On a rainy Sunday afternoon in October, I get off the number 19 bus and am greeted by a block-long line snaking out of the Chelsea Old Town Hall. Populated in equal measure by eccentric older ladies with pastel purple hair and fashion students sporting their most recent creations, I scan the flamboyant outfits as I stroll past them, to the front of the line, and in the door.
“I have a pass,” I say, retrieving a crumpled piece of card stock from inside my (for now) empty tote bag. The ticket-checker looks at the pass. “Oh you must have been here last month!” she exclaims. “Welcome back.” I smile and confirm that yes, in fact, I had been here last month and I was back for a second helping. For “here” was not just any weekend fête at the center of Chelsea’s shopping district; “Here” was the Frock Me! vintage fashion fair, a beloved gathering for the fashion-ccentrics of London to find the (not so) latest and greatest additions to their own vintage collections.
The typically spacious main room of Chelsea Old Town Hall today feels stuffy and crowded with vintage venders from across the country, selling clothes from across the globe. Each vendor has their own stall, with only a few tables and clothing racks. Despite the pared down set-up, every vendor has brought their best and (literally) brightest, cramming their stalls with garments of every color, fabric, and ornamentation imaginable. From heavy, jangling necklaces brought in from the Middle East to the preppy, chestnut wools of New England to scratchy and constricting undergarments of Edwardian England to the slippery silk of Japanese kimonos, the very fabric of fashion history seems to have been crumpled up and stuffed beneath the grand dome of the Town Hall, like some kind of magician’s trick.
The clinking of one hanger against the next collapses my very sense of time, space, and even decent taste. Between a starched tuxedo shirt and a woolly Irish sweater, my fingers land on a smooth, silky fabric. I pull it out to find a flimsy cardigan, loosely woven, in a lime green, aqua blue, and tangerine orange zigzag pattern. I fumble around looking for the tag in anticipation of my suspicions, to find that yes, indeed, it is an authentic Missoni from its Studio 54 heyday. Perhaps to many an ugly vestige of disco sensibilities, I know I’ve found a gem. I rush to try it on in the makeshift dressing room (read: a stall in the women’s restroom).
As I slip my arms through the thin sleeves and button up the front, I feel the Missoni story wash over me. Suddenly, it’s not raining outside, I’m not in London, and it’s not even October. Instead, I’m wearing nothing but the cardigan and a teeny bikini bottom on a beach in the south of France in 1975. On a much-needed vacation after a hazy summer in glittery cocktail dresses and bouncing from gallery shows to club nights and sleeping until noon, the ease of the sporty cardigan is both a welcome respite and a nod to the “haute-bohéme” sensibilities of the fashionable upper crust. Despite the dim lighting and grey walls of the bathroom stall everything in room seems just a bit brighter.
As I exit the stall to see myself in the mirror, a woman trying on a billowing skirt looks at me and gushes, “Oh, you look just like one of those teeny girls in the 70’s! They’re the only ones who could pull that off.” I thank her, and return to the stall, dizzy with styling ideas for the cardigan: paired with old 501 jeans and a glittery sandal; draped open over a tissue-thin tank top; tied up in the center with a long, silk skirt; tucked into white linen shorts with tall gladiator sandals…it’s a feeling with which I’m not unfamiliar on these sorts of fashion journeys: When discovering something old makes everything in my closet somehow feel new again.
Feeling affirmed in my choice and excited about my warm-weather outfit prospects, I return to the vendor to see what kind of damage my wallet will have to take. To my utter surprise and delight, she says, “That one’s 22 pounds. Do you need a bag?” Feeling as though I’ve just gotten away with something illegal, I hand her a £20 note and two coins and shove the cardigan into my now only mostly-empty tote.
After a few more perusals and purchases, I leave the fair just a few minutes before it’s set to close. Exhilarated by my finds, I ride the high of the successful fashion-hunter all the way down the road to a café. As I sit down and take off my coat, I run my hand over my head. Shocked, I realize the piece of scrap silk I had worn as a headband that day has fallen off. Looking around me, I figure out that it must have come off while trying on some clothes at the fair. I resign myself to the karmic balance of it all: just as a lovely garment enters my life, so something else must go. Nothing left to say but, “Frock Me!”