Kristina Louise wears pink mules old enough to be her mother. A 20-something Boisean with an addiction to honky-tonk and hair so platinum it glows, she is an old soul trapped in a disposable culture, one of a handful of vintage groupies enamored with the indelible aesthetics of bygone eras.
The pink shoes are one of hundreds of pairs in Louise's considerable stash. Portioned between two houses and a storage shed, the "big E" Levi's, rhinestone-studded cowboy shirts and piles of copper jewelry are part of a hobby that became a career that became a lifestyle. As a teenager, Louise was already part of the growing vintage trade in California, having learned from her parents the subtleties of "thrifting."
"At first, I was totally embarrassed to be seen at the Salvation Army, but then I realized the treasures that could be found for under $3 and re-sold for a shiny penny," she said.
As her tastes matured, so too did Louise's appreciation for the fashions of the 30s, 40s and 50s and the accompanying social attitudes. She learned to judge quality by feel, a skill that involves field experience and a natural eye for color, thread count and overall condition. Now a buyer for downtown Boise's Lux, a vintage clothing store that recently opened off of 5th and Main, Louise is responsible for sorting through the precious and semi-precious relics.
"The people who owned these clothes were taught to have and to hold, and their children grew up in an age of throwing away everything. There is romance in the idea of not walking out of the house in sweatpants, sitting down to enjoy a meal and really caring about the little things," she said, insisting that the craftsmanship of the clothes speaks to the values of the times.
Such values stereotypically include family, decency and jobs done right, and though popular culture has embraced the threads of old (i.e. red-carpet walkers in vintage couture and chain store copies of classic designs), few consumers don the mentalities that undercut their "retro" clothes.
"My Grandma Alice is 92-years-old, and she thinks I have my pants on backwards because the zipper is in the front," Louise said. "I don't just like the style, there's a feeling, a hollowness for that time—for what was wholesome and right. Maybe I was born into the wrong era. I do like living now; there's a lot of art and creativity, and people are doing great things with what Bill Haley gave them (or God or whatever) but you buy a shirt and wash it four times and it's done. Everything is mass-produced and people can't even fathom something handmade."
Defiantly chic, women like Toni Mendoza don't put anything on the rack that isn't hand-cut, dyed, beaded and sewn from authentic fabrics. She is another vintage junky, and her Hyde Park shop (Acquired Again Antiques) has been one of the best places to go for classic Americana for over 12 years. She started wearing 1940s clothes in the 1960s, a then gutsy fashion statement that changed her life.
"I went to a really conservative college. I got called into the Dean's office one day and asked to dress more 'appropriately.' It wasn't an issue of immodesty, my outfits were just outside the norm," she said. Rather than compromising her individuality, Mendoza left the school and went on to be involved in community theater. She began scouring thrift stores for costuming materials, and before she knew it, the basement of her three-story home was filled with old clothes.
"I knew I could never wear it all, so I loaded some of it into my van and went to LA to look for costume designers to sell to," she said. When she arrived, Mendoza chose the biggest ad in the phone book and knocked on the door of one of the grandest costume warehouses in the country. Much to her surprise, the owner not only wanted to see her stock but also bought half of what she had. "At the time, I couldn't believe it. I had no clue what I was doing, but then I went to a vintage trade show and met a whole genre of people who are part of the culture," Mendoza said, adding that despite biannual trips over the course of nine years, her supply never lost its richness.
As the market slowed, Mendoza decided to bring her business home. After a few small shows, she found a partner and opened a shop of her own. Since then, she has built a clientele of regulars and accidental buyers, both of whom wander back when they crave something really unique.
"I get a few people who really know vintage and appreciate its textures, but it's mostly people who don't know we're here that stumble in and come back," she said. Sometimes, high school girls (the majority of which are obsessed with bared midriffs and negative inseam skirts) pop in and think they've discovered a new style.
"They're looking for something different, old clothes that are trendy now, and they pick something up and think they've discovered it," she laughed. But whether her customers are extreme "nostalgists" like Kristina Louise or excitable teenyboppers bent on non-conformity, Mendoza truly enjoys passing on the heirlooms of past generations. "The joy is in finding something wonderful and then having someone come in and say: "Oh, that's wonderful," she said. "These 50-year-old clothes are in better shape than some of the new things I buy. It's like an Egyptian mummy—nothing is left of the body, but the little scraps of fabric are still there."
If Louise has anything to say about it, her collection will live a similarly long, glorified life even after she's gone. But until then, she has a plan. "When I turn 35, I'm going to wear a hat and gloves everyday," she said, "and maybe when I'm 50, I'll revert back to wearing sweaters."