Petronella Wyatt

Vintage me

The ongoing escapades of London's answer to Ally McBeal

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The other day I was asked by a friend to a lunch party. I told her that, unfortunately, I would have to leave early as I had a very important appointment at three in Westbourne Park Villas. ‘Oooh,’ she said, intrigued. What is it? I duly told her and that was that.

The lunch turned out to be very jolly and I began to forget the time. I looked at my watch and it was twenty to three. Crumbs. Everyone was still on coffee. I stood up and said, ‘I’m really sorry but I have an appointment and if I don’t go I’ll be late.’

My hostess then giggled and replied, ‘Tell everyone what your appointment is.’ The guests looked at me with understandable curiosity as I had begun to blush. ‘Well, actually,’ I announced in a rather loud voice, ‘I have to try on some Fifties bathing suits.’

At this point there were grins from the men. One said, ‘Are you modelling them?’ ‘No,’ I replied. ‘I’m buying them. From a vintage shop.’ ‘You mean those bathing suits are still around after all this time?’ ‘Yes.’ I said. ‘Oh,’ he responded. ‘What’s the address? Can I come and watch?’

Eventually, I got to my appointment. I often slope off to this shop, nowadays. I used to hate the idea of vintage. To me it meant paying a fortune for somebody’s old clothes, in a very poor condition — and usually reeking of mothballs, or worse. Every time I would see some Hollywood actress or model in a vintage dress I would deride their pretension as a form of couture slumming.

But that was until I literally stumbled across a place called Vintage Appleby. I was walking down Westbourne Park Villas, tripped over a can of Coke on the pavement, and there it was. I didn’t even realise it was a vintage shop at first because the clothes in the window appeared so new. I went in prepared to sneer, but came out with the feeling I had just visited girlie heaven.

There were bathing suits from practically every decade of the last century. All of them looked as if they had come from old Hollywood films, as opposed to old boxes in the attic. Then there were outfits by Yves Saint Laurent and Dior, when those designers were in their prime. There were shoes, too — hundreds of them — and some very vampish-looking jewellery. Nothing smelled and all the merchandise seemed in remarkably good condition.

On that occasion I tentatively bought one fuschia suit, made in the Sixties. I wore it to Glyndebourne and it got me more compliments than all my other suits put together. This year I decided to go for everything. It would be the summer of vintage me. After all, I am becoming rather vintage myself. I am a 1969 model, in fairly good condition, I like to think. Although some of the seams need taking out.

The first thing I bought was an evening dress that the owner of the shop christened the Dolce Vita dress, as it looks rather like the one that went for a dip in the Trevi fountain. Then I bought a Fifties sun dress — nipped-in waist, flared skirt, etc. — that I hoped would make me look like Ava Gardner in Mogambo, at least from the neck down. But it was the swimsuits that really got me.

Boy, they really knew what to do with a girl’s figure in those days. The bathing suits actually had those pointy cups so beloved of Jane Russell and Howard Hughes. I nabbed one in black that reminded me of a similar thing Elizabeth Taylor wore in Suddenly, Last Summer, just before her cousin Sebastian was eaten by a mob of young cannibals. Tennessee Williams, natch.

I go by films, you see. The final acquisition, for the moment, was a patterned swimsuit with a little flared skirt. Sort of Bardot in And God Created Woman. I figure that if you can’t look like your favourite female film stars you can at least think yourselves into being more like them by wearing their clothes. Not that these clothes belonged to them, but they come from the same era.

I was telling my teenage niece about my bathing suits at dinner a few days ago. She was fascinated and put the address of the shop in her Palm Pilot. Then my other teenage niece, who is often raising difficulties, piped up, ‘You mean you’re going to wear someone else’s bathing suit? What if it gives you a disease? Would you wear secondhand underwear?’ Momentarily I was fazed. Then I shot back, ‘People don’t wear bathing suits under their clothes every day of the year, you idiot. Or any day of the year.’