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Giving the gift of vintage

Made your list and checked it twice? For those who have been especially nice, I suggest vintage! Here are a few pointers.


giving vintage items as gifts

Always make sure the item is in excellent condition or has a great reason for not being in excellent condition (a vintage book marked up by the author would probably be a treasure).

Make it personal! Consider the birth year of the giftee, or some another significant year in that person’s life. Initials or name, hometown or another meaningful place are also good bets. Favorite activities, favorite color, artist, era or material—maybe something that belongs to a collection that the recipient already has (and isn't sick of!).

As much as you personally love something, remember it is a gift so think of the recipient’s own style (no shabby chic for a mid-century mod fancier!).

Allow yourself plenty of time to look around.

Combining vintage with new items makes old new again: How about your famous holiday bread wrapped in a vintage tea towel?

An item passed from one generation to the next can be very meaningful, especially if you add the history of the item—or even a photo—that gives context for the item.

My great grandmother’s locket was a very meaningful gift for me as a young person, especially with this photo of her wearing it included.

My great grandmother’s locket was a very meaningful gift for me as a young person, especially with this photo of her wearing it included.

Some vintage fashion gift hits

Fashion—whether new or vintage—may be the most difficult type of gift to give because it is so personal. Still, it can be the best gift to give! Thinking over my two decades of holiday seasons here at denisebrain, these are the vintage items sold as gifts most often:

Jewelry So many options! How about something Christmas-y like a vintage garnet necklace? Or a novelty brooch with the recipient’s favorite animal? Or an initial brooch?

Capes Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but you can see how a vintage-wearer would like one—very few fit issues! On Etsy, there are nearly 500 vintage plaid capes alone, and over 7,000 vintage capes in all! I own a vintage Pendleton tweed cape and I always get compliments when I wear it, so I found the same model to show you (bottom right in the collage below), available on Etsy now.

Hats For the man or woman who has everything (vintage), a hat can be a fantastic choice. A good quality vintage faux fur hat is a perennial favorite, as is a vintage fedora.

Robes Fairly easy to fit, and a woman can wear a man’s robe just fine, so there are many options. (Since they will be spending a lot of time in it make sure it is in truly great shape.) Silk and rayon kimono-style robes are having a fairly strong fashion revival, and you may as well find a vintage equivalent!

Scarves Not everyone wears every kind of scarf, but almost everyone wears some kind of scarf, whether of warm wool or fine silk. I just happen to have a few in my shop right now (wink, wink).

These items, being offered by other vintage sellers, are in my Etsy Giftable Vintage Fashion list:

BeFunky Collageb.jpg

In the accessory category, another current “hit item”—vintage train cases. Some use these for decorative storage, some even for (gasp!) travel. The kind with the mirror inside the lid is great for keeping and putting on makeup or hair products.

BeFunky Collage.jpg

Don't forget using any vintage gift wraps and ribbons you’ve been hoarding/saving to add the finishing touches. You can even incorporate those sadly orphaned or broken vintage clip-on earrings into your package wrapping!

Image from  hausbest.com

Image from hausbest.com


Giving the gift of vintage—while rewarding—isn’t always a sure bet. Here are a few of the less than perfect gifts that I’ve learned about over many Christmases (and other holidays) past…


Gloves. We’re not used to this dilemma because these days it is rather rare to find fitted gloves with a specific size beyond S, M or L. Don’t assume that, for instance, a pair of vintage leather gloves will fit the recipient without knowing that person's glove size. I mentioned a hat being a popular choice, but there are fit issues with hats too, so it is best to avoid a hat that fits down on the head (a cloche style for instance) unless you are certain of the wearer's size.

Anything that is valuable and covetable but not the giftee's taste is liable to be a flop. There isn't anything sadder than giving something truly wonderful to a person who simply isn't interested and just hides it away. I can tell you about a deeply carved Bakelite bangle and a 50s Hawaiian shirt that seem to have disappeared from the face of the Earth...

Anything with major problems is almost surely a miss—unless you know the person well and he/she loves a well ripped up vintage rock band t-shirt or something else well used. Clean and mend any tiny flaws in your gift and package it up beautifully. Yes, there is always that "old stuff" ick factor to consider for those on the (vintage) fence.


Even with caveats, I predict there’s a vintage gifting hit for just about anyone on your list. Many people care about the environment and love the idea of recycling, including fashion. If you do a great job of picking and presenting, who knows, maybe you will make a vintage fashion convert!

So...What vintage is going under your tree this year?

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So thankful

My most sincere thanks—for everything.

I am thankful every single day that I am able to run my vintage fashion business. I have met the most wonderful people through vintage. You are customers, colleagues, collectors, historians—stylish, fascinating, caring people with so many stories to tell. And you even put up with my talk of manatees!

You read my blog, my newsletter, and my wordy (!) item listings, you visit my website and let me know what you think. You cheer me on when I do a good job, and forgive me when I make a mistake. You constantly make me realize that we aren't such a bad lot. Thank you.

I wish you every happiness on Thanksgiving Day, and hope you are surrounded by all that you love best.




Gray Friday

…and you thought it was Black Friday

I always donate 10% of sales to the Save the Manatee Club, but now through next Tuesday, a full 50% of my sales will be donated for the protection of this beloved endangered species. I am calling this my Gray Friday fundraiser. I also have an Everyday Hero page set up for donations, in case no vintage finery from my shop beckons. My goal is to reach $400 between now and Tuesday, November 27. With your help, I know this can be done.

Manatee painting by Anna Davies

Manatee painting by Anna Davies

Of mannequins and manatees

I know what some of you must be thinking: What is it about the manatee that attracts a vintage clothing seller? Well, I'll tell you.

It all began about a dozen years ago when I was visiting relatives in Florida, and they took me to an area where manatees are sometimes seen. We saw plenty of alligators and beautiful birds and plants, but not a manatee. Then, as we were getting ready to leave, a truck pulled up, and a group of people jumped out to lift a manatee down to the water, cradled in a sling.

My manatee moment, Blue Springs, Florida

My manatee moment, Blue Springs, Florida

You see, this manatee had been rescued and rehabilitated after being found injured by a boat strike, and was now strong enough to be released back into the wild. As the manatee gently swam off, another manatee came up from the bottom of the stream and nuzzled the returnee...an unmistakable greeting.

Tears were streaming down my face. I was IN LOVE with manatees!

I decided then and there to learn about this endangered species, and to help it survive. I believe this fits pretty neatly with my—and many vintage lovers'—interest in walking a bit more gently on the Earth, recycling instead of buying new clothes. It's just one of many reasons to love vintage, but it's a mighty good one.

Thank you for caring right along with me!

That’s not all that’s going on

Right now and through November 25, with every purchase of $100 or more, you will automatically get 20% off in my Etsy shop.

Saving money and saving manatees? Talk about a win-win!



Whose dress was it?

I am asked fairly often if I know anything about the original owner of a vintage item. What did she do, what did she look like—who was she?

I have written about some of the women I have either met or gotten to know a bit through their clothing, and it’s about time I updated with a few more. I don’t always have the good fortune to know anything about an original wearer of the vintage fashion I find, but when I do I pay close attention so I can share their stories.


I’ve written about Jacqueline, the mother of a very good friend of mine (I love my vintage clothing sources)


Juana, who worked as a model for one of Spokane’s department stores (Another favorite source)


A woman I only know through her grand niece (The suitcase lot)


Mrs. Gordon, whose husband was blinded in WWII yet she dressed to the nines (You’re a sight to see, Mrs. Gordon!)


Alice, about to be married for the second time at the wonderful age of 85+ (Lovely lady lot)


Betty, who was a manager at one of Spokane’s department stores (She’s a Betty)


There are more, and they have been so gracious to me. I have many unofficial grandparents!


I think of Ruby, who made her own clothes with impeccable skill and cried when I offered her money for the clothing, which she was just going to “put out on the curb.” All 100+ pieces of it!


Mrs. Walls, who had “forgotten she had all these clothes” in her basement


Shirley, who let me come to her garage sale way out in the country a day early because she figured no one would care about the clothes (there were enough to open a store)


Carol sat on the stage with her boyfriend, the pianist with Lawrence Welk, while they were taping shows.


There was the gentleman whose wife had passed away and he was finally ready to let go of some of her clothing. He gave me a fantastic set of highballs he bought at the 1963 Seattle World’s Fair when he found out I’d grown up in Seattle.


One man I met had just purchased and laid down a load of stones to make his driveway a little smoother for my visit. His wife had been a manager of better sportswear at a department store in Spokane. We talked quite a bit because my father played jazz trombone and he had a boatload of jazz albums and played jazz himself. He asked me where I thought he got his accent and I guessed New York. He said Chicago, which is his nickname. He came to Spokane when he was 12 and he was then 105. 


Then there was Elaine who was sweeping her walk when I first met her. She is African American and came to Spokane on V-J Day, September 2, 1945. Her clothes were so precisely cared for and pristine that they were as if new.


There are many more. One that truly haunts me was an Italian-American model whose daughter offered me her mother’s clothing. She had wonderful items, including this Howard Greer dress. I happened to see her photo and she was one of the most beautiful women you could possibly imagine. She had died estranged from her family and had a very hard life, including alcoholism. Her clothing was very well kept and of spectacular design.

BeFunky Collage copy.jpg

Sometimes there are the hints of a prior owner, left in bags or pockets. I’ve written about some of these in The contents of a vintage pocket and the dating of vintage


Sometimes there is a name tag or signature.


I especially love it when items have notes or pictures with them, giving us an idea when and how something was worn.


One of my most recent acquisitions is an intriguing (and large!) collection that belonged to a ballet dancer and her mother. Both apparently dressed to be center of attention—the dancer just more youthfully. Many things were altered or embellished…there is an overwhelming sense of flair to everything belonging to these women, which seems fitting!


I like to think that we perpetuate these people through carrying their stories—along with their clothing—forward.



Spectacular Modern Art Poster Print Dress

Every now and then I get to offer something that brings tears to my eyes. If I’m feeling even the slightest bit jaded about vintage clothing, the passion comes roaring back when certain items come up.

Right now in my Etsy shop, I’ve just listed such an item, a dress in excellent shape, cut of silk. It looks like a Beatnik top with a printed skirt, but it is all one piece. The top is black silk shantung, and the skirt is silk surah. What makes the dress so special is the skirt print: Reimagined in orange, brown, gold, lilac, black, and white, are actual modern art exhibition posters that date from 1950 through 60.


The art exhibitions took place in France, Germany, and Japan, and were shows of the works of Joan Miro, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. I have located originals of these posters available online, and they are glorious works in themselves.

Imagine wearing this dress to a gallery opening, or an art museum—You would feel among the works of art!



What Color is Your Parachute (er, Scarf)?


What Color is Your Parachute (er, Scarf)?


Richard Nelson Bolles’ What Color is Your Parachute was self-published in 1970, and since 1972 has gone through 40 commercially-published editions, translated into 22 languages, and sold over 10 million copies. After reading it many years ago, I felt like it expanded my perception of what was possible in a career.

At the same time that Bolles’ book first became widely available, Vera Neumann (1907 - 1993) was flying high. Her parachute cloth (more about that in a second) had been unfurled and printed in ecstatic colors, becoming a form of modern wearable art. Glitterati and career women both wore Veras—whether wrapped around ponytails, necklines, or waists, they gave a fresh, expressive look to an outfit.

The more you look, the more you see

“Color is the language I speak best” —Vera

Vera Neumann used to be simply Vera…the one and only Vera. Now we call her by both names to differentiate her from the newer Veras (Wang and Bradley) on the scene. She was born Vera Salaff on July 24, 1907. A truly prolific designer, she got a good start from her father, who took her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every Sunday, and gave her 50 cents per art-filled sketchbook as a child.

Vera met and married Austrian George Neumann in 1943, and together with their friend Frederick Werner Hamm they began silkscreening textiles in their studio apartment in Manhattan, calling their business Printex. They started out with just placemats because they were curing these in their own small oven. The business, and the space required, expanded rapidly after Hamm secured their first order from B. Altman. It was during the peak of World War II when linen became difficult to obtain that Vera first came across some parachute silk being sold at an army surplus store. By the late 1940s she had expanded from home textiles to scarves made of parachute silk.

Vera was the very first to sign her name to a scarf, as an artist signs a painting. In the 1950s her work was popular with Marilyn Monroe, Bess Truman and Grace Kelly. John Lennon was the first customer for a Vera painting when her oils were shown in 1970. Department stores started presenting her scarves like artwork in the early 70s. By 1977, Vera’s sales were over $100 million.

A tour of Vera’s history in 2:25. Time well spent.

The designs of Vera Neumann took many forms over the years, ranging from the small, often botanically-inspired designs, to boldly patterned, modernist abstracts. She obviously loved juxtapositions of bright colors, and gave a lot of thought to how her layout of pattern could make an interesting scarf. There is a consistent love of detailed natural elements and energetically free brush strokes. Nothing looks like the paint has even dried yet, so fresh are her designs.

How many scarves To make a parachute?

Dizzy yet?

I recently acquired a large drawstring bag filled with scarves. How large? Large enough for Santa to sling over his shoulder and make children feel giddy, only in this case I’m the one who is giddy. The bag came from one woman, and most of the contents are scarves made by Vera Neumann between 1960 and 1982. 

I don't know the woman who collected these scarves, but I know a few things about her based on her collection. She loved Vera of course, and she wore just about every color, some more often than others. I have had to put aside over 30 of the scarves because their wear has been a little too much (these are now in the hands of a colleague for her reuse). Very special designs I believe the collector kept rather carefully, protected from overuse. Most of the very best were not overused. 

I have been given a few Vera scarves as gifts through the years, and admired the ones I've found secondhand, but never have I seen 100+ of Vera's scarves at once before. 

Right now you will find 40 or so Veras in my Etsy shop, and there are more to come. But caveat emptor: This batch is going fast.


The best parts of this world were not fashioned by those who were “realistic.” They were fashioned by those who dared to look hard at their wishes and then gave them horses to ride.

Richard N. Bolles, What Color Is Your Parachute? 2016 edition

Vera may have needed to use parachute silk at one time in her life, but she had no trouble with flying high.

How fortunate we all are to be able to wear such an artistic flight of fancy as a Vera scarf, having to think about tying ideas instead of fit—and to make the world brighter and more interesting at the same time.

Do you have any Vera scarves yourself? What color is your Vera?



The Magtone Color of the Moment: Jazzberry Jam

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The highly vetted Pantone Color of the Year for 2018 is Ultra Violet. Where Pantone is going for next year is not yet known, but I have my own Magtone prediction, which is a blend of shocking pink, red and violet, called Jazzberry Jam. I didn’t make that name up—go google HEX color #BD0048—yet it seems appropriate because I got the idea from jam.

How do I vet my color choices? Well, this one came to me when, on a late summer Sunday, I was having a piece of toast and the black currant jam clinging to the side of a jar was sparkling in the sunlight at our kitchen table. My eyes started tearing up, and I felt it in my soul. That’s it.

Black currant jam. Photo by Coprid/iStock

Black currant jam. Photo by Coprid/iStock

I guess it would be possible to rationalize my feeling for this color. Right now we are a couple of years into what can be argued is a new feminist movement with bright pink often being used as a symbol of women’s strength. Red is a color of urgency, and purple is a color of authority and power. Mix them together, and you might just have the place we stand in history—and possibly with a color that symbolizes women’s rise in politics. (Need proof of that rise? A record 185 women have been nominated for House seats in 2018.)

So, with this beautiful shade in mind, of course I had to go looking for vintage fashion that showed it well. Feast your eyes on shades of Jazzberry Jam from vintage sellers on Etsy. As of today these are currently for sale and the links are in my Etsy favorites collection on the subject. It makes a very rich formal shade, looks lovely in velvet, iridescent fabrics and jewelry. In short, it makes a great color going into our Northern Hemisphere’s winter—and the November midterm elections in the U.S.


And hey, I may actually be on to something with this Jazzberry Jam thing: This is an image from Elle Decor, looking toward the predictions from Pantone for 2019. I may not be the only one feeling this!

What about you—Do you like this color? Do you wear it? What does it say to you?



International Manatee Day

Manatee Hugger...guilty as charged! 

Manatee Hugger...guilty as charged! 

If you have read my blog for any length of time you know I'm awfully fond of the manatee. Some people even know me as "the manatee lady" — I think that's supposed to be a compliment!

But can we get serious for a minute?

Humans are the gentle herbivores’ only threat, with our fishing lines ensnaring them, our pollution poisoning them, our boats striking them and our living space encroaching upon theirs.

The pressure on this species is greater all the time, with increased human population, loss of habitat, and more use of watercraft. 

Loss of wintering grounds, harassment of manatees at some locations, degradation of water quality and the loss of vegetation upon which manatees depend have all taken and will continue to take a toll.

This year's huge manatee death toll due to red tide is evidence of the tenuousness of the survival of the species in Florida waters.

This is not a story that can end well for the manatee without our help.

Consider the importance of these animals to our national conscience. Heather Sellick of the US Scuba Center wrote: “the manatee is one of the most magnificent marine mammals...it is also the one that tugs at our heartstrings and reminds us of the great damage humans have inflicted on the creatures with whom we share this planet.” 

I don't want to live in a world without these wonderful creatures.

Photo: Public domain

Photo: Public domain

Illustration of me by Anna Davies Art

Illustration of me by Anna Davies Art

Today is International Manatee Day, and the day marks the 2nd anniversary of my setting aside 10% of all denisebrain sales to Save the Manatee Club for the protection of these beloved and imperiled animals. I will make another donation on behalf of denisebrain's customers today, with gratitude to all who support me in this.



My Vintage Covers

You might know I love what I call a Vintage Convergence, finding an advertisement, pattern, or photo that depicts a vintage item that I have. You can see some found by myself and others on my Pinterest board devoted to the subject

As sort of a variation on a theme, I'm participating in #myvintagecover, a challenge in the blogosphere and the Instagramosphere, conceived and hosted by Tanith (tanithrowan.blogspot.com) and Nicole (theartyologist.com). For this challenge, you recreate a vintage fashion magazine cover, or another vintage fashion photo. This isn't a competition, it's a community event. I love trying to do this myself, and seeing what other people come up with. 

This was my entry last year. I used a hat I had for sale (and a ton of black eyeliner) to try to get the vibe of the June 1962 cover featuring Jean Shrimpton. 


This year I've been focusing on 1940s and 50s Harper's Bazaar covers. This first one was a lucky coincidence for me. I had already photographed (and sold) the dress, labeled Karen Starck for Harvey Berin, when I discovered the cover designed by the great Alexey Brodovitch in 1952. Even though the dress was no longer in my possession, I had photographed it from almost the same vantage point.

1952 Harper's Bazaar

This second is a Herbert Bayer-designed cover from (gasp!) August of 1940. Can you believe how timeless this looks? 

1940 Harper's Bazaar

Finally I chose this cover from November of 1942, just because I love the positive look it portrays. Isn't fashion about taking on the world as it is, and making it more beautiful, more livable, and more hopeful? That's how this cover, dating from WWII, feels to me.