Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Vintage basketball in honor of March Madness

My grandmother, 2nd from right, in 1915

My aunt told me this about the photo: "The WNC stands for Wesleyan Normal College. 1915 is likely to be the proper date, or perhaps 1916. Mother graduated from high school at 15 and her father thought that was too young to go off to college. The next year she went to normal school, which is what they called teachers' colleges in those days, and was the education proper young ladies were expected to follow."  ...and basketball was obviously part of that proper education! 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Meditation on elegance

On 2/17/12 I read a Huffington Post style article titled Stefano Pilati: 'It's Not Easy To Find Elegant Women'. Mr. Pilati, who is the creative director at Yves Saint Laurent, is quoted in an interview with VICE as saying:  
My idea of that someone is elegant when he or she shows a good knowledge of what fits them, where you can find naturalness and self-esteem. Not showing off. Elegance is the idea of showing an optimistic depiction of oneself, and to lose oneself in the frivolity of style and fashion. Nowadays nobody gives a shit about being elegant, or chic.
This article has sent me on a search for the meaning of elegance, and whether or not it matters. It is a somewhat personal quest because I don’t feel elegant myself. I wonder if I should, whether or not it is important. Mr. Pilati does not exhibit elegance in his choice of words; is he correct in saying that it is hard to find elegant women now?

I start by showing and quoting Audrey Hepburn, the most elegant woman I can think of.

“For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.” —Audrey Hepburn

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Martha Sleeper creates

I recently sold a vibrant cotton skirt from the 1950s, and the label sent me searching for more information.

I don’t often see labels from Puerto Rico, and somehow the name Martha Sleeper seemed familiar.

Then I watched a favorite movie from 1945, The Bells of St. Mary’s, and there she was! Martha Sleeper, born in 1910, started acting in films in 1924. The Bells was her last movie, after having a very busy film career in the 20s and 30s. In the 1940s, Sleeper appeared on Broadway.

Image of the actress from The Bells of St. Mary’s
In 1949, Martha Sleeper visited Puerto Rico on a Caribbean cruise, and went no further. It was love at first sight, evidenced by her promptly selling her New York home and yacht over the phone. She started a business designing and creating clothing for her shop located at 101 Fortaleza Street in Old San Juan, a 300-year old building that she purchased and renovated. From Google Maps one can see that this is a very charming historic area—it’s quite easy to imagine falling in love.

If I were more involved in the world of vintage jewelry, I would no doubt have known of Martha Sleeper’s Bakelite, wood and metal creations, which she began making for herself in the 1930s. Others in Hollywood took note, and requested her work, and soon the actress had a major sideline profession. 

From the Milwaukee Sentinel 2/23/40
In the 1970s, Andy Warhol amassed a huge collection of Martha Sleeper’s Bakelite jewelry. His fondness for her creations helped raise interest in (and prices for) this Depression-era affordable plastic. (From Bakelite: A Revolutionary Early Plastic)

Attrib. Martha Sleeper Bakelite and wood poodle pin from
Martha Sleeper matchsticks necklace and bracelet sold by Mod Bag on 1st dibs

To wear with her colorful Bakelite, how about her patchwork skirt, available from engbeav on eBay:

or her cotton shift dress from Belle à Coeur Treasure Trove Vintage:

I’ve certainly got my eye out for this multifaceted woman’s work now, whether on film, in Bakelite, or in brilliantly-colored cotton!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Spring has arrived at the Vintage Fashion Guild

Each spring and fall the VFG puts together a collection of vintage items that seem to be the inspirations for current trends. We call it, appropriately enough, Vintage Inspiration. This spring we decided to make all the items shown be available, so you can click on any item to be taken to that seller's site. Think of it as a vintage catalog for spring!

{click to view}
This feature is my design, and I want to acknowledge the great work of the VFG Site Committee, especially my co-chair Mary (The Vintage Merchant), as well as Amy (Viva Vintage Clothing) and Cat (ClubVintage). 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why “denisebrain”

My name isn’t Denise Brain, but it has been a bit of a nickname for me. I am a professional 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
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.

From eBay, to Etsy, to my own website called, I have had no competition for the use of this name! I don’t use the name denisebrain flippantly—I feel the utmost respect and awe for the inimitable musician who inspired it. 

It isn’t always easy for others to understand my love for both vintage clothing and the horn, but I have a simple premise that ties these in my mind: I am attracted to beauty. I love the quality and beauty of vintage clothing and I consider the horn capable of the most beautiful sounds in music.

Tying these together further for me, I am growing a small 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!) and here are some:

I made these earrings out of Christmas ornaments

I’ve worn the earrings for many a concert over the years (Jim Hendrickson photo)
50s modern print circle skirt
50s instrument print dress...and my most beautiful accessory
50s Vera scarf
70s photo print dress

Some, not all, of my vintage horn pins!

A few have asked if there are video or audio examples of me playing my horn online. There are, but not without some permissions granted. Here, however, is a brief snippet of my playing, from

I was really pleased that the site’s administrator chose the San Diego Symphony’s performance of this excerpt from Berlioz’ Romeo and Juliet as a good example of this important horn part. I’m playing 3rd horn, which happens to be the highest part in this brief passage. Kudos to my former colleagues in the San Diego Symphony, particularly the horns on this recording: John Lorge, Warren Gref, Doug Hall and Keith Popejoy. 

If you ever see a vintage horn print item, I’d be very grateful if you’d let me know about it!

Monday, March 12, 2012

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage guide

Since the beginning of the year, I've been writing about getting into wearing vintage stage by stage.

Here is a guide to my guide:

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 1
   Great first vintage items, a little about condition

Wear vintage, stage 1 continued
   Some more good first vintage choices, and a reader suggestion 

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 2
   Getting started with vintage fit

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 2 continued
   Finding a vintage sweater

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 3
   More about fit

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 3 continued
   Understanding vintage sizes, ease to allow for a good fit

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 3 continued
   Waist length, and your particular fit issues

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 3 continued
   See yourself in vintage glasses

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 3 continued
   Let vintage hats go to your head

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 3 continued
   Vintage shoes have sole

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 4
   What our mothers and grandmothers knew about getting a better fit

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 4 continued
   Altered reality

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 4 continued
  Getting started with vintage quality and value

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 4 continued
   More about quality and value

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 4 continued
   More on vintage value

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 5
   How to wear vintage

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 5 continued
   Some inspiration for wearing vintage your way

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 5 continued
   What flatters you

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 5 continued
   Alternatives to authentic vintage

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 6
   Vintage myth busting

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 6 continued
   For further research and understanding

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 6 continued
   Condition continued

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage wrap up
    A few loose ends

I hope this has helped some of you get started wearing vintage, or increased your confidence and knowledge.

Wear vintage!
photo from Brownstoner

Thursday, March 8, 2012

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage wrap up

A few loose ends

I mentioned earlier that I conducted a small survey of vintage wearers and I asked the question, “If you were to give one piece of advice to a beginning vintage buyer, what would it be?”

50 people answered this question, and many made a suggestion best summarized by the answer:
If you see it, love it, but aren't sure, get it anyway. It may not be there next time you look for it!
Many think you shouldn’t hesitate if you love a vintage item. And the reason?
Find something that you love, and you will find a time and place to wear it.
If you think you look good in it you do.
Buy what makes you feel happy/fun/beautiful.
You’ll love the right piece for you the minute you try it on.
If you love it you will wear it well.  

Susan in her late 40s dress. I love seeing my customers looking so happy and beautiful in their purchases!
 I’ve been writing about wearing vintage, geared to the newcomer, and I hope it has given some confidence and knowledge. I hope you can see it is all about wearing what you feel good about wearing, not some sort of fashion dictate. In many ways I worry about the present state of fashion available to most of us, with much not designed well, inadequately made by terribly underpaid workers, and without a sense of newness in spirit, production or style. The good part is that you really can wear vintage clothing now, and not be seen as costume-y or out-of-date. More than any time in history, style is individual.

One last thing I want to say is that even if you only have a tiny bit of money, you can still wear vintage style. How? If you have hair long enough you can do rag curls. Bell’s Belles Vintage has a tutorial on her blog.

Red lipstick is another vintage choice. Here are 11 lead-free lipsticks as reported on thedailygreen, at differing prices. I love my red lipstick by The BodyShop (rich scarlet is a wearable true red that you can wear lightly or full-on).

Behave vintage by choosing among the characteristics of older people you admire: Think of quality not quantity; be steadfast; show sincere concern for others; be well groomed; walk straight and tall; smile. In a way, behaving vintage may be the hardest thing to do, but it is free.

Monday, March 5, 2012

New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 6 continued

Condition continued

Because there was some discussion of condition after my vintage myth busting post of last week, I was reminded that one of the Big Issues with vintage clothing has only been lightly touched upon by me. I've written several times that it is probably best for a vintage newcomer to stick with excellent condition, or the rarer mint condition. You may have seen good condition listed, or very good, and wondered what that meant. I mean, isn't good perfectly fine?

Years ago, a group of online vintage sellers worked hard to hammer out a set of words to codify condition ratings. This chart has been edited and tweaked by various groups and sellers, this is one version of it which Maggie of magsrags posted at the Vintage Fashion Guild:

Note (dare I say?) how much the word noted is in this chart...noting the flaws is a big job for a seller, but this is the only way for an online buyer to have a sense of what might be wrong. I do not use this chart in my listings, I don't actually use a chart. My own belief is that what matters is the detail of the condition, in words and pictures. I use the words Mint, Excellent, Very Good, Good and Fair, more or less as shown in this chart, and then I try to innumerate the issues. 

For the beginning vintage buyer online, I stand by the need to consider condition seriously, and to stick with the top levels of condition. A bargain price on an amazing looking item may reflect serious problems. If a seller calls the condition anything less than mint or excellent and doesn't describe the flaws, ask. The seller needs to describe (and ideally also show) what keeps the item out of excellent or mint status.

I know—I have purchased from sellers who didn't adequately describe the flaws that I'm sure they saw, like gaping holes in the lining. The buyer does not need to accept really faulty condition if she receives an item not as described unless the seller specifically states that the item is as-is and there are no refunds. You have to get in the habit of reading a seller’s terms of sale. If you are looking at an item from a seller whom you trust, you may not need to question what very good means but if someone you don’t know says something is very good without explanation, I would ask for more detail. For good condition, even more so.

As I wrote in my vintage myth busting blog post, I don't really believe in the term “vintage condition.” I don't begrudge the excellent sellers who use the term, and think I understand the reason they do. However, I strongly believe that all issues have to be addressed whether they are due to the age of the garment or any other reason, so why bother adding a vague age-related factor? As an online vintage buyer (particularly thinking of the novice buyer), I believe a seller would need to say what causes an item to be in excellent vintage condition as opposed to excellent condition. Sellers, if you do use that term, I would suggest letting everyone know what you mean by it, ideally on a case-by-case basis.
To be honest, I personally wear plenty of vintage items with flaws. If you love the item and know you look and feel good in it, the flaws tend to be minor for you. It takes a little experience with vintage to know how far you are able to go with condition issues. Start with very small problems and discover your personal tolerance.

I didn't want to sell this 40s dress due to the number of flaws, but I wear it happily myself because the print disguises the issues pretty well. With experience you can figure out what you can fix and what you can put up with.

Next time: Loose ends round up

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hey good lookin’

...I'm cooking up something good for you this March! See my new theme:
{Click to view}