New spin on vintage

Penelope Whitmore has run the Ottawa Vintage Clothing Sale at the Château Laurier for 28 years and has decided to pack it in because younger consumers aren’t interested in vintage from the 1920s-50s anymore

Last year, after running the Ottawa Vintage Clothing Sale for 27 years, Penelope Whitmore looked down at the sale from a balcony at the Château Laurier and felt, vaguely, disappointed.

The crowds still came to the annual sale, which attracted not just vintage clothing fans — sometimes more than 2,000 of them — but also collectors and even scouts from museums.

Women who started coming to the show as teens in the 1980s looking for poufy ’50s prom dresses à la Cyndi Lauper came with their own teenaged daughters in tow.

But Whitmore started thinking long and hard about the future of her show. When she started up the sale, people would walk in and be dazzled, she says. And Whitmore didn’t feel dazzled, mostly because the sale’s original staples, clothing from the 1890s to the 1950s, was being replaced with mass-produced stuff from the ’80s and ’90s. And, by her definition, that isn’t really vintage.

“Back then, there were flapper dresses and beaded dresses. They flew off the racks. Now, they’re harder to come by. True vintage is becoming very scarce. True vintage was the quality of the workmanship involved,” says Whitmore, who chose the vendors at the sale, and would firmly ask them to remove anything on their racks that was produced after the 1960s.

“Even though vintage has been a passion of mine, the trend is turning to the ’80s and ’90s. For me, vintage doesn’t encompass that.”

Whitmore started the sale with her friend Debbie Clouthier, who was based in Beachburg and had a passion for combing the Ottawa Valley for vintage finds.

After about six years, Whitmore continued solo after Clouthier got too busy.

The annual sale got off the ground 28 years ago with 12 vintage dealers at the Beacon Arms Hotel, then soon moved to the Château Laurier, whose gilded elegance complemented the items up for sale.

Eventually, the sale took over three rooms, and people came for a treasure hunt not just for clothing but also for purses, hats, gloves, jewelry and linen. More than one bride bought her dress at the sale.

“The Château was the absolutely perfect setting,” says Whitmore, who started wearing vintage as a cash-strapped York University student in the 1970s, but loved it because of the quality of the textiles, the workmanship and the knowledge that every piece came with its own history.

There have been a few tricky moments. How to diplomatically tell a size 14 woman that she couldn’t squeeze into a fragile 1920s tea dress made for a sylph of a girl, for example.

Whitmore says it was a difficult decision to pack up the sale. “The reason people came in droves was because they could find something that would dazzle or excite them,” she says.

When she started, vintage collectors could pick through the racks at the Salvation Army and score a find. Many of the exhibitors at the sale had small stores, or collected privately. Value Village didn’t exist when Whitmore started the sale, and she didn’t want her event to look like sale day at Value Village.

“I’m very proud of what the sale has accomplished. I just felt that after 28 years, it was time to step back and look at the longer vision,” says Whitmore, who has worked as an elementary school teacher and a property manager.

Catherine Knoll, who manages antique shows in Ottawa, heard that Whitmore’s sale was coming to an end through her network of antique dealers, many of whom carry vintage clothing.

She decided to hold a vintage sale, called the Ottawa Vintage Clothing Show, at the Ottawa Convention Centre on Nov. 18. It will feature more than 40 vendors, many of them regulars at Whitmore’s sale — but it’s not the same sale.

“Penelope is an institution in this city and the sale was highly-regarded,” says Knoll. “This is a way to keep it alive.”

Toronto collector and vendor Ian Drummond has been at the sale for four years. He has been in business since 1984 and travels all over the world adding to a collection of 25,000 vintage pieces that he rents period clothing for production companies, helping to outfit films including Chicago, The Aviator and Capote. The television series Bomb Girls is gobbling up as much ’40s clothing as he can find.

As Drummond refreshes his stock, he culls the collection and offers pieces for sale to collectors.

“Some things are too beautiful to be put away and wait,” he says. “They need to be out in the stream again, be out in a deserving collection.”

Drummond says he understands what Whitmore means when she says vintage isn’t the same.

It used to be possible to find some real treasures at an estate sale full of items from the ’40s. Those opportunities are rare now.

He also points out that for films, it’s not just elegant evening gowns that are in demand. So is menswear. And an authentic worn barn coat or a faded 1930s housedress is truly a find.

But time moves on, and even vintage buffs want something different.

“I used to say to myself ‘When I get to the ’60s, I’m getting out (of the business),’ ” he says.

“But you can’t be a purist in this business and make money. You need to roll with the times.”

For today’s young collectors, that means clothing from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. The ’80s were really not a bad era, says Drummond.

“It’s good quality. So much stuff from the ’80s has really great fabrics — lots of silk and rayon.”

He says he understands what Whitmore means when she says vintage has changed. “It has. But it’s more important to move with the wheel than against it.”

It is indeed the end of an era, says Whitmore, who is proud that the show raised money and food for the Ottawa Food Bank every year.

“A lot of people said ‘You will never make it. It’s a bunch of old clothes,’ ” she says.

“We started something. We taught people to love vintage clothes. What’s the story behind ’80s clothes? There is none. A lot of it was about the touching, and the glamour. For me, there was no glamour in the ’80s.”

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