Playing Dress-up with Bowline Style

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Tara Gragg recently relocated from Michigan to Newport, Rhode Island.  She founded Bowline Style in 2015 to combat the effects of “fast fashion” on a local level and to help people create wardrobes full of timeless, quality designs.  Bowline Style will debut as a weekly vendor at the outdoor market Field of Artisans in South Kingstown, Rhode Island on June 13th.

I still remember my favorite childhood dress-up outfit: an eggplant-hued satin bridesmaid’s gown, complete with puff sleeves, a full skirt, and a few splotchy spilled-drink stains from what had surely been a lively wedding reception.  My grandmother’s closet was full of my aunt’s (awful, garish, 1980’s) bridesmaid’s dresses, but for some reason the purple satin one was my favorite; its silhouette best lent itself to my imagination.  I would pair it with a lace parasol and white gloves, pretending to be a proper Victorian lady.

My love of dress-up has always informed my choices, whether I was aware of it or not.  My current career as a professional ballet dancer was at least partially fueled by the allure of beautiful costumes and portraying a character, so my life in Newport, Rhode Island as a member of the Island Moving Company is a dream come true for me.  Not only do I get to dance for a living, but the company often performs in unconventional and wondrous venues such as Rosecliff Mansion, the setting for the original movie version of The Great Gatsby. Wild, windswept oceanscapes coexist with opulent Gilded-Age mansions, and the intrigue of history lies beneath every surface.

The ample opportunities in Newport to take active part in this history certainly spurred my transition into ballerina-moonlighting-as-vintage-purveyor.  The arrival of summer heralds estate sale season, and my first Newport estate sale was an experience I’ll never forget.

Early on a Friday morning, I arrived at a huge Victorian house known as Restmere, built for Alexander Van Rensselaer in 1857.  I’d come across an online listing for an estate sale at this home, with instructions to pick up a number at 7am in order to be admitted an hour later.  It was a gorgeous day, so to pass the time I leaned against my car and read How to Get Dressed by Alison Freer, an excellent book that would soon prove to be a great deal of help to me.  A fascinating assortment of people stood waiting: an old man cracking jokes to anyone who would listen while trying to sidle up for a better look at the items spread across the lawn; a mother caught muttering, “you might have to be late for school this morning!” to her young daughter; two middle-aged British women hashing out some heated gossip concerning a mutual friend.

Finally, one of the workers overseeing the estate sale came onto the porch to let everyone in.  I must admit, the atmosphere of excitement that they’d managed to cultivate was impressive – people were practically squeezing through the door by threes.  While most of the sale-goers rushed to look over the furniture and collectible art, I paused in the hallway to take everything in for a moment, clutching my paper slip with the number 14.  I hadn’t known what to expect, but clearly an incidental treat of coming to the sale was gaining access to this gorgeous historic home.  Wood paneling lined the walls, giving way to 12-foot-high ceilings.  A glance up the roped-off staircase revealed a glimpse of a jewel-toned stained glass window.

At the end of the hallway, a set of French doors opened into a lovely, spacious room.  I struggled to contain my excitement when I saw what filled the room: racks and racks of achingly beautiful women’s clothing.  Silk and brocade robes, velvet cloaks and skirts, delicate blouses, and dress after wonderful dress passed beneath my fingertips.  Never before had I seen such a parade of fantastic garments; it was a vintage seller’s dream come true.  I bought the items I was sure would be gone by the next day, taking a gamble by leaving some for the following days, during which prices would become negotiable.  I spent perhaps twenty minutes mulling over a long velvet Oscar de la Renta skirt with pockets, caving in after slipping it over my shorts and tank top to find that it fit me perfectly.

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That first day was nothing short of magical, and when I returned over the next two days I got to know the men and women running the sale and Shirley, the owner of the house.  Shirley began to tell me the stories behind some of the clothing (one dress was the last outfit a young woman had worn before entering a convent to become a nun; the convent then sold these dresses to raise money for charity).  When she saw how ecstatic I was to find a 1945 program from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, she pulled me aside and took me up the closed-off staircase to show me a painting of a 1920s showgirl that hung outside her bedroom.  I felt so fortunate to meet her and catch a glimpse into her life, and in return she was thankful to see her old possessions go to someone who cared about them.

I returned home with a cache of incredible clothing – now what?  Some of the dresses had stains, and all were slightly wrinkled and smelled of moth balls.  I flipped through How to Get Dressed to hunt down some solutions.  To tease out odors, I first employed a trick I’ve been using for a while, misting them with a spray bottle filled with equal parts vodka and distilled water.  I found that what really helped, though, was using a steamer.  Alison preaches the gospel of the steamer in her book, and after trying it myself, I’m definitely a believer.  Not only did using a steamer remove wrinkles from items too delicate to assault with an iron, but I could smell the musty scent evaporating right out of the fabric.  Her suggestion of a combination of gentle laundry detergent and peroxide also worked wonders on one particularly hopeless-looking stain.  I would highly recommend How to Get Dressed as a resource for clothing care alone, but it’s full of advice on a multitude of wardrobe-related topics.

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Perhaps I’m still that six-year-old playing dress-up at my grandmother’s house, because my favorite part of wearing vintage clothing is having a story in my mind – real or imagined.  I’ve refined my personal style a bit, moving past my penchant for gaudy 80’s bridesmaid’s dresses, but at heart nothing has changed.

Catch up with Tara at Bowline Style (loving the jewelry!), her blog, on Instagram, and Facebook.

Image credit: Tara Gragg

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