Wearing vintage: a leap beyond labels and trends

It is at the after-party of any recent film premiere or awards ceremony where, at the tables, several excellent vintages cause their own excitement. Not the wine the waiters are pouring but the gowns the girls are poured in.

In recent years, vintage clothing has become a tasty alternative for an actress choosing an evening’s ensemble. The thrift shop stigma has been replaced by an appreciation for the quality, provenance and distinctive design that vintage offers.

Marisa Tomei wore a vintage gown to this year’s Golden Globes. With the exception of the Globes, Nicole Kidman has dressed in legendary lines for the last six of her public appearances. At the Academy Awards in 2001, Julia Roberts and Renee Zellweger made fashion editors flip with their couture dresses, both vintage.

That Hollywood is wearing archived fashions is apparent. Less clear, even among experts, is the exact definition of “vintage” and if it has achieved the status of certifiable trend.

“Vintage has become such a media buzz word. Yes, actresses are wearing these beautiful old dresses but only a handful of those who are really fashion for-ward. I mean, what does this word mean anyway?” asks stylist Philip Bloch. “If a dress is 5 years old does that make it vintage? I think vintage just means it’s from the archives. It does not have to be a particular age it just has to have the right look.”

Cameron Silver, owner of Melrose Avenue boutique Decades, which exclusively sells high-end vintage clothing ranging from festive to very fancy, can only be slightly more specific.

“The definition changes,” he says. “I’d say the rule of thumb is around 15 years old. But that’s just a rule of thumb.”

Rita Watnick, the leading lady of previously owned elegance and proprietress of Lily in Beverly Hills, is more philosophical in her definition: “Vintage is not about old. It’s about looking good.”

The elusive interpretation also informs the trend. “It takes a certain level of confidence to wear vintage,” says Bloch, whose clients include Halle Berry, Jim Carrey, and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. “At these awards shows and on the street, you just don’t see a lot of people wearing vintage because you really have to know what you are doing in order for it to look right. The accessories, the shoes, everything has to complement one another. Not everybody is willing to take that chance, not everyone has the eye or the attitude to pull it off.”

That challenge is why many actors have favorite contemporary designers on whom they rely for all things premiere-worthy. Jodi Foster is famous for her Ar-mani. Halle Berry casts her vote for Valentino. Watnick has another explanation. “The system ensures that if you wear so-and-so designer, you will be well received by the press,” she says. “These designers spend a fortune advertising in the magazines. Do you think the magazine is going to turn around and dis on a celebrity wearing those clothes? Self-doubt and insecurity goes a long way to explain why people make the fashion choices that they do in this town.”

For actors with moxie willing to brave the elements of style, wearing vintage can be a transforming experience.

“(Zellweger) is a perfect example,” says Watnick, who put the actress in the sensation-stirring lemon yellow Jean Desses gown for last year’s Academy Awards. “In terms of fashion she completely stole the show. The attention she got, the elevation in her public persona — it was incredible. Could she have done that wearing a contemporary gown? I don’t think so. Only vintage carries that mystique.”

Daring to be different

Decades’ Silver agrees, saying, “When an actress wears a big-name designer she is a walking advertisement for that fashion house. When an actor wears vin-tage the spotlight changes. The focus becomes the actor’s style making them a fashion leader. When Marisa Tomei wore vintage to the Globes she advertised her own style, not some designer who has a perfume to sell.”

Between Lily and Decades, Watnick and Silver dominate the couture vintage industry in Los Angeles, sharing many of the same Oscar caliber clients. Their passion is inspiring and of consequence beyond the threshold of their exquisite boutiques.

“Don’t be afraid to be different,” Watnick says. No matter what the vintage, it’s going to be a very good year.

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