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FASHION : Going Back to Turn of the Century Brings Lace, Cameos, Calm : Shoppers are snapping up Victorian-era items, and the serenity that comes with them.

November 03, 1994|KATHLEEN WILLIAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nostalgia has struck again. Only this time, it reaches all the way back to the last century. Victoriana--with its antimacassars and alabaster cherubs--has a grip on the country.

You probably noticed the signs. Potpourri jars started spreading faster than lawyer jokes. T-shirts bloomed with satin roses. Cameo jewelry reappeared from a black hole. Heart-shaped things began multiplying like zucchini.

Lace, tatting and needlepoint exploded into living rooms like a snowstorm. Froufrou things the last generation tossed out so they wouldn't have to dust, iron or polish came back with a vengeance.

"Victorian is very soothing for people," said Judith Buck, co-owner of Willows, an accessory and design store in Westlake. "And people can't afford to move now, so they are going to redo themselves. They just want to bring a little serenity back."

People are so into the retro look, they are embracing a bit of the inconvenience it included. Buck pointed out that tablecloths are making a comeback, and people want linen and damask--which means ironing, a once-quaint notion.

But inconvenience is one thing, discomfort another.

Few people want a picture-book Victorian room, said Susan White, owner of Arabella, a Westlake boutique with an authentic turn-of-the-century look. Handworked doilies and pillows are likely to rest on an overstuffed sofa, not a Victorian settee.

"(The furniture) was a little stiff for the '90s," she said. "People are going for an eclectic look."

White's shop is one place to find it. It has brass figurines, velvet hats and purses, whimsical stuffed animals in lace and ruffs, reproduction lamps and more. Mainly, she said, it's the artwork--sculpture, paintings, brocade and needlepoint--that appeal to customers.

She sees the move as a return to the classics rather than a simple trend.

"I think it's more of an emotional event than a shopping event," she said.

As the Victorian theme has flourished, reproductions, rather than antiques, are making it easier to create a 19th-Century look. Lamps particularly are cast in antique styles, and traditional figurines are showing up in large numbers, especially angels and cherubs.

At Tottenham Court Ltd. in Ojai, owner Andrea Bloom said it's much easier to stock her stores than in the 1970s, when she began decorating with a Victorian theme, far ahead of her time. Until recently, she imported traditional tableware, boudoir accents and artwork from England, but American artists are now featured along with British.

The popularity of the look is a mixed blessing for Bloom.

"We used to be so unique," she said.

The shop has crystal, porcelain and silver wares, and many personal items, from reproduction jewelry to brocade credit-card cases. Also it has a plethora of fanciful pillows, many with handwrought verses the Victorians never saw. "You can't be too rich or too thin" and "Eat, drink and remarry" are among waggish inscriptions offered.

People are indeed willing to polish silver and wash and iron lace handkerchiefs these days, Bloom said. They are even observing formal tea time in the shop's renowned tea room.

Scones, quiche and tea sandwiches used to be mainly lunch fare here, but now the biggest seller is afternoon tea, the owner said.

So far, people seem to be capturing the grace of times gone by and avoiding the excess. Not often seen are stuffed birds in glass domes or piano drapes or spittoons.

Throwback clothing seems to stick with lace-up boots and plumed hats, perhaps pierced with jeweled hatpins. No muffs and bustles. No fans flutter in feminine artifice.

Why not a little fringe on lampshades, a few hearts and flowers in our lives?

Our grandmothers knew how to put the finish on life. We can all learn something from those kinder, gentler times.

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