Vintage Virgin: Discovering 1930s Style

Vintage style at Beamish Museum

My fascination with vintage started when my family bought a beautiful 1937 vintage Morris car for trips to the seaside.

The car is a Morris 8 Tourer in striking cherry red with a hood which peels back for ‘open top’ drives.

At first, the trips just involved short drives to the local beaches around Whitley Bay. I’d throw on a 1930s style cloche hat and a stylish scarf, and the crowds would throng and go “ooh” and “aah” at the lovely car.

Before long we’d joined the Morris Register Owners’ Club and were getting invited to heritage days. But most event organisers wanted car owners to get into the spirit of the historic period, including the costumes.

As a ‘vintage virgin’, I didn’t have a clue where to start. Here’s the story of my vintage challenge and adventure…

Photos: Early trips in the Morris car wearing normal clothes.

Starting Out – Style Council

The task was daunting. We’d been invited to Beamish Museum’s World War Two weekend, but there was just one problem. I had nothing to wear… and didn’t even know where to look to put together a costume!

Before we bought the car, I’d been to a Morris car rally at Beamish where everyone seemed to have the right look, from 1920s hats and 1930s tweed suits to 1940s austerity outfits and 1950s swing style.

Even the guys were fully kitted out in flat caps, braces, baggy trousers and waistcoats. It was like being on the “Peaky Blinders” film set. But where had they acquired all this kit?

I had only four weeks to get my act together. It was time to get some advice from experts and friends who know their way around the vintage marketplace.

One friend suggested going to high quality vintage shops and markets whilst another sent me in the direction of retro clothing online. I was overwhelmed by the choice of outlets… and needed a few pointers.

A friend who runs a vintage business pointed me to auction sites. A quick scan of the auction houses was a scary experience. The prices for authentic vintage, especially for 1930s pieces, are often sky high.

I needed to pick a few people’s brains. A good place to start was speaking to the re-enacting groups which ‘do the circuit’ of heritage events wearing the correct costumes.

At Beamish Museum I met the glamorous Polly who has sensational vintage 1930s and 1940s outfits and immaculate dress sense. She mentioned Hugo Boss and Rokit for high quality vintage, but it comes at a price. She orders a lot of her clothes and shoes from American websites.

Kevin from the local Morris car club provided a few great leads. He suggested looking at retro revival sites online including Darcy Clothing, Chester Cordite, and Revival Vintage. He’ also’s also keen on Soldier of Fortune for military gear, largely for guys.

Another Morris owner showed me the selection of flying helmets and hats in a heritage car catalogue, although I couldn’t quite see myself looking like a World War Two fighter pilot!

I also drew inspiration from online fashion sites with photographs of 1930s icons and dreamed of recreating Joan Crawford’s stunning 1930s art deco dress (above), although perhaps not in a muddy field at Beamish Museum.

I’d opened yet another can of worms. I had no idea that ‘revival vintage’ is such a massive online market. Worse still, it was starting to look like an expensive business and I had a limited budget.

There was a bigger question lurking in my mind. What exactly is vintage and how is it different from ‘classic’ or retro?

A trip to vintage shops in Newcastle left me despondent as I started to realise that a lot of people’s idea of vintage is the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. For me this is more retro than vintage – and worst of all, I remember wearing some of it the first time around.

I scurried back home to rummage around the back of my wardrobe and found a pair of classic Oxford shoes which might look right for my 1930s look. Sadly my online search for two-tone Thirties brogues was not a success.

The Retro Revolution

As I trudged around the high street, I was beginning to realise that 1930s vintage is a tough challenge. It’s far easier to find replicas than the real thing which makes sense when you think about it.

A lot of 1930s clothing was worn until it fell to bits. It was an age of austerity and war, ‘make do and mend’ and limited wardrobe choices, unless you were very rich.

But I feared that purists would be sniffy about me wearing ‘replicas’ – and wondered whether copies were considered ‘inauthentic’.

It wasn’t long before I got my answer on a trip to London where I trawled the Sunday markets and vintage shops around Shoreditch and Covent Garden.

Photos – Blackout London, Shoreditch market and The Yesterday Society in Newcastle.

Blackout on Drury Lane claims to be one of London’s fully authentic vintage clothes shops. When I spoke to the shop’s owner she turned her nose up at revival copies, proclaiming, “Oh darling, I wouldn’t touch that sh** in a million years!”.

I could only find a handful of 1930s pieces in the shop as they are “notoriously hard to acquire”. The few outfits that they did have were evening dresses and were far too big for my small frame.

Over at Shoreditch Market, I was back to square one with most dealers selling recent 1970s retro… and hardly a sniff of the 1930s anywhere to be seen.

My heart momentarily lifted as I spotted a fascinating hat shop with old toppers and straw boaters. But I was looking for neither although I definitely needed a woman’s hat for our open-topped car trip.

Photos: York vintage shops – Dog and Bone in York, the Red House and York Antiques Centre.

A day trip to York was a better experience with visits to the Red House Antique Centre and York Antiques Centre on Stonegate. They’re good for hats, dresses and jewellery, but charge top prices.

Bowler and Betty and The Hat Shop in York are great stores for reproduction clothing and hats – and the quality is decent.

Back in Newcastle, a trip to The Yesterday Society in the Grainger Market was a disappointment as I couldn’t find anything to fit. Again, the 1930s styles were very thin on the rails.

Retro Vintage on Newcastle’s High Bridge suggested looking at Collectif, a vintage online store, which mainly features 1940s and 50s replicas and a variety of brands selling cool frocks.

I began to wonder if the 1930s was an unpopular era for vintage – not as fun as the flapper 1920s, nor as glam as the 1940s, nor as ‘swinging’ as the ’50s or ’60s.

Online Jungle

Back at home, my partner had abandoned the charity shops and markets, preferring to buy online where there was a good choice of revival jackets, trousers, braces and shirts for men.

He already owned a tweed flat cap and brown leather shoes which just about fitted the bill. His online order from Revival Vintage arrived just two days before the Beamish event – and I was staggered that the clothes fitted perfectly.

Perhaps it’s easier for men? I always have problems with buying clothes online because of the sizing. I’m a petite size 6 or 8 – and I’m quite tall.

I’ve also discovered that vintage clothes come in all shapes and – not all sizes. Sometimes it’s hard to find your correct size… or it simply doesn’t exist at all. ‘One off pieces’ are exactly that.. one offs!

I was a bit jealous that my partner had been so lucky, but relieved that he’d found an outfit. He was missing the perfect tie but hey, that was only a small glitch. On the downside, I did have to iron everything as it had creased up in transit.

The tweed jacket was an original, possibly from the early 1950s, and it looked really classy whilst the baggy trousers suited him really well. They were surprisingly comfortable and roomy!

Phone A Friend…

One night, I was having dinner with my friend Jean, and mentioned to her how I was struggling to find anything vintage for my Beamish World War Two event.

I’d only managed to unearth a modern ‘stand-by dress’ in a vaguely ’30s style. Unfortunately, it was in polyester and didn’t bear close scrutiny.

In an unexpected twist, Jean revealed that her great aunt from South Shields had been a tailoress and seamstress.

She and her sister established a very successful business in Sunderland and had even bought their own cars, unusual for single working women in the 1930s.

Photo – Tailoress Elizabeth Davison (centre left) including with her mother and dressmaker sister in the late 1930s.

It turned out that Jean had more than a dozen of her creations lurking at the back of her wardrobe. They hadn’t been worn in years.

Overjoyed, I found a date to visit her, precariously close to the Beamish event – the day before. I was convinced that none of the outfits would fit but Jean was confident that they would. It was cutting things fine – and I wasn’t over confident.

We spent the whole afternoon trying on around 15 pieces – and every last costume was a perfect fit for my shape. I was overwhelmed by their style and authenticity.

I also discovered how narrow the sleeves are on a lot of 1930s vintage dresses. There was one hilarious moment when I got stuck in a gorgeous long black frock which had no zip or buttons, and my friend had to pull me out!

After a couple of hours of trying on the clothes, Jean agreed to lend me her great aunt’s fabulous coat with a fur collar, a blue day dress, a black shirt and dog-toothed patterned matching jacket. What a coup.

Photo – Original 1930s vintage coat, red suit, black evening ensemble and art deco style dress by Elizabeth Davison.

Jean also managed to find a 1930s brown leather clutch bag and a man’s small professional case from her family collection.

I just needed the right accessories to finish off the look including hats and scarves. I managed to buy a couple of cheap but high quality berets from TK Maxx and dug out an old sequinned cream scarf which looked the part.

Finally, I pillaged the family archive box to find a few wartime documents including my grandad’s 1936 driving licence and identity card plus an authentic gas mask and ration book. These could sit happily on the car’s glove shelf.

The total cost of my outfit was just £7 because I’d borrowed or re-versioned so many items. My partner had spent over £100 buying his revival vintage clothes, but he did look the business.

The Big Event at Beamish

Finally, the Beamish event was upon us and we set off in our fancy costumes ready for two days of vintage action.

I was really pleased with my outfits which I’d improved upon with the addition of a couple of vintage pieces including an ancient emerald and pearl ring as well as a lovely 1930s necklace. Nothing was nylon, fake or synthetic.

I wasn’t wearing anything inauthentic except for my shoes and lingerie. Yes, I must sort out my bra, knickers, camisole and seamed stockings for the next trip!

We drove the car on ‘1930s roads’ from Whitley Bay to County Durham, avoiding dual carriageways and modern highways. The car arrived in one piece with no breakdowns or glitches.

I loved the 1930s outfits which I rotated over a couple of days, and felt really alive wearing the proper clothes. Adding a few hair extensions transformed me from modern woman to vintage ‘girl’ in just a few minutes.

Technically, I should’ve got my hair done in a truly authentic style but the hairdresser told me how fiddly this would be as it involved setting lotion and extensive styling. Not to mention sitting for hours under a dryer. Perhaps next time?

Once at Beamish, we met with the other Morris club drivers and World War Two military folk who were resplendent in full costume. They were keen to share stories of their vintage clothing shopping and tricks of the trade.

But the experience also highlighted what I’d forgotten to acquire in terms of heritage props and car accessories.

Stylish Karl, a Morris car owner and military enthusiast, showed me his accessories including an impressive suitcase full of medical remedies, bought at car boot sales. He told me that the best pieces can often be found in market towns like Hexham.

Natty dresser Alan donned his deerstalker hat and period clothes acquired on a trip to Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, another hot spot for vintage clothing lovers.

Some of the guys had also brought heritage maps, oil cans, and vintage repair kits from a variety of sources.

As we drove around the museum circuit waving at the crowds, the vintage costumes turned out to be a triumph. It was also great to talk to ordinary people about the history of my vintage clothes.

I wondered what their designer, Elizabeth Davison, would have thought, seeing her creations brought back to life after 85 years.

After two months learning the ropes, I had transformed myself from “vintage virgin” to “nostalgia nerd”, but there’s still so much for me to learn.

Photo – Style inspiration – Elizabeth Davison and her family from South Shields in the late 1930s and 40s

One day, I will find the correct shoes… and the rest of the 1930s accessories.

For now, it’s just the beginning of a fantastic new heritage adventure with many future events to savour.

At the end of the day, one thing is for sure – the vintage car is the star and the costumes are merely the supporting cast.

Vintage Virgin – Tips for Beginners

My main advice would be to do your homework and pick a style that matches the type of events you want to go to from car shows and vintage festivals to re-enactments and themed attractions. This will dictate your period style.

Look in charity shops and vintage shops but be aware of the authenticity of what you’re buying. What is its ‘provenance’. Is the price fair or a rip-off? What is the condition of the piece?

Decide on the period or look that works with your heritage passions. If you own a vintage car, you’re probably looking at the 1930s to 1950s. Do you have a favourite style? What’s your budget?

Study photos of the period you’re trying to create and pinch a few ideas from online forums and Instagram. Look at second hand sites like Etsy and Vinted.

Seek out vintage fairs and events. A lot of car and steam shows and heritage events feature vintage ‘villages’ or stalls. Car boot sales can also be productive for accessories and period ‘props’.

Auction houses like Kerry Taylor in London specialise in top end vintage but the prices are way above my budget.

Talk to more experienced vintage collectors and re-enactors who are keen to share their knowledge and best buys.

When choosing clothes, think about natural fabrics and styles used during the period you’re recreating. The devil is often in the detailing of true period clothes – look at the seams, stitching, buttons, fabrics and appliqué work.

Avoid polyester, synthetic materials and plastic products if you’re trying to recreate early vintage periods.

Look out for hats, gloves, shoes, scarves and other accessories. Shoes are one of the hardest things to find in my opinion. There are a few decent online sites but be very careful about the returns policy and shoe sizings.

Make your own revival clothes if you’re a wizard with tailoring or dressmaking. Alternatively, hire a costume designer to make you a bespoke piece or two. Costume hire might be another option for one-off events.

Costume historian Lucy Adlington’s History Wardrobe on Instagram is a good source of design styles.

Photo: The Owl and the Pussy Cat antiques in Whitley Bay – and Alterations Express in York

Visit antique centres and shops, but beware of the mark-up prices which may be unrealistically high. These stores can be useful for items like tin hats, luggage, car paraphernalia, old binoculars and jewellery.

Go online and you’ll discover dozens of retro websites but look at the reviews. Try auction houses locally and online.

Be creative. Can you reversion anything you have already at home? Does a relative have old clothes? Can you buy something and have it altered to your size at an extra cost? Look for vintage sewing patterns.

Think how to style your hair. I think wigs often look fake but it’s hard to create a hair style unless you have an expert hairdresser. I still haven’t got my hair styling completely right for the period, but I don’t want to cut my long hair.

Beamish Museum in County Durham has a 1950s hair salon where they’ll create chignons and popular styles of that period on dry hair. Look out for hairdressers who know how to create a 1930s, ’40s or ’50s style.

Generally I’d avoid fancy dress shops with their fake wigs and highly cartoonish creations of vintage styles.

Wear stuff you feel comfortable and happy in. I also find that some ‘scratchy’ fabrics aggravate my skin.

For guys, think about hair and facial features (clean-shaven or moustaches and beards). Hats and caps are a good way of covering up the wrong hairstyle!

What is Vintage?

Vintage is defined as clothing or items which dates from at least 20 years ago, which bizarrely takes in 2002. On a personal note, I’m definitely a vintage model!

Anything more than 100 years old is defined as antique although this seems to have slipped the minds of quite a few dealers.

‘Retro’ is used to refer to clothing and accessories inspired by older designs in the last 20 years whilst ‘revival’ is generally used to describe replicas or copies of vintage clothes.

World War Two is a popular period for vintage and revival clothes especially military gear. I was also amazed to discover how many outfits there are for dogs and children.

Photos: Tynemouth Market; US military look with matching dog; and Durham Vintage store in Langley Moor.

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