What’s old is new

Places to find vintage clothing

By Lucy Barber
Globe Correspondent / August 13, 2009

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Maybe it’s the imminent return of “Mad Men.’’ Or our desire to dress impressively for less. But vintage just feels current right now, modern. It’s a paradox, we know, but one we’ll live with. Boston’s vintage boutiques cover everything from turn-of-the-century trends to Ziggy Stardust glam, and each brings its own flare to the secondhand scene. Here, we tour a few favorites, and give you the inside scoop on where the deals are.

SoWa Antiques Market
540 Harrison Ave, Boston.

What you’ll find: Some textiles here, but mostly vintage jewelry.

Insider tip: Repeat visits pay off since vendors change every week.

Everyone knows an outfit is just a sketch without accessories. A look can only reach its potential once all the finishing touches are in place, and with the bounty of local vintage boutiques, a little flourish is all you need.

SoWa Antiques Market will do the rest. Every Sunday through Oct. 25 (except Sept. 6) dealers set up camp inside the massive brick trolley barn right behind the SoWa outdoor market. The revolving lineup of vendors keeps visitors on their toes and each week brings a new crop of baubles and bling.

Bartering is an essential here, unlike at local vintage boutiques. Don’t be scared off by the asking prices. Playing it cool and a little sweet talking usually do the trick. Dealers are always eager to tell you the story behind pieces: You might hear about the rise of Art Deco or the history of commemorative hair jewelry. Enjoy it. The fervor and eccentricities of the vendors are almost as noteworthy as their collections.

Bobby From Boston
19 Thayer Street, Boston. 617-423-9299.

What you’ll find: Predominantly garb from the 1920s through 1960s (think Prohibition parties and English Mods), with select pieces from the Edwardian era.

Insider tip: Bobby’s starts stocking cool weather merchandise around the end of August. Also, don’t forget to drop by on Saturdays. That’s when new clothing comes back from the cleaners and is out on the floor.

A shadow box with starched white collars, lined up like pinned Monarchs, hangs next to a turn-of-the-century billiard table. Bobby From Boston, the South End shrine to gentlemanly elegance, does more than sell apparel; the shop connects patrons to a bygone era.

The personal devotion of owner Bobby Garnett is apparent simply in the duration of the shop. “The owner has always been in love with European haberdashery types of stores,’’ says employee and vintage enthusiast Matthew Freeman.

In one corner is a glass box encasing a child-size cowboy costume complete with tiny boots and badge from the 1950s. The ensemble is not for sale and is simply a contribution from Garnett’s collection of vintage curios. While Bobby’s specializes in menswear, a second room has a smaller array of women’s dresses, vintage heels, prep-school uniforms, and bathing suits (including a striking red one-piece a la Rita Hayworth for $20). For men, the selection is overwhelming: vintage alpaca sweaters in candy shop colors, dead-stock Levi’s jeans, and ’40s and ’50s two- and three-piece suits ($150-250).

In addition to the store, Garnett also has an offsite warehouse that operates on an appointment-only basis. However, employees are dedicated to fit, so if a customer has no luck with in-store sizing, Bobby’s personnel search the warehouse for a suit with the right measurements. For 25 years, Garnett has helped men move beyond their cutoffs and Red Sox tees, fitting them with white dinner jackets that would merit a Daisy Buchanan seal of approval.

22a College Avenue, Somerville. 617-776-3708.

What you’ll find: A few choice Depression-era frocks, with a focus on ’70s garb and ’90s grunge florals (and everything in between).

Insider tip: Owner Amy Berkowitz’s e-mail blasts are a great way to stay on top of sales and in-store happenings. Sign up at the counter.

Urban Outfitters has surpassed its original purpose as a clothing store. It’s now selling the hipster lifestyle in one convenient, moderately overpriced location. Racks of lamé leggings stand next to Talking Heads records and collections of stories by Vladimir Nabokov. Driven less by commercial concerns and more by passion, Berkowitz has created her own one-stop haven of cool in Somerville’s Artifaktori.

In addition to men’s and women’s clothing, Artifaktori stocks vintage household goods, such as handsome antique dressers and kitschy clocks. The Prince record blasting through the store speakers can also be yours.

But all of this is trimming. The real prize is Berkowitz’s collection of vintage dresses. Everything is organized by size, which saves shoppers the heartbreak of falling in love with an XXS when they fit more comfortably into a medium.

One of the unique aspects of Artifaktori is its rack of refashioned fashions. Local designers take relic rock ’n’ roll tees and ’40s shift dresses and make them into skirts and halters; the items have the charm of antiquity with a contemporary twist. And in keeping with the vintage creed, no two pieces are alike: The 60-year-old dress - converted into a bubble skirt by designer D’ama - is one of a kind.

Artifaktori also carries a bounty of boots, like the ’70s Campus pair ($75) that would go well with any of the shop’s sweet cotton dresses. Since opening its doors over a year ago, Artifaktori’s clothing crop has blossomed. What started as self-contained back corner has grown to fill most of the small store.

40 South Street
40 South Street, Jamaica Plain. 617-522-5066.

What you’ll find: Some ’60s loot but mostly lapels so big, they scream ’70s chic.

Insider tip: Check the website. 40 South is fond of half-price days and keeps their website up-to-date on new arrivals.

One minute you’re strolling down Jamaica Plain’s main drag, perhaps on the way to the Arnold Arboretum or Forest Hills Cemetery to commune with Anne Sexton or e.e. cummings, and the next, as if by some magnetic tug, you’ve traveled back to a time when people are arguing the merits of Christine McVie over Stevie Nicks.

40 South Street is the love child of two JP vintage institutions: Otto Johnson’s Gumshoe, a clothier for the gents, and Honeyspot, where former buyer Hilken Mancini honed her vintage scouting skills. Now, 40 South accommodates both under one kitschy roof.

In one fell swoop, couples can be outfitted in matching Members Only jackets ($30-35). Pearled snap-buttoned shirts and corduroy slacks are a store staple. Throw in one of 40 South’s oversized belt buckles and the look is a delightful middle ground between modern-day hipster and casual Friday Gram Parsons.

“There’s something comforting’’ about the ’70s aesthetic, Mancini says.

Even those with an aversion to polyester will be converted once immersed in the 40 South Street world.

A playlist that includes Chicken Shack and Joni Mitchell drowns out the din of traffic while the world of rainbow terrycloth dresses ($20) and tooled leather boots with multicolored stitching ($48) pulls you into its psychedelic arms.

Cafe Society
131 Cypress Street, Brookline. 617-738-7186.

What you’ll find: The sorts of dresses that keep the otherwise television-phobic coming back for another season of “Mad Men.’’

Insider tip: New items arrive on a daily basis, and fall fashions will be out on the racks mid-September. Also, shoppers with specific requests (i.e. a 1920s top hat) are encouraged to leave their name and number so they can be alerted if their Holy Grail is found.

Betsy Brooks’s Cafe Society delivers the sort of euphoria some describe having after intense exercise or near-death experiences. The small store is rife with pristine party dresses from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. It is truly breathtaking.

And then, there are the price tags. Brooks keeps her merchandise so reasonably priced that it’s difficult not to walk away with an armful of bags. It’s no wonder that after 28 years the shop continues to thrive with loyal clientele.

Brooks makes sure that her clothing is wearable by all. Many who’ve dipped their toes in the vintage pool can attest to the lack of larger sizes (larger meaning something bigger than a 25-inch waist) and how discouraging it can be. Cafe Society is stocked with lovely pieces in a modern day 10 or 12, with sizes up to 18 and 20 upon request. And these are not matronly outfits but glamorous dresses that celebrate, and showcase curves. There’s also a supply of summer-ready cotton dresses ($25-$35) that, when paired with one of the store’s boater hats, would demand a trip to the boardwalk or county fair.

A trip to Cafe Society isn’t complete until shoppers have found themselves elbow-deep in the $3 bin.

With everything from leftover fabric to little button-up tops, it’s rare not to find one (or 10) worthy keepers.