I was in Hip Wa Zee, a vintage store in Columbia, SC, when owner Leslie Minerd pointed out that my dress was from the forties and that she knew from the metal zipper. I hadn’t even recognized that detail, which sparked my idea to interview Leslie to find out what else she knew about vintage fashion. From her extensive collection I could tell she had become an expert in distinguishing pieces by the decade. But, what I would come to find out as well was her vast insight on how the cultural context of the decades affects each one’s fashion.
Below is my interview with Leslie who turned her love for being different into a career.
Q. When did you first discover your passion for vintage clothing?
A. I grew up in Lancaster, South Carolina in the seventies. My way of being different was, I found a thrift store, this little hole in the wall place called Christine’s, and it had some really interesting clothes in there. I’d go in and find things and wear them to school (which didn’t help my popularity), but I think that was the point. I was wearing clothes from the fifties and some things from the sixties, probably even some things from the forties.
Q. In the seventies, did people call it vintage?
A. No, they just called it used clothing. They might have somewhere else, but in Lancaster they did not.
Q. How did this passion of yours grow into a business?
A. I kept a box full of costumes, which consisted of vintage clothes, so when a party came up, I would always have extra costumes, which I’d loan out to people. That’s sort of how it started. As I became a little older, I discovered flee markets, and I used to haunt them every weekend. I have a huge collection of other things as you can see (pointing to the many awesome pictures hanging in her office). So I just kept collecting the vintage and I started off doing antique shows where I’d sell antiques and then I’d have some vintage clothes included. I was doing more antiques at the time, but my passion was the clothing. I just kinda shifted over to that. I opened my first store in 1990, and I left that in ’96 and opened Hip Wa Zee in ’99.
Q. Before we get into our discussion on fashion through the decades, what is it about vintage, besides the fact that it makes you stand out, that you love?
A. So much of it is way better made than anything you’d find today, since it was crafted in America until NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994). That’s when things started to come from China. Also, it’s a piece of history.
Q. I can see your expertise in vintage clothing makes you qualified to tell me how to distinguish what decade a garment is from. Can you tell me about this piece from your store’s vast collection?
A. The forties dress that I have here, obviously a fine woven cotton, its got a high thread count, its got shoulder pads, which is always a sign for forties. You find that in a lot of the dresses. This has big glass buttons, and you can see it’s got a big hem in the bottom. It’s not one of those small machine done hems; it’s a hand sewn hem. It’s a raw edge on the seems on the inside; there’s no serge.
You can always go by the label. There’s some websites devoted just to labels; they’ve got some real interesting things in there. You can often find in them a union made label when they were made in the USA.
This dress is well below knee-length. The forties had some great colorful prints and you can often tell them apart from any other decade. They’re made out of rayon, and there’s just this look to the fabric. When you see it, you know it’s a forties print. I’ve seen some people try and reproduce them lately, but it doesn’t have that sort of texturized rayon look that you see in those forties dresses.
Q. What kinds of prints were popular?
A. A lot of flowers were popular, but sometimes geometric shapes were too. Then you see that thing called the atomic print. It started out in the earlier fifties. You’ll see it sometimes even in men’s shirts; it’s from the atomic age.
Q. Was there also a change among the shape of the garments?
A. During the war in the forties there was fabric rationing, so you could see a lot of women’s clothing in the forties looks sort of military-like. They weren’t going to make these big wide skirts using so much fabric. After the war was over and there was this whole new world, and the fabric rationing was gone. If you look at the magazines back then, Dior and others had these full skirts; I mean these gigantic puffy skirts. They were nice for twirling and dancing.
Q. That leads us into our next piece. Can you tell me some more about the fifties?
A. This fifties dress is not nearly as formal looking as the forties dress, and it’s a little brighter colored. The fashion from after World War 2, maybe about ’47 until mid 60’s, the skirts became a little pouffier, but a lot of them looked very similar. They stayed pretty long. This one’s got some really cool button detailing. Pink, the poodle skirt, pink cadillac, pink was kind of a thing. When anyone wants a poodle skirt, they want a pink one.
Q. Does that have to do with women wanting to look very feminine?
A. It’s almost a backlash because women were working in the factories during the war, and when then the men came back, the women were sent back to the home. They said, “We don’t need you in the factory anymore. Go home, put on your apron, and cook us a casserole and put on this pink dress while you’re at it!”
Q. All this talk about dresses and skirts, how about pants?
A. You’d see Rosie the Riveter wearing pants and you did see loungewear outfits. You’d see Kathryn Hepburn do some movies in pants. They’re very sleek looking. You didn’t see them so much in fashion in the forties and fifties when women were wearing pink. You would see them some for leisure occasions, and they were these skinny things that were above the ankle. They were very fitted on your body. You would see that in the fifties and earlier sixties, but you weren’t in a workplace or even in school. Females didn’t wear pants. It became a thing in the early seventies. It depends where. It was in the late sixties; it was a decision in some towns they let girls wear pants to school and then you’d have a pants suit. It was a thing to be wearing pants. I mean you could wear them out in play or out you know when you weren’t in school, but in formal situations you were expected to be in dress.
Q. I see now where this whole “pink this, pink that” thing came into play. I know things had to be more chill in the sixties. I mean with the hippie movement: how did fashion change then?
A. Things were different in different parts of the country. A fashion that was in California took a long time to get over. So this dress, it’s an a-line in that sort of mod style where it’s not pinched in at the waist. That’s another thing, back in the fifties you wore an undergarment. I mean that when you were going out you wore a girdle. Undergarments were a big thing and a lot of times you’ll find out if you try on a fifties dress. If I tried one on it’ll fit me in my chest and my hips then it’s like ugh, it’s not fitting me in my waist. Well, it’s because I’m not wearing my girdle. Anyway, as the sixties started, things were changing with the Vietnam war. Flower power comes in later in the sixties. It’s got some earth tones and you can tell it’s not yet seventies mostly because it’s a-line and it doesn’t have an empire waist. It still has the metal zipper.
Q. How did the shorter length come about?
A. I just think it was part of a whole sexual revolution and rebellion. The seventies, that was when the maxi came in, the whole Gunne Sax look out of San Francisco. There was all these options: the midi, the mini, and the maxi; you’d see it all. The midi would be generally worn with boots, a maxi with your strappy sandals, and the mini with a variety of different shoes.
Q. What colors were popular in seventies fashion?
A. Baby blue was a color of the seventies. Somebody came in here the other day and said, “I want to be one of the twins from the shining.” I said, “Their wearing a baby blue dress right?” I bet that the movie was made in seventy-something right, and she told me it was. I said, “Well good luck finding a baby blue dress because that was a color from the seventies.” You don’t see a lot of things made in that color right now.
Q. Any other noteworthy details from seventies fashion?
A. Very bright and wild colors, and you’d start seeing the nylon zippers. They were cheaper. Your drinks used to come in a glass bottle and you’d return the glass bottle. Then plastics just became a thing. In the seventies, one thing you can always notice is the empire waist, which this dress has. That’s a sure giveaway on a seventies outfit. That’s when they started moving into wearing polyester. Polyester became really big in the seventies for men’s and women’s clothing.
Q. What about a favorite of mine, psychedelic prints?
Those prints are a copy of the art like Peter Max’s. People were doing psychedelics and the prints became very psychedelic. This was a very exciting time for men because their clothes had been so boring. Now, you could be wearing a baby blue leisure suit with a wild butterfly collar, polyester shirt with all kinds of cool prints on it. A lot of times they’d borrow prints from the impressionist artists.
Q. Oh yes, I love the exaggerated look of a butterfly collar. After the seventies comes our final decade of vintage fashion. So, how did culture and fashion change in the eighties?
A. A lot of what affected the seventies was, people were out protesting in the streets because of the Vietnam War. You had a potential for actually going to war and dying, and it just changed your whole psyche. The eighties was the Reagonomics (the economic policies implemented by President Reagan), and people kind of forgot about that. You could just see it in the movies. There seemed to be more credence given to people who were you know fighting to make it big in the industry or finances. During the seventies it was like you don’t need to wear a neck tie. In the eighties, the guys were wearing suits. There was a return to more formal looking with guys were wearing fedoras and skinny ties. If you’re making a nod to the fifties (which fashion in the eighties was), the eras are very similar.
Q. Usually when I think of eighties, I think of some really “out there” fashion, which certainly wasn’t formal. Where did this look come from?
A. That’s when the whole punk rock scene started. Vivienne Westwood out of London. The studded leather jacket, that was more of a minority. You didn’t see it here in South Carolina so much. That was the youthful spirit of not being who your parents are.
Q. Were you following this trend at the time?
A. In the eighties I did have a pair of acid wash skinny jeans with a pair of little boots, but I was actually wearing this whole other fashion genre. I wore these long flowing skirts when I was out and about with just some tanks. They were made in India, which almost looked kind of seventies but it still wasn’t quite. My uniform, since I worked in a restaurant, had a jean skirt. Jean skirts were big; denim was big in the seventies and eighties.
Q. What were some other trends of the eighties?
A. We’re back to the shoulder pads (but bigger). This one has kind of smaller shoulder pads in it. The guys, their outfits had the big shoulders too with sort of a narrow waist. Sometimes the jackets would cut off at the waist with the high pants. That’s kind of when the Jane Fonda thing started, you know, the workout clothing. Another thing about the eighties, you notice a lot of the dresses dropped back to a mid length. It’s still made in the U.S.A. in the eighties; they had these giant tags in them. The men’s clothes still had these crazy colors in them, but we were going back to cottons. The block print was popular, a lot of stuff in primary colors.
All pieces are for sale at Hip Wa Zee (except atomic skirt and Dior girl)! And don’t forget to leave me a comment below; I’d love to hear what interested you and some of your favorite vintage trends!