A quest for fabulous vintage fashion has led local resident Julie Alpine to a Seventies leather handbag concealing Grateful Dead tickets and a Dior suit in a bric-a-brac sale, but the most golden of finds has been an unexpected friendship with an original girl-adventurer of the Sixties. Here she tells her story as well as recommending her favourite places in Pimlico to shop for vintage fashion.
The card is stuck in the window of my local stationery shop, written in – as the generous friend who took the time to phone and tell me about it puts it – old lady’s handwriting: ‘VINTAGE CLOTHES FOR SALE.’
Adrenaline floods my veins. Anyone who has spent a Saturday trawling a car boot sale in search of treasures or lost a whole afternoon to browsing thrift shops will get it. Few things in life bring as much joy as unearthing a unique piece from another age that still cuts it in today’s fashion climate. It is not only about the craftmanship – that an item has withstood the passing years through timelessness of style, quality of fabric, cultural significance – but about the stories. Interesting provenance isn’t something that can be bought, whether at Primark or Chanel.
We’ve all heard the stats. It takes 200 years for polyester fibre found in clothes to decompose. Microfibres from synthetic clothing contribute to 85% of the ocean’s plastic pollution. A cotton t-shirt requires at least 2,700 litres of water to produce. Over 70 million trees are felled annually to make fabrics such as rayon and viscose. In rejoicing in someone else’s cast-offs, we avoid adding to the demand for disposable fashion, while putting together a look that is entirely our own.
I am, it transpires, the lone respondent to the ad in the stationery shop window, and while the clothes that phone call leads me to are birds of rare beauty, it is the woman who wore the clothes, Wendy Passmore, who turns out to be the real needle in the haystack; our ensuing friendship some measure of the power of vintage to connect across generations.
In a 1960s time-warp of an apartment – the impeccably styled living room like a set from Mad Men, all mid-century teak, spider plants and nubby cheesecloth cushion covers – I find a rail of beautifully preserved clothes from the swinging Sixties, psychedelic Seventies and beyond. Their owner, the spirited, silvery-blonde-haired Wendy, is a force to behold.
Born in Orpington (to an ‘always elegant’ mother), Wendy was educated at Bromley High School in Kent, and later went to Heidelberg University, where she gained a German language certificate. Back in the UK, she completed an eight-week training course at the British Overseas Airways Corporation’s cabin services training unit, studying ‘deportment, the preparation of meals, cocktail mixing, taking care of invalid passengers and international immigration regulations’. As a Comet air stewardess, Wendy would fly to Africa, the Far East, Australia, New Zealand and South America, shopping in every port of call. Later, she enjoyed stints in real estate and research, living in Venice, Madrid and Barcelona, along with one memorable summer spent as a hostess on a private yacht off the coast of Majorca and Ibiza, uniformed in a fitted navy trouser suit, ‘selling Cuban lobster to Spaniards’. She had boyfriends – pilots and paratroopers and sheikhs – with names like Pepe and Cesar, and a girlfriend called Olga – ‘very beautiful, very stylish’ – who owned a cave house in Caravaca, a village outside Madrid, where you found ‘the purest water in Spain’. They decamped there for barbecues and parties that lasted days.
Here is the dress – black cotton, capped sleeves, ditsy yellow floral print – that Wendy wore in Madrid on one of her nights out with a man who was masquerading as a duke. ‘I introduced him to all my Cuban and Spanish friends who had lots of parties – the Cubans love parties – and he wore a coat of arms around his neck on a medallion. My friends told me I should marry him, then I’d be a duchess – he was constantly asking me to marry him – but I found out he was what they called a confidence trickster. A gigolo! He’d previously been a professional footballer but he did his knees in, so couldn’t continue.’
Here, the bubble-gum-pink corduroy jumpsuit spotted in the window of a shop in Marbella’s Orange Square, in 1973. ‘I can even remember how much it cost: 15,000 pesetas. I thought, I can’t afford that. The next day I went back, with my French friend Michelle, who said “buy it”. The fabrics then were made to last years – I’ve worn it loads.’
Here, a white and lime bikini bought in Nairobi. ‘It’s in the St Tropez style – I bought it with the help of one of the pilots. We went shopping and I tried bikinis on and modelled them and he told me which one he liked. I always had a canary yellow one-piece swimsuit, otherwise I wore bikinis.’
Here, a creamy woollen coat, bought in Shannon airport in 1965. ‘It’s Irish wool, not the thick stuff like rope you see nowadays – natural Irish wool that doesn’t absorb water. I wore it once in Hong Kong. My father and I happened to be there at the same time and had dinner at the Mandarin hotel. In the Ladies room, which was very big and beautiful with long mirrors everywhere, I sat down to comb my hair and saw the Chinese woman who was looking after the cloakroom standing just behind me. She was counting the stitches in the coat, so she could make a copy of it.’
The opposite of fast fashion, this is a wardrobe. Fashion being cyclical, we wear the same styles that the women who came before us wore and, when fate gives us the chance, get to hear about the adventures they had in them. Wendy’s stories have kept coming, over the course of tapas lunches and Lebanese dinners, outings to hallowed Pimlico vintage emporiums and over glasses of Turkish red wine.
Wendy, a woman who makes a mean gazpacho, who has the best collection of hotel slippers of anyone I know, who, in her eighties, can still do a perfect eyeliner wing, has not only brought the 60s silk shift dresses and 70s pencil skirts I love to life – indeed, many of those I wear today were once hers – but has reminded me of vintage’s ability to transcend ages. She has reignited in me a desire to experiment with head-to-toe Ralph Lauren-inspired safari chic. To give the full-on leopard print and firetruck-red lipstick of 80s LA a whirl. And most importantly, to have fun in fashion that doesn’t cost the Earth.
Pimlico’s top vintage shops
A treasure trove of pre-loved fashion, artworks, furniture, books and bric-a-brac tucked away alongside a housing estate. Check out, also, its eclectic programme of exhibitions, workshops, lectures, readings, talks, events and launches.
81 Tachbrook Street, 020 7592 9155, cavepimlico.co.uk
The dedicated vintage outpost of charity chain Fara, you never know what you’re going to find here. Browse hats, bags, scarves, dresses, menswear and memorabilia, along with iconic, high-end designer items.
6 Upper Tachbrook Street, 020 7630 7406, faracharityshops.org
Trinity Hospice Charity Shop
A large, well-organised charity shop with vibrant window displays and the opportunity to find the odd vintage gem among the mostly more modern stock. Particularly good for crafters, it also sells balls of wool, second-hand needles and knitting and dress patterns.
85 Wilton Road, 020 7931 7191, royaltrinityhospice.london