In her Inner Harbor loft, Jaye Ferrone meticulously pin curls her hair, drawing on a careful cat eye while she waits for it to set and pouting in the mirror to achieve the perfect red lip. Satisfied, she slips into her thigh-highs and crinoline, finishing it all off with a charming cotton dress and a whimsical plastic carrot pin.
This might sound like the makings of a better-than-average Betty Draper costume for a downtown Halloween gala, but for Ferrone, 33, it’s just another Monday morning.
The Charm City transplant is the ’50s-aesthetic force behind “Baltimore Bombshell,” a blog dedicated to all things vintage. And while her daily outfits are perhaps more intricately assembled than others’, they represent an overarching trend: Old is in.
Just ask Kelly Belk, 58, owner of Changed My Mind Vintage in Hampden.
“Eventually, I think everything comes full circle,” she says. “When I was 16, I was into [clothes from] the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. And now, the kids are into the ’80s and ’90s—though honestly, I have people coming in for things from every era.”
The surge in the popularity of vintage is, it seems, twofold: On the one hand, the omnipresence of social media has sparked a rise in the need to impress and express originality; on the other, the recurring styles echo a sort of sartorial repetitiveness that’s been happening since the mid-20th century.
“1964 was the last year clothing was truly original,” says Ferrone, who has been entrenched in the (surprisingly extensive) vintage community since the ’90s. “Mid-’60s Mod was a repeat of the silhouettes of the ’20s, the ’70s borrowed from the ’30s, the ’80s recycled the ’50s, and so on.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that “vintage” as an umbrella genre is becoming the mark of the 2010s. Even so, it can be difficult to dress in recycled duds without feeling … well, like you’re wearing a costume.
The key to embracing the trend, according to Belk and Ferrone, is to start slowly—though both admit to wardrobes comprising between 85 and 90 percent vintage.
“If you’re going to wear a vintage dress, pair it with modern accessories,” Belk says. “Or, if you’re wearing a modern dress, utilize one or two fantastic vintage accessories to set off your outfit—a new dress with a really awesome vintage belt and earrings can really change your look.”
Also important? Dressing for your body, not despite it.
“I dressed in ‘normal’ clothing—modern clothing—for a long time,” says Ferrone. “But then in the ’90s, those low-rise jeans came into style and they just didn’t work for my body. That’s when I started getting into the high-waisted dresses of the ’40s and ’50s.”
That’s not to say, however, that going back in time will automatically accommodate any body type.
“If I could pull off ’20s and ’30s clothes, I totally would,” Ferrone says with a laugh. “But they just don’t work for me.”
Belk concurs. “I’ve found I wear the same cut of dress constantly,” she says, gesturing to her yellow cotton shift. “The one I have on is from the ’60s, but it’s reproduced constantly because it’s such a timeless look. You just have to find out what looks good on you and stick with that.”
The process certainly involves trial-and-error—which, unfortunately, seems to be the hallmark of dressing vintage.
“You have to take whatever size you’re used to wearing and throw it out the window,” says Ferrone. “A size 14 in vintage is probably equivalent to a size 6 now—it’s so bizarre. I honestly couldn’t even tell you what I wear in modern clothes at this point.”
One solution to sizing difficulties, she says, is to get friendly with a tape measure. Bust, under-bust, waist and shoulders are key stats to have on hand, particularly when ordering clothing online.
Another helpful tip? Wearing the under- things of the era.
“Clothing made today is meant to fit our bodies,” says Ferrone. “Back then, we were meant to make our bodies fit the clothes.”
For some, this simply means donning a vintage slip, something Belk recommends for ensuring a smooth appearance and nice movement under an antique dress. For others, it means going all in. Ferrone, for example, lifted her crinoline to show me her garter and thigh highs, and admitted to occasionally using corsetry and tight-lacing to make a frock fit.
Fortunately, vintage clothing is often much more well-made than contemporary clothing, and built-in features such as seam allowances make it easier to tailor throwback finds to your body and style.
This superior craftsmanship, in fact, is one of the high points of dressing in retro raiment.
“With some of the ’80s, ’90s and newer trends, you can just look at it and see that it’s going to fall apart,” says Belk. “You know when you have something you could almost wear inside-out that it’s not well-made.”
For contrast, Belk—whose mother was a seamstress—lifts the hem of a ’50s-era dress, revealing a substantive grid of seams and linings. (It’s actually heavy, a quality that seems unimaginable in the Gap sheaths dominating my closet.)
It goes without saying that such clothing is much longer-lasting, evident by the very fact that it’s still widely available in vintage and thrift stores. But to keep it in good condition, Belk and Ferrone warn, is nowhere near as simple as tossing it in the washer.
“I wash everything with baby detergent, let it soak and hang dry, then iron it,” Ferrone says. “If you’re going to go vintage, you have to invest in a good steamer.”
As for dry cleaning? Don’t even think about it unless it’s an absolute must.
“If you have to take clothes to the cleaners, it has to be a European place that doesn’t use chemicals,” Belk says. “And never store your vintage in plastic. Keep it in a dry, dark place that’s moth-free.”
And that’s not all: “Hangers have a tendency to tear seams at the shoulders of vintage shirts and jackets,” Belk adds, “so I’d highly recommend padded hangers—vintage padded hangers, preferably.”
If incorporating vintage into your wardrobe sounds like a lot of work, well … it is. But to older-clothes enthusiasts, it’s more than worth it. And though there are endless “rules” to follow, the essence of rocking retro is simple.
“Vintage is an attitude,” says Belk. “It’s elegant and sexy, but you have to own it, like you do anything. And there’s something really nice about knowing that no one else has what you have on. You can’t find cookie-cutter examples at the mall.”
“Embrace it,” adds Ferrone. “If you feel good, you look good. I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I’m going to a tea party, but you know what I tell them? ‘Life’s a tea party, dress up for it.’”