A number of threads in my life wove themselves together in recent days and it was all about shopping downtown. The New Yorker ran an article by Patricia Marx that name-checked the old punk boutique Bonnie and Clyde—it was on Chapel Street, I think in the space where Wave Gallery is now. The article was talking about a boutique in Chicago that's named after the store (which they said was in Stamford, but really I think they meant New Haven, unless there was a sister store in Stamford I'm not remembering) and I thought, "Man, Bonnie and Clyde. I've got stuff from there." And I do—I have a dress I still wear, and a military-issue shoulder bag that I last used two weeks ago. Bonnie and Clyde was, I think the first place I bought Manic Panic at—hair dye—a habit I found very hard to break.
Then the other weekend I was at Fashionista. If you don't know about Fashionista—well, maybe you don't care, if you're someone who isn't interested in buying other people's old clothes, shoes, jewelry, or cigarette cases—well, ok, but: Fashionista is just something to behold. It's a vintage clothing store run by Nancy Shea and Todd Lyon and it's a more spacious and better lit version of the Ritz, which was a vintage clothing store on Broadway once upon a time. Need an old tuxedo? They're there for you. Ball gown? Not a problem. Kicky little sheath dress? Purple suede elbow-length gloves to go with the sheath dress (or the tuxedo, for that matter)?
You simply never know.
I bought a dress at Fashionista few years ago. I get compliments on it all the time. But it's the damnedest article of clothing I own: it is made out of an old leopard print bathrobe. I love it. It's frumpy and amazing at the same time. When it falls apart—which it will, one of these days; how long can a bathrobe really last?—I will be heartbroken.
So I was at Fashionista a few days ago talking with Nancy and Todd about Bonnie and Clyde, which they remembered, and suddenly Todd said, "Wait, I've gotta show you something." She ran to a rack of men's overcoats and pulled out a coat that had an interesting label on it. I wish I could remember now exactly what it said, but it said that it was made for the Edward Malley Company, a department store that used to be right across the street from where Fashionista is now located (on lower Church). The line of clothing was something like "The Churchstreeter." I guess it was a particular line of men's outerwear or something. Todd cradled the coat and said, "Look: it came home."
For some years I've been acquiring clothes at second hand shops in part because I liked the clothes but also because I liked the labels, which told their own version of the history of retail in downtown New Haven. I have a dress (I wore it to a prom in 1985 I think) from Kramer's—I bought it at a second hand shop State Street. If you ask nicely maybe I'll show you a picture of me wearing it—high necked, but slit to here, head to toe paisley and head to toe sequins. It's a nightmare. I'm never going to sell it. I'd like to be buried in it, if possible. It's a great dress made all the more dear by the Kramer's label.
I've got a shirt from the Arthur Rosenberg company; they used to give J. Press a run for their money. I've got an overcoat from Gentree's, from before Gentree's was a restaurant—it was a men's clothing store. (Now, of course, it is nothing; Yale tore down the building and it's, I don't know, part of the new art building or something.) I have a hatbox from the Edward Malley company, as well as a very lovely cotton button down shirt from them.
Small shops no longer have products with their own labels in them. You don't buy a dress from Hello Boutique that has a label sewn in saying "Hello Boutique - New Haven." But it used to be clothes were marked that way. You can find very fine quality jackets with labels that seem improbable now: "Manufactured for ... in Derby, Connecticut." Derby, Connecticut?
I hope someone in Derby is collecting clothing labels, too.