Certain cities are haunted by the ghosts of incredible parties. It’s impossible to walk down West 54th Street in New York without imagining a disco beat or glitter underfoot. And while having a cocktail at the bar in the Plaza Hotel, I surrender to the fantasy of Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball – held there in 1966.
Party scenes from New York movies such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Valley of the Dolls – even the psychedelic bacchanal in Midnight Cowboy – feature immaculately dressed women. Their wardrobes range from chic to flamboyant to offbeat, and oh, how great they all look when they party. New York’s intoxicating mix of glamour, disco, sex and style continues to influence designer collections as well as fashion magazine editorials the world over. One of the reasons I get so excited about shopping for vintage fashion in New York is that here I can find a very particular style of cocktail dress. Two years ago I chanced upon a 1960s shift dress in heavy jade silk, embellished with coral beads and tassels. There’s nothing coy about it – it is a frock designed for dancing, drinking and fun.
An exciting place I’ve discovered for exquisite examples is Southpaw Vintage, a dress rental agency run by the charming Jeffrey Pattie with stylists Nick Michael and David Viccaro. The atmosphere in the studio is electric: the gowns, accessories and costume jewellery seem to vibrate with both history and possibility; each garment seems to promise a magical evening ahead. On a recent trip I spied a floor-length pleated silk chiffon gown hanging on the rail and immediately started to wonder what sort of woman I would become after I put it on. Fashion can change the way you feel about yourself, sure, but there is something uniquely potent about the transformative power of vintage. The charm – or reckless behaviour – of the previous owner is a mystery that can, quite literally, be inhabited.
What makes Southpaw extra special is the rock’n’roll aesthetic that informs Jeff’s collection (fans include Stella McCartney and Theodora Richards, as well as Kate Moss and Agyness Deyn). Even the most delicate lace gown in the boutique exudes a bohemian magnetism, and it is this quality that gives the collection an ultra-modern appeal. These dresses are not costumes but pieces of fashion history that can be styled to look as edgy as you dare. With close to 10,000 garments hanging from the rails in its Garment District studio, the crack team of stylists can put together an entire look for clients – and it will be flawless. For those looking to buy rather than hire, Julie Skinner is a name to know. Julie runs Postscript Couture, which recently relocated from Manhattan to Beverley Hills (and has an online retail space, too), but as about half of her clients are based in New York she regularly returns to the city for business. She is a long-term collaborator with super-stylist Patricia Field and her expertly chosen dresses are true investment pieces. With awards season in full swing, keep an eye out on the red carpet for some beautiful vintage gowns. They’ve been picked out by the experts.