Obsolete or not: Its in the eyes of the beholder

A few months ago I found a treasure trove of right-size-for-me vintage dresses at an estate sale on Dupont Avenue. They had belonged to the mother of an elderly gentleman who had recently passed away. I bought eight of them: two delicate silk print suits, a pale pink linen suit, a deep rose rayon dress with gorgeous black embroidered detailing, a light violet lace dress, and several cool print cotton dresses with skirts cut full enough for a little twirling action. I paid about $50 for all of them.

I was especially thrilled to get them because it’s rare to find beautiful vintage dresses for my size 14 woman’s body that aren’t matronly — if you can find them at all. I calculated that the dresses had to be close to 60 years old and I’m sure they hadn’t been worn in at least 30 years. I was happy to get them because I knew I would probably start consulting soon (I closed Fairy Godmother in January) and these lovely vintage pieces would provide a nice wardrobe transition for me since I’ve been wearing ball gowns to work for six years. They are quirky, lovely and acceptable in the kinds of places where I’ll be working.

Well-made, quirky loveliness is why I love going to estate sales. Often the quality of the workmanship and materials in estate sale things, even if decades old, is better than a lot of what you can buy today. And often, too, you can feel the energy, or loved-ness, in a piece — be it a dress, a teacup and saucer, a curio, linens or a piece of furniture — well made, lovingly cared for and appreciated. These are the qualities I want in the “things” in my life, and in this case, in my closet; and I get great pleasure shifting through other people’s old stuff to find the cool stuff.

I recently listened to an interview of filmmaker Diane Bell discussing her film, “Obselidia.” It’s about an encyclopedia salesman who is on a quest to collect obsolete things so as to save them before they disappear. The movie apparently covers love, global warming and has a doomsday-yet-hopeful story line. I was of course attracted to the theme of collecting things that are considered obsolete, yet valuable and worthy nonetheless, like my vintage treasures.

Within a few days of hearing that NPR interview, I walked into the Blaisdell YMCA for my quick “run” on the elliptical machine and the young woman at the check-in counter looked at me and exclaimed, “Is that a cassette player? I haven’t seen one of those in a long time!” (My husband said I should have drolly said, “No, it’s a record player.”)

My Walkman cassette player with its radio feature works just fine playing my Boz Scaggs and Backstreet Boys tapes and I can tune into the TV shows playing on the surrounding screens with it; it’s not like I’m hauling an 8-track tape player around! I don’t even know if most iPods pick up a radio signal.

My cassette player dated? Yes. Functional and fine? Yes. And I’m proud, perhaps belligerently so, to still use something technologically antiquated but purpose-serving and in perfect working order.

And there’s a human part of my appreciation and advocacy of my old-but-fine, thank you very much perspective and I have another MPR story that delightfully speaks to it.

During the DFL convention last month, Joan Growe, former Secretary of State and former U.S. Senate candidate (1984), and George Latimer, former mayor of St Paul and former gubernatorial candidate (1986), were guest commentators for MPR during the gubernatorial endorsement contest in Duluth. They talked a lot about past endorsement battles and old candidates and campaigns. At one point, later in the morning, MPR’s Gary Eichten asked them both if they would ever consider running again. Joan Growe replied, “Oh no, we’re too old.” And Latimer guilelessly piped up and said, “Speak for yourself, I’m only 75!” Right on George!

Now, for the sake of truthful disclosure, I must share one last bit about my vintage dresses. Indeed, a few weeks ago I got a call to come interview for a consulting contract and I decided to wear one of the silk print suits. (It even has matching covered buttons.) I looked great in it but about an hour into the meeting one of the buttons popped off, fortunately not in a strategically critical place, and when I climbed into the car after the meeting and reached to put my briefcase in the backseat, the shoulder sleeve seam split all the way across my back. The fabric just couldn’t hold up. I’ll never be able to wear it again but … for one important meeting I looked great in a dress that cost $6.25 and I had the honor of being in the final appearance of a dress that was beautiful, worthy and old.

Terre Thomas is a self-proclaimed fairy godmother. She closed her Southwest gift shop in early 2010 but continues with her online gift shop, FairyGodmotherOnline.com. She and her family live in the Lyndale neighborhood. She can be reached at [email protected]