As embarrassing as it may sound, Jennifer Jobst still likes to play dress up. Scavenging for vintage has always been her passion, often at the small clothiers and variety shops of her hometown of Pontiac, Illinois. So when a long-established downstate department store she'd frequented for years recently closed its doors, Jobst spoke with the owners about the fate of the inventory. Overstocked originals that never sold had been filling up storage for decades. Rather than let this rare collection fall prey to dispassionate liquidators, Jobst splurged. In all she purchased more than a thousand well-preserved pieces, complete with their original tags, bags, and boxes. "I spent all summer worrying about what was going to happen to these dresses," she says. "I felt I had to find them a home."
And so was born Party Dress, a store offering never worn women's dresses, suits, and accessories dating from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Jobst rented out a storefront on Lincoln just through the end of the holiday season to unload her racks of riches, which serve as an abbreviated primer of fashion chronology: a thrilling 30-year dash from the fitted waists of the 50s to the 70s' hip-hugger bells. These are the flash cards of generations of style: Bobbie Brooks cardigans of French angora, Jonathan Logan dresses in rhinestone and crepe, Ship 'n Shore blouses, hose by Van Raalte, and Perma-Lift brassieres, "the lift that never lets you down."
Unearthing the preserved garments holds more than retro appeal for the 40-year-old newcomer to retail. A 15-year veteran of film production, Jobst has served as wardrobe supervisor and assistant costume designer on more than 30 feature films, including The Fugitive, Home Alone, Cocoon II, and the recently revived Miracle on 34th Street. So how does dressing movie stars compare to clothing ordinary shoppers? "Entirely similar. When you're dressing an actor, it's really about trying to dress a character. You bring together elements they both can wear. And when you finally hit it, everybody's excited."
Gracing the front of the store is Jobst's collection of personal favorites: a salute to the little black dress of the 50s and 60s. Hourglass ornaments for cocktails and dancing, their only responsibility was to look good. One black chiffon number still bears a tag from the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, offering the purchaser free lessons in any of the latest dance crazes--including the watusi, the frugg, and the twist.
But while looks may count for a lot, Jobst imparts that the hidden charm of her collection is in the quality of the cut, my dear: hand stitching, intricate detailing, and yards of Moygashel linen and pure silk taffeta, now reserved for haute couture. Here, though, even the finest pieces only cost between $35 and $50.
Having built her stable of beloved dress-up treasures, the shopkeeper's only lament is watching them walk out the door. A strapless silk taffeta from 1958, based on an original design for Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, was bought up and waltzed out before Jobst could even try it on. It made a "shimmery" sound as it moved, she says with a sigh. "It's tough to see them go, sometimes."
Party Dress, at 2842 N. Lincoln, is open 1 to 8 Tuesday through Friday, 11 to 6 Saturday, and noon to 6 Sunday through December 31. Call 528-8857.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.