Fashion History Talks! In conversation with Janine of Guermantes Vintage

“For me vintage clothing fuses these two ideas — the power of a transportive essential memory, and the magic and sublime quality of art, the mythic quality that clothing can impart to its wearer.”

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 9.49.20 PMFor the longest time, I associated the term “vintage” with only the most accessible of period garments. I often come upon cotton shift dresses from the 1960s in my local thrift store, even 1950s dresses can be purchased at any local Buffalo Exchange! And yet, in all the times I used to speak about vintage clothing, I never once considered pieces from the 1920s or 1930s, instead assigning those rare items a museum-worthy status. il_fullxfull.989183928_g9uhThe garments and accessories from these bygone eras were unattainable in my mind, meant to be admired but never worn… That is, until I came across @guermantesvintage, the Instagram for the Etsy store of the same name. No cotton 1960s shifts here, shop owner Janine’s store is reserved for only the most rare and divine of pieces, hand-selected by Janine herself with many coming from her personal collection. Heartbreakingly beautiful, mouth-watering sweet, emotion-invokingly beautiful–only a few of the  phrases that come to mind every time I browse Janine’s Instagram or online shop where at any one time, one can find a 1930s Vionnet day dress or a 1920s Halloween costume. Janine’s discerning eye is as playful as it is seductive and her collection runs the gamut from 1970s Zunitoon rings (“Zuni tribe Native-American made silver and inlaid stone rings depicting popular cartoon characters”) to exceptionally-rare WWII silk lingerie sets sent home by soldiers stationed overseas to their sweethearts at home. Janine most recently made her archives available on an online museum and, lucky for us, she recently took the time to answer some questions from The Art of Dress!

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 10.04.12 PMWhy is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? When I first started my business back in 2012 I was really inspired by Proust’s ideas about memory, and the power of an object (like the famous Madeleines, for example) to have a transportive power. I feel that historic textiles has a similar effect and power. Clothing is pregnant with cultural information and additionally carries the mark and essence of those who created and owned it.

Proust also notably wrote about the transportive power of clothing through his narrator’s obsession with the Duchesse de Guermantes (who, by the way, was inspired by the real-life Countess Greffulhe, whose incredible wardrobe was the subject of twin exhibitions in Paris and in New York this past year! I nearly cried when I saw it!) This obsession was hinged largely on her exquisite clothing, which was as powerful to him as a great work of art.Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 10.04.55 PM

For me vintage clothing fuses these two ideas — the power of a transportive essential memory, and the magic and sublime quality of art, the mythic quality that clothing can impart to its wearer. I get a lot of questions about the name “Guermantes.” The name represents my feelings about vintage textiles and their importance, both as signifiers and as art objects.

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 9.44.34 PMIn your opinion, is fashion art? I personally do see pieces in my collection as art, definitely. but I don’t think the label of “art” in this case so significant. Textiles are incredibly important, fascinating, and beautiful, whether they are referred to specifically as ART or not. In my experience, fashion and textiles are at least as moving and emotionally and aesthetically impactful as great works of fine art.

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1930s Halloween costume recently for sale on GuermantesVintage on Etsy.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: I’m not big into labels and designers, generally, and I admit I don’t follow modern fashion at all. I do really love Lanvin’s robes de style and Worth’s evening gowns. But in my own collecting I definitely prefer unusual examples of everyday clothing, often handmade by the original owner. I’m obsessed with antique circus and Halloween costumes for example. My current holy grail item is an original lingerie set made of silk WWII escape maps. I’ve been looking for one for the longest time. I only know of a couple examples: one set owned by the Imperial War Museum, and a few pieces in the Museum of London collection. I have a huge collection of WWII lingerie from east Asia, which soldiers stationed abroad would send home to their sweethearts. Those pieces are so much more special to me than any of the designer pieces I’ve had.

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One of many rare sets of WWII lingerie sets in Janine’s personal collection.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? I love Beauty in Exile, by Alexandre Vassiliev. It’s a great book about the impact and contribution of Russian emigrees to the fashion world in the early 20th century. I was a Russian major in college so it’s really the perfect book for me. A lot of designers and houses that were quite influential and created beautiful work have largely been forgotten.

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1920s dress featured in the online museum at GuermantesVintage.com.

If you could recommend one movie for the period costumes alone, what would it be? Salome (1923) comes to mind. The overall aesthetic of that movie is really surreal and cool. Very unusual costumes and set design. The costumes were designed by Natacha Rambova and inspired by Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings for Oscar Wilde’s play.

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