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Stylemaker

Talk About Retro

Joshua Curtis' fascination with the '40s goes beyond collecting. It's a way of life for him.

November 17, 2000|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES FASHION WRITER

Some people think he's reincarnated. Others believe he might be stuck in time. But 28-year-old Joshua Curtis is adamant that any garment after 1945 is "too new."

Everything he wears--his fedora, brown double-breasted pinstripe suit with a dime-sized vintage lapel button that reads, "I Want Roosevelt Again," and his shiny two-toned wingtips--is authentic 1940s garb. Even his undershorts. He unbuttons his coat and points to a union manufacturing label dated April 24, 1942--just in case there are any doubts about his passion for the fashion of a bygone era.

These days, Curtis admits his '40s preoccupation "has become a borderline obsession," as he leans against his 1940 black Buick with smudge-free whitewalls, his weekend wheels parked outside his parents' home in Yucaipa, where he lives. His other car, for work, is a 1946 blue Plymouth.

"Talk about style. No other era had so much of it," Curtis says. Honestly, he can't remember the last time he bought a new shirt or pants. In fact, he's never walked into the Gap or browsed at Banana Republic.

But his infatuation with the '40s didn't start with clothing. He remembers as a kid he'd check out the history books at Dunlap Elementary in Yucaipa looking at photos of World War II fighter planes. Later, he'd spend his allowance and time searching out 1940s stuff: a radio, a clock, a photo, a shirt. At 16, he began his friendships with World War II veterans like Gerald Robinson, an 85-year-old retired U.S. Air Force colonel who piloted a B-29.

"Josh isn't interested in young people stuff; he's interested in the past, and that's unusual," says Robinson. "To sit and talk with him is like talking to another old man like myself," he adds about his friendship with Curtis, who visits the wheelchair-bound Robinson weekly to help with chores and shopping. "And when he dresses the part, he takes me back."

At Yucaipa High School, kids would make fun of Curtis' style. But at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa where he received an associate's degree in art in 1990, "the kids got a big kick out of it," Curtis says. Today, his amazing collection, purchased from thrift stores and movie studios, includes more than 100 pairs of slacks, 50 hats, 40 jackets, 30 pairs of shoes, 20 suits and a variety of military uniforms, all neatly organized in shades of blue, black and brown.

Former '40s film star Dorothy Morris, now 78 and living in Beaumont, is a good friend. She says Curtis is "magical." The two met four years ago at a luncheon where he and other young people were swing dancing. "I couldn't take my eyes off of him. He just had this wonderful aura about him," she remembers. "He knew the films I was in, and he knew more about World War II than anybody I knew who was in World War II. It was sort of an eerie feeling. I don't know how to put it other than saying that it was like he had been reincarnated."

Jokingly, Curtis' parents--Michael, born in 1943 and Bonnie, in 1941--agree.

"My friends think he's reincarnated," laughs Bonnie, a 911 supervisor for the San Bernardino Fire Department, who several years ago hosted a party for Curtis' war veteran friends he has met at veterans' reunions across the country. Joshua has tape-recorded their stories and added the research to his library of 1940s music, books and film.

"It's like Josh has put himself in a time machine," says his artist father, who took Joshua on many of those trips. But his son's affinity for the 40s has "become more about the people from that era that he loves."

To hear their oral histories, Joshua says, is to learn "about an era that was about making do and doing without. They went through the Depression and World War II. It was those times that really strengthened their character and our country. I know it sounds kind of weird, but somehow I feel akin to that era."

That's why he sometimes spends a whole paycheck from his UPS job as a equipment operator at Ontario Airport "on stuff I've found at thrift stores," he says. He mostly buys clothing.

At home, at work (he doesn't have to wear an UPS uniform because he isn't a deliveryman), on a date, even on a trip to the supermarket, Curtis is known as "that '40s guy." A typical work outfit is an Eisenhower jacket worn with high-waisted plain-front trousers. For special occasions there's his snazzy all-white Palm Beach suit. And for kicking back, he's in vintage khakis and shirts that he hand washes and line dries himself. Even his various dates don '40s clothes to match his style.

He appreciates the old school look, which he says "really loosened up the country" in design and style. Many of his older friends, including war veterans, marvel at his affection for the past.

Especially his vintage clothing, which has taken over his room and other parts of his parents' home. Neat piles of folded trousers, coats and shirts worn by James Cagney, Tyrone Power, Ronald Reagan, Dick Powell and John Wayne are stacked from floor to ceiling in corners because there's no more room in the closet.

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