Upstairs at Mr. Chow's in Beverly Hills on a summer evening, the women picking at their pot stickers offer a lesson in understated dressing: a pale Armani pantsuit, a short, fitted Chanel dress, an unimpeachable black suit. Their escorts, including one of the city's major art collectors, a movie producer and a British actor, appreciate how the women decorate the plain room. None more than the guest of honor, a woman possessed of style potent enough to bottle, who wears a sleeveless banana linen A-line dress by Christian Dior. The dress was made for a couture client in the 1960s. Yet she looks remarkably current. * This time of year, when stores are bursting with fall fashion's harvest, some well-dressed women will not be paying attention to the latest arrivals from Los Angeles designers and their brethren in New York, Paris and Milan. This growing cult, while not renouncing all that is new and hip, is composed of dedicated preservationists. They are lovers of vintage fashion, and their world, once confined to ragged piles at flea markets and thrift shops, now extends to beautiful boutiques and coveted seats at auctions. * Los Angeles is prime country for vintage clothing. While certain communities have their dominant looks, from Pasadena's persistent preppiness to the minimalism that has replaced Beverly Hills' trademark glitz, rules of style are less rigid here than in many other places. A farm wife's housedress from the '30s could rub hipbones with an avant-garde Japanese number on a crowded sidewalk anywhere in town, and no one would blink. It's as if a local tolerance for fashion eclecticism spawns real-world versions of the standard tableau of a bustling studio back lot, where an Egyptian slave girl walks past a Union soldier in the shadow of a painted New York skyline.
When vintage pieces aren't mixed with new clothes, the effect can be highly theatrical. Who would feel more comfortable in a costume than an actress? Julia Earp, manager of Repeat Performance, a vintage store in Hollywood that also rents clothes to studios, says she's seen actresses take a little bit of their roles with them: "They enjoy wearing period clothing even when they're not in front of the camera."
Young actresses discovered vintage early. The styles were flattering and distinctive, the quality high and the prices low. Why spend $475 for a DKNY jacket when a wool crepe vintage jacket with hand-sewn silk lining could be found for $75?
Barbra Streisand was among the first stars to develop an interest in vintage clothing. Early in her career, she bought old dresses and gowns from New York thrift shops--she couldn't afford new clothes with comparable impact. Long after she had the resources to buy any clothes she wanted, she continued to collect vintage with the same fervor she exercised in acquiring Tiffany lamps and Art Deco and Arts & Crafts furniture.
Costumers, of course, are always looking for ways to define a character. It has become a cliche of television wardrobing that wacky sitcom gals wear vintage clothes: old bowling shirts and circle skirts appliqued with poodles. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has sported jackets from the '30s and '40s as Elaine on "Seinfeld." Candice Bergen's clothes for "Murphy Brown" are spiced with vintage jewelry and accessories. On a summer afternoon, a team from Kirstie Alley's new comedy, "Veronica's Closet," combed American Rag for colorful, unusual jackets for their star.
And those who once studied videos of designers' runway shows, looking for gowns to wear for the big awards spectaculars, turned off the VCRs when they discovered that vintage gowns set them apart from the label-wearing pack. "Actresses want to attach their names to a dress, rather than have a designer attach his name to them," says Rita Watnick, owner of Lily in Beverly Hills, the most elegant local vintage store. Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, Tea Leoni and Cameron Diaz are often snapped in vintage finery.
Such is the power of celebrity that models and actresses have sanctified vintage dressing. Fashion magazines regularly report on the latest enthusiasms of top models, from aged sweatshirts worn as evening wraps to old Adidas workout pants. Let a picture of Naomi Campbell wearing a Pucci dress from the '60s run in Vogue, or Kate Moss in an antique bed jacket and a Prada skirt show up in People, and the stampede is on. "When I started in this business 18 years ago," Watnick says, "it was for the few. Now, it's for the many. It used to be uncommon for people to have a piece of collectible clothing. Now, the audience is much broader. My customers wear the best of the new and the old."