bit of a nickname for me. I am a professional French horn player and teacher, and Dennis Brain is one of the greatest horn heroes any horn player could ever have. Tragically, the Englishman was only 36 when he suffered a fatal crash in his sports car in 1957. He had already become arguably the greatest hornist of modern times.

Dennis Brain, Norman Parkinson photo, 1953

In 1999, when I was first prompted to provide a user name on eBay, I was helping a student bid on horns and my first thought was the nickname denisebrain. Not long after that, I sold one vintage dress using the same user ID. Then another vintage dress, and another. Pretty soon, denisebrain had stuck to my vintage clothing business.

I don’t use the name denisebrain flippantly—I feel the utmost respect and awe for the inimitable musician who inspired it. Still, it isn’t the sort of business name I would come up with today. Today I would probably search deep and wide for a name that is easy to spell, memorable, interesting and tells what my brand is about. It would be nice to have people say, great name instead of who?

On the good side, I have had no competition for the use of this name, and at this point, I love it...it is my business. It’s also a sly and loving nod to my other job in music.

And wouldn’t you know it, I am gradually growing a collection of vintage clothing and accessories featuring horns of all types and eras (other than the all-too-numerous Ugly Christmas Sweaters with horns that is—not my thing) and here are some:

I’ve worn these earrings (which I made from Christmas ornaments) forever. Jim Hendrickson photo, 1991


My husband gave me this 1960s vintage shirt for my birthday. It was from Vintage Vixen.
1950s modern horn print skirt
1970s horn photo print dress
Some—not all!—of my vintage horn pins
1950s Vera scarf
60s instrument-print shirtwaist dress, and my most beautiful accessory
The same print in different colors has recently joined my collection—it came from Small Earth Vintage
Another recent addition to my collection is this 1960s dress from CustardHeartVintage
This 1950s skirt came from Dorothea's Closet Vintage
A pewter horn pin, gift from my friend Amanda
This sash belonged to my Aunt Marie, a music teacher
My friend Anna (BootyVintage) gave me this 1980s dress
This copper jewelry set was given to me by my friend Susan



One last shot, because I love it so: The Quintessential Brass at Indiana University in about 1981. I think we called it the Maggie and the Spit Valves shot. That is about when I started signing into a practice building as Denise Brain, so I guess this is origin story material!


David Coleman, John Wilds (my brother), David Ford, Norlan Bewley and {ahem} Denise Brain.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Quick vintage fashion wearers survey


Do you wear vintage clothing/accessories? 

And do you have several spare minutes for a brief survey? 

I’d really appreciate your answers to five survey questions. This survey is anonymous and none of your personal/private details will be collected:


Thank you in advance!


Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Who and How of taking my vintage fashion photos




There are a few questions that I answer often. I am asked who is your model? and when I say that I am, the question follows, who takes your photos? When I say that I do, I am almost always asked how?


I am here to answer these questions.

With a few exceptions I look pretty average in other people’s pictures of me and always have. I am not photogenic—mainly because I have a self-conscious reflex that makes me go all awkward when I see a camera. If you could take a photo of me without me knowing you might do better.

Believe me, no one has ever walked up to me and declared that I should be a model, even when I was 17 or 18. I am not model-thin, model-tall, model-young or model-beautiful. The reason I started photographing vintage clothing on myself back in 1999 was because I wanted to animate the clothes. I wear vintage clothing all the time, and I wanted to show a real person doing this—and I was the only model I could afford who was available at the drop of a hat. Also, I thought it would help distinguish me from all the other online vintage clothing sellers at that time, having a person in my shots. I don’t think anyone else used a real person in photos to sell their vintage fashion then.

My purpose isn’t to convince people that I look fabulous in my vintage finds, it’s to convince you that you could look fabulous in my vintage finds. I smile a lot, trying to capture the happy look of old magazine spreads and advertisements. I want others to think oh that looks fun! It is fun...and the world can use a smile or two.


I had to get over my self-consciousness even taking my own photos. (I am a professional musician, and I have had to apply the same sort of effort to getting out in front of people and playing my horn. I just have to get over myself and perform.) I kept trying things until I hit upon ideas—looks, poses, angles, lighting—that I really liked. I used to take 40+ photos per item to get the handful of shots I would use; now I take 10-15. And no, you can’t see what I throw out! Everyone takes terrible photos, I just trash them and move on.

Lots of people ask how everything I show on myself seems to fit me. I have learned to use every trick in the book! Obviously, if something is too large I can pin it, trying to make sure the item looks as it was designed to look. If it is too small, I can usually show certain types of clothes by using a vintage (read ‘high power’) girdle, sucking it in, etc. If I can’t zip something, I can use fabric tape to hold it in place at least, and just not show the telltale part of the fit. Lots of things I show I could never wear walking down the street, but the human body, much more than a dress form, is malleable. My mission is not to surprise you with the range of sizes that fit me, but to give you an idea of what the item would look like on the person it would fit best.

Then there is the technical side of the equation.

I’ve evolved somewhat in the way I take photos, but it has been essentially the same setup forever. My husband and I have devoted a corner of our living room to a sort of photo studio. I have a roll of white paper on a stand, and banks of lights on both sides. I set the camera on a tripod several yards away and use a timer to get my photos.





The lights are fluorescent bulbs—ones that simulate natural light—in inexpensive shop fixtures. The compact fluorescent bulbs on top are just to add a little more light near my face. The light fixtures are rather weighty and are on frames attached to old (heavy) microphone stands. In addition, I’ve got sandbags on the bases of these stands. Once, the whole set up fell down, and I don’t want a repeat performance!


I set up a mirror behind the camera on its tripod, mainly just to get a sense of what the shot looks like.


One of the great more recent changes has been getting a nice used camera of far greater quality than my c. 2001 workhorse. My old camera took pretty good point-and-shoot shots but my new camera (an Olympus Pen E-PL1) is noticeably better. Then there’s the timer issue. I need to be in the frame for the camera to make adjustments. I activate the shutter using an old-fashioned squeeze ball which pushes air down a tube to trigger a plunger which pushes the shutter release. Did you get that? Because there will be a quiz. 😄


I have a frame on the camera that keeps the air tube where it needs to be.


 Then, using a 2-second timer setting, I squeeze the ball, quickly drop it...


...and pose!



Photoshop allows me to extend the width of the background. I don’t have nearly enough space in my living room to have this background in real life!

So there you have it, the who and how of my photos. I hope it wasn’t way more than you wanted to know! 



Monday, June 27, 2016

Finding Marilyn Monroe: 12 Style Elements to Try on for Size


This is supposed to be a Get the Look post, specifically how to get the look of Marilyn Monroe. However, emulating the enigmatic icon without devolving into mockery (think Vegas impersonator) could never be easy. There will always be only one Marilyn.

My suggestion? To find the part of her look that works for you, whether it is the elegant drape of her dress, the simple palette of colors, or the blond curls. Maybe there is something of her attitude that works for you.


Some elements to try on for size:

1. Embrace your curves, and wear clothing that fits exactly. How often have you seen a photo of Marilyn Monroe in something sloppy and over-sized? True, she had a perfect hourglass figure, but there is not a single one of us that wouldn’t look best in clothes that fit us exactly right.

Marilyn Monroe as Rose, costume test for Niagara, 1952, costume designer Dorothy Jeakins. Marilyn was known to wear her movie costumes in real life.


2. Diamonds just might be a girl’s best friend. Not that Marilyn always dripped in bling, but when she did, she glistened. Glittering jewelry seemed to augment the sparkle that was so much a part of her look and act.

3. Find a style and stick to it. Marilyn Monroe had a makeup routine, a hair color, a palette of hues and a personal vibe that were all part of her signature look. Find, hone, repeat.




4. Up the vampage. It’s a given that Marilyn dressed in ways that enhanced and flaunted her shape, but is it ever trampy? No. Think vintage vamp instead, including va-va-voom heels, sweater girl sweaters, halter necklines, finely-fitted sheath dresses and pencil skirts.




5. Classics always work. For many style icons this was true, so it is sometimes easy to dismiss this aspect of Marilyn’s style, but she was a great wearer of a camel coat, a white shirt, capri pants, a simple pullover sweater and other classics.




6. Go with a simple color palette. You don’t see a lot of photos of Marilyn wearing prints. She favored neutral shades and black and white, with stand-out shades of red, pink, green or blue for emphasis.




7. Oh, but don’t be afraid to sparkle. I mentioned diamonds, but also consider clothing in gold and silver. Do you have your headlights on?

The famous gold lamé gown designed by William Travilla for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953

8. Structure is another of a girl’s awfully good friends. Of course, it was the norm for the era, but we can all learn from the positive influence of the right underpinnings. At the very least, consider a swimsuit with a well-designed inner framework (vintage of course!) and the right bra under a sweater.


9. Find a signature red for your lips. Of all her trademark style elements, possibly nothing says Marilyn more loudly and clearly than bright red lips...and red lips are a whole lot easier than platinum blonde hair.




10. A fabulous shoe might also be in the running for a girl’s best friend. As Marilyn said herself “Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world.” Strappy sandals, peep toes, slide-on mules...and who wouldn’t feel like conquering the world in Lucite platforms?




11. Show joy. It seems like fashion comes and goes on this point—first there’s a fad for smiling, then there’s a fad for pouting. Marilyn always appeared natural, healthy, and radiant. She gave joy—she still gives joy—with that beautiful smile.




12. Be bold. It took a heck of a strong woman to grow up not knowing her father, having a mentally unstable mother, living in a series foster homes, and laboring at a young age before being hurled into super stardom. If you want to be like Marilyn, persevere.



“I am trying to find myself. Sometimes that's not easy.” 

“I am not interested in money. I just want to be wonderful.” 
—Marilyn Monroe

Elliott Erwitt photo
Whatever part of Marilyn you find and make your own, I hope it makes you feel wonderful.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

If you want to dress up, Dress Up!


“I love that dress, but I would have no place to wear it.”

Since I hear that quite a lot, I am thrilled when I get to hear about people finding creative ways to wear the clothes they most love.

Meet Kymberli, who has a prom birthday party each year. She first wrote me in March saying “I have fallen deeply in love with the pale yellow frothy 50s dress”...doesn’t that sound like a princess thing to say?

Kym took advantage of layaway through my shop and when she received the dress she wrote “I just got my dress in the mail and I could NOT be more happy I literally broke down in tears. It’s more beautiful than I even imagined!” (I’m not going to lie, that’s one of the nicest things we vintage clothing sellers can hear!)

Straight out of the box—“I think it's going to fit well too”
“Sneak peak! So happy!”

Then the big night arrived, and here was the birthday princess:

“It was a dream!!”

Not to get all Nike-slogan on you, but Just Do It! Kymberli made a place to wear her favorite vintage dresses, and so can you.

I keep adding to this list, Reasons to Dress Up. I’m sure there are hundreds more.

1. DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) meetings, as Facebook reader Leigh Anne mentioned. The women love history and love seeing her vintage fashions.
2. Any historical society gathering: Think museum exhibits, boards, historical preservation groups.
3. “Put even the plainest woman into a beautiful dress and unconsciously she will try to live up to it.” - Lady Duff-Gordon
4. Dress for the every day theater of life like you are the leading lady.
5. All your regular clothes are dirty.
6. Go to a historic hotel for a drink.
7. “Life is a party, dress like it.” - Lilly Pulitzer
8. “It takes nothing to join the crowd. It takes everything to stand alone.” - Hans F. Hansen
9. “If you're sad, add more lipstick and attack.” - Coco Chanel
10. Being well dressed is a beautiful form of politeness.
11. #fancyfriday
12. Attend performances where the style of music is vintage, as blog reader Denise mentioned.
13. You will make people happy...maybe most especially yourself
14. Life is too short to wear boring clothes. 

Another reason to dress up? Stage a birthday prom!

Many thanks to Kymberli for allowing me to show these photos. For creative and inspiring wearing of vintage fashion, she wins the tiara!