For many years I celebrated the arrival of summer in New York by removing my bra and knickers and not wearing them again until the first chill days of late September. Freedom was a silk 1940s dress worn to the knee, wild flowing hair, platform sandals, red lipstick, a woven shoulder bag and nothing else.
Needless to say, I stood on the Subway instead of sitting. And I stood very still. And of course, being summer, there was a man involved; an assignation somewhere deeply 'downtown' or 'beyond'. One rarely goes uptown in a dress with a fallen hem.
Alexa Chung talks vintage clothes
Meeting a lover in an old dress, a dress worn down to the rusty zipper by some wild turn in a dance-hall or a hundred Sundays in church, gave me a sense of euphoria. I liked to boast to myself that this was the old frock's last stand and her greatest moment: threadbare but fused with heat, perfumed by humidity and a stain of Shalimar under each arm.
My mother taught me to wear old dresses by wearing them herself, along with bright cheap plastic buttons hand-sewn down the front, broad Indian leather belts, and nothing but a silk slip underneath. 'Nobody knows but you!' she'd say with a wink, teaching me, once again, the pleasure of taking liberties on the sly.
We assume that women of the past were more stitched-up in their intimate apparel, but it isn't so. Try on a pair of camiknickers from the 1930s. It feels like wearing nothing but two fluttering rayon petals on each cheek, with a gusset that fastens in the middle and not much more than a prayer, and the air, between nudity and the world.
My mother's discovery of vintage lingerie in the late 1960s gave her a devil-may-care attitude towards knickers and foundation garments in general. 'Anything tighter,' she said with a sniff, 'is bad for your health.' So we routinely traipsed, loose as wood nymphs, about the house in baggy cotton pinafore slips, depression-era tap-dancing shorts with silk camisoles, and Edwardian nightgowns. And it was in this spirit that I wore my vintage dresses in the summers of my twenties and early thirties.
But of course old dresses and no knickers are a younger woman's game. Gravity, and good sense, comes to claim us all later on. On the day I went to meet my husband for our first real encounter I wanted to wear a black chiffon granny dress with tiny pearl buttons all the way down the front over a black satin slip. But I lacked courage and wore a new pleated skirt and sleeveless silk blouse instead. No bra. But knickers, definitely knickers.
I wish I could say I fell in love in nothing but a fragile rag of a dress, but I needed stronger armour than that. I was 35. Too old for costumes or play-acting at emotion. Vintage clothes ask a woman to be an actress or, even naughtier, a con woman.
An old dress worn right will evoke a film, a photograph, or a painting. An old dress that suits your anatomy will make your body sing, curving over your hips, cupping your breasts, encircling your waist in a way that only amazingly cut and sewn fabric can.
I still wear old dresses, gingerly. When a woman approaches the vintage of the clothes she wears, or assumes the imagined or actual life experience of a film-noir housewife, 1950s television mother or ageing Raymond Chandler librarian, she must choose her references wisely. I cannot wear lace collars, heavy shoulder pads, beaded cardigans or 1960s floral day-dresses with any dash or irony at all. The lines around my mouth, the silver in my hair and a shred of dignity bar the way.
Yet I can still indulge in a beautiful opera coat, a soft felt hat (without flowers), a well-cut silk dress but with plenty of underwear (bright tights preferably), and a very smart modern bag. There is a moment for every fashion when it goes from being a statement to being a relic. The secret of wearing vintage is to refine what suits you as you change instead of ageing along with the clothes you choose.
At 21 an old dress was a rebellion. At 41 it simply needs to look good. Poetic statement (and underwear) optional.