Eveningwear is a great way into buying vintage as it is surprisingly easy to find great items, dresses especially, in excellent condition. They may have been worn only once and will usually have been kept in a dry-cleaning or garment bag in a wardrobe away from the two biggest enemies of old clothes: UV light and moths, as well as the wear and tear of everyday life and laundering.
The New Look silhouette of the fifties with its fitted bodice and full skirt (first picture) is great if you want to show off your waist; "wiggle dresses" of the fifties and early sixties (see the green one with diamante dress clips at the waist, second picture) suit those with bigger busts and/or hips; straight-up-and-down Mod shifts of the sixties with block colours and bright prints are great if you have a boyish figure (not shown here as a boyish figure is something I do not have!) Another common shape from the sixties is a very flattering A-line shape, usually sleeveless with intricate beading or embroidery like the pale blue one shown here.
All styles look great with either modern shoes and minimal accessories or the full vintage look with shoes and jewellery from the same era.
There are two very important things to look out for. Firstly, the original owner may have had only one night out in the lovely dress you've just spied on the rail, but it may well have been one hell of a night - look out for stains, more often than not a post-dinner coffee. These fabrics aren't usually washable, so check the garment thoroughly before buying. Secondly, make sure it fits - and if it doesn't, have it altered. Gaping armholes, straining seams and fallen hems will be much more noticeable on ornate, shiny or sparkly fabrics.
Where to buy? This is the good news. Those charity shops full of dull and dowdy stuff have yielded so many of my evening dresses - the dresses of the fifties, sixties and seventies shine out from the rails like beautiful sweet wrappers. Specialist vintage shops always have eveningwear in stock but they will put more out on the shop floor closer to Christmas and New Year's Eve (and may put their prices up at the same time).
To sum up:
• Visit all the charity shops in your area often
• Examine garments closely for stains (drinks, food, sweat, rust, even blood), missing buttons or broken zips, damage and evidence of moths
• Try on to check for a good fit. Don't try it on over your jeans or a bulky belt!
• If it needs repairs or alterations, factor that in to the total price you are willing to pay
• If you're in a market and there's no mirror, get someone to take a photo of you using a digital camera or phone. Some stallholders will let you go off to look for a mirror if you leave a bag or something behind
• Don't forget the rear view
• Think creatively: maxis can be shortened easily, buttons changed, decorative trimmings can be removed (but check how firmly they are sewn on and if it will leave a mark)
• If you aren't sure, ask them to hold it for you while you go away and think, or put down a deposit
• If it's cheap, don't put it back and come back later - she who hesitates is lost!
Oh - and take off jewellery and your watch when trying on vintage eveningwear, it's easy to cause damage if you catch the fabric.
Done all that? Found your frock? Now get out on the town and show her a great time!
Photographs by CJ Taylor. http://taylormadeartistblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/carole-seatory.html