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Elements of Style: vintage vendors converge on Oak Park

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In the winter of 1975, Jeanne Friedell, an art student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, stopped in at the local Ragstock outlet in search of something unusual to wear to an opening. Picking through the racks, she found a 50s-era black satin slip for three dollars. "I decided to wear it as a dress," says Friedell, who now owns the Oak Park boutique Thirty-One: Art and Vintage with Ellen Miles, another collector of antique threads. "It was cut on the bias and fit beautifully....I think I got the attention I wanted."

Postcollege Friedell managed an art gallery in Santa Fe for many years, and after she moved back to her hometown of Barron, Wisconsin, she started working as a librarian, which she still does. But she never lost her passion for vintage clothes. While living in Barron she regularly hit estate sales and auctions, then resold the pieces that didn't fit her at the River Falls Antique Mall. After she moved to the Chicago area four years ago to get her master's in library science at Dominican University, she scoured the western suburbs for deals and sold at places like Elgin's semiannual Antique Clothing, Jewelry, Textile, and Art Deco Show and Sale, often sharing space with Diane Landry, another dealer.

Two years ago, unhappy with how much show organizers charged dealers and wanting to stay closer to home, she and Landry started the Oak Park/Chicago-Area Vintage Show and Sale. While booth space at for-profit shows like the one in Elgin can run $300 or more, Friedell and Landry charged only $115 (they now charge $125), and decided to donate the proceeds from the door to the Oak Park Public Library, where Friedell now works. They got a deal on a second-floor ballroom in the Nineteenth Century Club, and to spread the word to their colleagues they advertised in local newspapers and put up flyers at flea markets such as the one in Kane County. Then they held their breath.

Twenty-four local dealers set up stalls for the first show, held in the fall of 2000. "Attendance wasn't as high as I had hoped; 500 people came," Friedell says. "But those that came must have really spent money because there wasn't a single dealer who complained about sales. That was encouraging." The two-day event raised $1,000 for the library.

After the second show, held the following spring, there were so many dealers on the waiting list Landry and Friedell decided they needed to expand. "It was a bit scary to take on more responsibility," says Friedell, but for this weekend, the fourth installment of the sale, they've taken over a dining room on the first floor of the building and upped the number of dealers to 40.

The event draws many Chicagoans and people from the northern suburbs, with some driving in from Wisconsin and Indiana. They're primarily--but not exclusively--women. "They're buying clothes from the 40s and 50s that are sturdy enough to wear," says Friedell. Clothes from these eras tend to be more wearable than clothes from the Victorian years through the 1920s for several reasons: They're not as old and damaged, larger sizes are available, and the fabrics tend to be stronger than their lacy Victorian counterparts.

Dealers this year include Chicago's Vintage Deluxe I, which carries a good selection of 1950s eyewear, and Vintage Deluxe II, with 40s and 50s attire for men and women. Jeanine Thomas will be selling "really exquisite Victorian jewelry and accessories," says Friedell, and Mr. Modern, a vendor well-known on eBay for its selection of midcentury modern furnishings, will sell vintage menswear.

Friedell's working full-time at the library, and her store just celebrated its one-year anniversary, but she and Miles will still be hawking their wares at the show. In addition to silk chemises from the 20s ($28), velvet and taffeta party dresses from the 50s ($55-$60), and shell clip-on earrings from the same era ($5), Friedell's got a stash of vintage fabric she and Landry recently picked up at a Western Springs house sale. "These two older ladies were fabric freaks," she says. "They just had bolts and bolts of fabric. We just had to put it in garbage bags to get it out of the way."

The Oak Park/Chicago-Area Vintage Show and Sale runs Friday, November 1, from 5 to 10 PM and Saturday, November 2, from 10 AM to 6 PM at the Nineteenth Century Club, 178 Forest in Oak Park. Admission is $4; call 708-848-4137 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

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