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Old and Improved : With a Few Snips Here and There and a Little Thread, Vintage Clothes Can Be Reborn and Reworn


A 1940s rayon dress can be a divine piece of work. Great geometric print. Bias cut. Exquisite detailing.

It can also be pretty dowdy, ruined by a matronly neckline, cigarette burns, gruesome armpits.

To the untrained eye, such a dress looks terminal. To others, unwilling to give up anything with a shred of life left in it, there are "possibilities."

They see beyond the given. Beyond the dowdiness.

Wendy Freedman-Borsuk, owner of Polkadots & Moonbeams, a vintage clothing store on 3rd Street in Los Angeles, frequently finds "dresses that are so incredible, you don't want to throw them away." But "the pits are shot," a combination of too much wear and tear, perspiration and heavy doses of deodorant. She cuts a little here and there, excising the offending parts and salvaging the good ones.

"Most of the problems with these dresses are in the tops," she says. "Nobody likes a high neckline; they should be sexy." To that end, she cuts necklines and armholes so deep they need bodysuits or lacy camisoles underneath.

Definitely not our mother's little print dress.

In the process, she contemporizes them. "I try to make dresses wearable for today," Freedman- Borsuk says. And wearable for a wider (definite double meaning here) audience. So much vintage clothing looks so . . . Size 8-ish. Her alterations not only get rid of stains, rips and burn marks, they make dresses fit larger bodies. Hip, hip, hooray. And even when a dress fits just as it did on the original owner, Freedman-Borsuk says today's wearer would feel too confined in it. "We're used to more freedom of movement."

To some people, off-the-rack vintage clothing may seem too trendy, too young, too much of an attention-getter. But altering a dress or outfit can give it wider appeal. Take those rickracked-with-a-vengeance square-dance outfits. Great for Dale Evans look-alike contests, but what about dinner at Louise's Trattoria? The tops: dreadful, kitschy. The skirts: fantastic except for the kiss-of-death mid-knee length. The solution: cannibalize the top, cutting strips to use for a yoke that will lengthen the skirt into a fashionable, flattering mid-calf length--and great with a knit top.

When costume designer Pat Tonnema found a 1940s, smoky blue, geometric print dress at a flea market, it was the skirt, with its double row of ruffles around the hem, that she loved. So she cut off the ho-hum top, added a waistband and wears it with T-shirts. "The ruffles give it a great weight when I walk. It looks fantastic with cowboy boots--and guys love it."

Philomena Miner fell for a dark green lace-and-net skirt of a prom dress at a flea market. A home sewer, she ripped off the boned-to-distraction top, replacing it with a simple waistband. She wears the now-long, graceful skirt with a black bodysuit or a vintage denim shirt.

Miner's got similar plans for the toast-colored lace cocktail dress she just bought: "Cut off the top, add a thick sash ribbon at the waist. I'll wear it with a flesh-colored bodysuit." Another Miner transformation: a rose-print, sequined miniskirt that started life in the 1950s as a frumpy scoop-neck, mid-knee dress.

Freedman-Borsuk takes long, lacy ("lace you could never find today") Victorian cotton slips and snips them in half. The good part (ruffly hem, often double layered) becomes a miniskirt. They're hot sellers in her shop.

She will also close the fronts of vintage housecoats (bright Hawaiian or floral prints), and turn them into dresses. And once in a while, she finds a dress with a great bodice and an unwearable skirt. She cuts it off at the hip and turns it into a peplum top to wear with a black miniskirt.

Mark Wertz of American Rag on La Brea Avenue is always looking for new ways of recycling old clothes to appeal to 1990s tastes. One of his best sellers combines the bibs of old overalls with skirts from print dresses. In the process, he discards the distressed parts of both pieces: the grungy armpits as well as battery-acid stained pants.

"Cutting off the sleeves vastly improves a lot of dresses," says longtime thrift shopper Melissa Hoffs. One of her favorite saves is a blue print dress that "looked like a 'Swiss Miss' dress, very little-kiddish with leg o' mutton sleeves." Which she lopped off immediately. A few more incisions and repairs turned it into a "much simpler" sleeveless shift. Hoffs acknowledges she often removes "most of a dress" to make it wearable.

To supply its four used-clothing stores, Aardvark's Odd Ark has a plant in Vernon with 30 sewers who turn muumuus into men's shirts, skirts into short shorts, work shirts into halter tops. Prom dresses are turned into crinolines as well as pirate shirts for rock performers.

Says sales assistant Ruben Flores, "We don't throw anything away."

Resources * Aardvark's Odd Ark, 7579 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 655-6769. Also: Venice, Canoga Park and San Francisco.

* American Rag Cie, 150 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 935-3154.

* Polkadots & Moonbeams, 8367 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (213) 651-1746.

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