My Style Icon, My Iconic Style - A Short Story
By Jennifer Pellechio-Lukowiak
I wear your granddad's clothes…I look incredible. I'm in this big ass coat, from that thrift shop down the road. I wear your granddad's clothes - I look incredible - from that thrift shop down the road.”
-Macklemore “Thrift Shop”
Thrift shop. Vintage boutique. Second hand store. Call it whatever you like; either way it boils down to pre-worn apparel, or as I like to say, clothing with history. Garments, that once slipped on, take you on a journey. They allow you to take on a slightly new edge or different persona. Maybe it’s who you want to be, who you are becoming, or perhaps, the essence of someone that once was; enveloping you in his or her cast-offs. I love to shop vintage. It’s the thrill of the find, the coup of owning something that no one else has. I often find myself looking past the investment pieces for the pieces that have character. Pieces that have a story to tell. Why? Because fashion with history is in my DNA.
My Meema Pearl was my first style icon. As a child, growing up in the 1970’s, I spent most of my weekends at her house. I loved leafing through her photo albums, looking at the many branches of our family tree in the preserved photographs from the forties and fifties. One person in those photos was always a stand-out, Pearl, my grandmother. Dressed to perfection and always coordinated right down to the wrap around her shoulders, the gloves on her hands and the purse on her arm. Her olive skin smooth and ageless, her thick chocolate brown hair swept up, rolled and pinned in place, and often, an enormous pair of sunglasses resting just below her brow, she was always posed and poised in every picture. I marveled at those pictures wanting to know more such as the color of the dress dress she wore when she took her first airplane trip or the bathing suit she donned at camp with her friends. She always knew, and she would describe it in such detail it was almost like those old black and white photos became a brilliant Technicolor right before my eyes; like Dorothy going from her dull Kansas life to the vibrancy of Oz. She always remembered too, what she wore at any given event. Her first date with my grandfather? A light blue crepe de Chine dress with a white beaded Peter Pan collar. Her first day at work? A brown worsted wool dress and platform pumps. She never forgot even the smallest of details. What earrings she wore, how she styled her hair, which purse she carried. In my mind’s eye I would try to imagine what life was like for her as a young girl; a teenager that had hopes of becoming a teacher but instead had to drop out of high school just months shy of graduation to help support her family as our country came out of the Great Depression. I'd always ask about her life as an office worker before she married my grandfather, before she had children, before she was my Meema. She would giggle as she reminisced about how, in her youth, she would come home from work and sew up an outfit, by hand, to wear out that evening with her friends.
I remember sitting on the living room floor in her little Cape Cod style home digging through boxes of her enormous collection of costume jewelry and watching her as she laid out a doubled over rectangle of fabric on the scratchy and well-worn rug. After a few quick snips of her scissors and some well-placed straight pins the rectangle of fabric began to quickly morph into a caftan or a tunic. Meema would then sit at her dining room table, and stitch each seam by hand, her reading glasses perched at the end of her nose as she would deftly weave the sewing needle in and out of the fabric, while the characters from The Young and the Restless or General Hospital carried out their overwrought daytime dramas on the television that played in the background. I would sit next to her, amazed that indeed she would have a brand new outfit to wear in just a couple of hours.
Sometimes, on stifling hot summer days, after I'd turned my lips blue from eating too many popsicles and exhausted myself swinging on the branches of the backyard mimosa tree, Meema would take me downstairs into her cool damp basement and sift through the treasures she had amassed over the years. Spaghetti-strapped prom gowns bursting with crinolines, pointy toed pumps in nearly every color imaginable, feather boas, tiaras, and tailored dresses that could be mapped on a fashion timeline. That dark cellar housed closets, wardrobes, and trunks chronicling my family's events in crepes, satins, and laces.
During my teen years I would visit for dinner and grab a bracelet or a scarf or a purse before I left. "Take whatever you want," she would always say, and after I found my treasure, she would tell me where she got it, how much it cost and what event she wore it to.
By the mid-1980’s my friends and I were growing up quick in a suburb of New Jersey, just outside of New York City. It was simple enough by bus, car, or train to get into the city when our quaint little town became a little too stifling for our MTV-esque personalities. Greenwich Village, Canal Street, and St. Marks beckoned and those neighborhoods were where we felt we belonged, my grandmother gave me the thirst for vintage fashion and I had found my watering hole. We shopped, we walked, we smoked, we drank, and we shopped some more. The Antique Boutique was the fashion Mecca of all things ‘Village’ and always my first stop, like an annex of my Meema's basement it was filled with clothing that had a past, a memory, a story to tell. It's where I purchased the single most important piece of clothing I own which currently hangs in my closet some 30 years later, still fits, and makes smile every time I see it, whether I pull it out to wear or shuffle past it as I am digging for something else.
I remember the first time I saw it, I was weeding through a rack of jackets. Let me clarify that, I was weeding through a rack of men's jackets with enormous shoulder pads. It was the 1980’s after all and bigger always meant better. The lining caught my eye first, intricate paisleys in swirling shades of cobalt blue, emerald green and bright yellow blending together to form a riotous print; it was unique, in a time when unique was good. The jacket itself was jet black, boxy cut, and double breasted with smooth fabric covered buttons. The body was constructed from a subtlety textured silk in a diagonally cut ottoman weave. It's lapels, by contrast, were a smooth and sleek satin. My grandmother taught me well, I recognized quality immediately. I knew it was special as I was pulling it off the hanger to try it on, though whomever owned this jacket previously must have been a very short, stocky, oddly shaped fellow with disproportionately short arms. However, on a punk looking sixteen-year-old girl in a faded blue Sex Pistols tee shirt, pegged jeans and bright red Chucks, it totally worked and it transformed me instantly. It gave me a look that was much more city, less suburbs. It made feel older than my years. It built up my self-esteem and allowed me to have the confidence to pursue my dream of studying fashion. Because until I bought that jacket, I was just another bubble gum popping kid trying to figure out who she was.
The jacket was marked at fifteen dollars, “half of a custom tuxedo set” said the purple haired woman at the counter. Somewhere in that shop, there were pants that matched, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what those pants looked like, and it didn’t matter, I wanted that jacket. I negotiated her down to ten dollars and went on to seek out the next treasure.
For the entire train ride home I fiddled with the sleeves, making sure they were cuffed just right to showcase the lining which became an accessory framing not just the jacket but also the stacked black rubber bracelets and Swatch watches that collected upon my slim wrists. I couldn’t wait to show it to my Meema and when I did, she looked at it and exclaimed, "Now that's a jacket!" No doubt it appealed to her appreciation of well-made clothes.
"Wait right here," she said, as she padded off down that hall to her bedroom.
In her closet, was where the real prize items were stored, she immediately dug out an old dress of hers, one that was a rich russet brown color and covered with black pineapples that she had embellished herself with jet black sequins, it was sleeveless and had a fitted top which nicely balanced it's voluminous skirt. She handed it to me and said that I could have the dress to wear with the jacket. The dress fit me like a glove and my new jacket complimented it perfectly. I knew I had a great pair of patent leather kitten heel pumps and a little beaded clutch purse at home to complete the look.
After getting my grandmother's seal of approval I wore the jacket with relish. Every one of my girlfriends coveted it and all the guys that I hung out with thought it was pretty cool too. It became my uniform, my look, my comfort zone when I knew I had a challenging day ahead, and my armor when my confidence was a little low. I even wore it to my college interview. There are memories stitched into every seam, not just mine but those of the gentleman that owned it before me too. I like to think, maybe he'd purchased it for a once in a lifetime event, his wedding, perhaps his child’s wedding, a glamorous awards show, or maybe a political fund-raiser. I’m not privy to his memories but in that jacket, I made plenty of my own, that jacket had swag, it was bold, and in it I became bold too.
I wore it with a threadbare Mooshka tee shirt, ripped jeans, and black Doc Martens; a pack of Marlboro’s tucked into the inside breast pocket, while drinking under-age at a bar in Boston over spring break. I wore it to my college homecoming dance in Philadelphia with a very slinky vintage black satin slip dress and sky-high pumps, two fat perfectly rolled joints tucked in the hip pocket and when I seduced my college crush, I wore it with little more than a fiery red lace bra peeking out between the lapels while a Cheshire cat grin graced my twenty year-old face.
I know some women who will wax nostalgic about a vintage Chanel jacket they snapped up for a fraction of the price that has withstood the test of time, or a Balenciaga dress that was handed down from an incredibly stylish aunt who lived for years in Paris, or perhaps a one of a kind pair of Schiaparelli gloves bought at auction. For me, it's a ten dollar jacket that helped make me who I am today, a confident, stylish woman with just a little bit of edge.
I still wear it occasionally to work or out for drinks on the weekends. Every time I grab it I give it the once over. I glance at the tiny cigarette burn near bottom right front pocket flap, a scar left over from a wild night at a long gone rock club called Mothers. I remember wearing it with a makeshift veil in a DJ booth at my bachelorette party. I remember spending long summer days with my Meema learning about fashion. I remember being sixteen years old again and having a few extra bucks to spend on a beautiful day in New York City.