Vintage is not my personal forte. Still, when I see Karen Elson’s otherwordly vintage style, I certainly swoon. I do have a few pieces I deem vintage that belonged to my mother and grandmother. And I love incorporating them into more current looks, making them feel fresh and new. They have a story, charm, character and history — all those things that make older pieces so special. DC Style Factory asked vintage shopper and writer Jenn Barger to talk to local vintage shop owner Shelly White on how to do the whole vintage thing — the right way. 

Photo by Soussia Photography

Say the words “vintage clothing dealer,” and many people think of a quirky, pink-haired eccentric who dresses like a cross between Madonna circa 1965 and Marilyn Monroe, circa anytime. But Shelly White, the co-owner of Del Ray’s two-year-old Amalgamated Classic Clothing & Dry Goods, isn’t that kind of retro goddess. She worked for years in communications for the federal government, wearing 1940s suits and 1960s sheath dresses and getting compliments and promotions, not funny looks.

So it’s no surprise she’s a pro at showing other women how to incorporate vintage pieces into their wardrobes in ways that are far from Halloween-y. We caught up with White in her pretty storefront — and even came away with a work-ready frock of our own. (An aqua linen shirtdress, middle “Mad Men” era, that’ll be swell during summer’s swelter.)

What’s the difference between vintage clothes and ones that are just plain old?

I think vintage, at least what I sell, is about good fabrics, details and construction. So something vintage is something in a natural textile — cotton, linen, rayon. It’s something maybe tailored with interesting details. The idea is something wearable and durable, not something that’s just a few decades old. And for my purposes, I define vintage as pieces from the 1970s or before.

How can women wear vintage to work without looking like they’ve traveled back in time?

Mix vintage with your staples. Like try a 1940s suit jacket with pants or a skirt. Or put on a 1960s dress with modern shoes. The idea is not to put on head-to-toe vintage — that’ll make you look like a granny.

What kind of pieces do you sell women for work?

For summer, 1960s mod shift dresses go so well to the office. They’re bright and fresh, and you can put them under a cardigan and they’re totally relevant. I also like printed full skirts from the 1950s. They’re like what Anthropologie is selling.

 What eras better suited to modern wardrobes?

Definitely the 1960s. It’s a time that is so influential in contemporary wardrobes. The 1950s are tougher — the silhouettes were tighter, so it’s hard to wear pieces if you’re above a size 6.

Any tips on choosing vintage pieces if you’ve never bought it before?

Look for things that have similarity to things you’d find in a store. A lot of the kind of dresses I sell look a lot like what you’d find at Banana Republic or Tory Burch, but they’re often more interesting.

Is it OK to alter vintage garments?

I wouldn’t chop off an Oscar de la Renta to make it relevant. But a piece that’s homemade or just good quality, go ahead and hem it! Also, these clothes come from eras where women tailored their clothes more, so taking a jacket to your dry cleaner to make it fit better is fine.

 

Are there different rules for caring for vintage clothing?

With cottons, I always recommend hand washing — it’ll preserve the color, particularly on brighter prints. And for wool, dry-clean it — you don’t want moth damage undoing your whole wardrobe!

 

Amalgamated Vintage & Dry Goods: 1904 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va.; 703-517-7373

More to Score:

These other shops carry wearable vintage pieces that mesh easily with modern fashions.

 Analog

This newish Brookland retro den offers up highly wearable frocks from the 1970s and 1980s (think bright patterns but office-appropriate hemlines) and sleeveless tops in breezy fabrics. 716 Monroe St. NE, Studio 5; www.shopanalog.com

 

Legendary Beast

Owner Anne Fox — a, well, foxy woman of a certain age — oversees this second-story U Street bling den. It’s stuffed with silver Mexican rings, 1920 glass bracelets and rhinestone necklaces from the 1980s. Prices are reasonable, and styles are varied enough that even a partner-track lawyer could score a little embellishment.

1520 U St. NW; 202-797-1234; www.legendarybeast.com

 

Polly Sue’s Vintage

This longtime Takoma Park, Md. go-to features women’s wear from the 1910s through the 1980s, with a big focus on cubicle-chic dresses. Bags, many small and simple enough for that work party, are also a big draw. 6915 Laurel Ave., Takoma Park, Md.; 301-270-5511; www.pollysues.com

 

Guest Post by Jennifer Barger (www.jennbarger.com, @dcjnell)