Vintage clothing is ideal for special occasions. The glitzier party dresses from the 1960s and 1970s make ‘best-dressed,’ one-of-a-kind ensembles when matched with a well-chosen piece of headgear, while suits from the 1940s and 1950s are perfect for National Hunt meetings.
Spend money to have an antique item altered if you fall in love with it, so it fits you ideally. I can shorten hems, cinch waists, or take off dated sleeves. Nobody wants to appear to be wearing hand-me-downs only for show. Find a skilled sewist and ask her to update vintage items stylishly.
An old thing and a fresh thing
I rarely pair a vintage hat with a vintage outfit (except at the Goodwood Revival). Instead, team up a vintage business with a hat designed by a modern milliner like Fernanda Lewis or Jess Collett.
There are several options to dress up or dress down an outfit for a garden party or London event. I have a ton of vintage accessories, including belts, scarves, hats, and statement costume jewelry, all of which come in handy when I want to repurpose a significant item. My pet dislike is a one-hit-wonder dress that will sit in a wardrobe after its only appearance.
Comfort is crucial when combining vintage apparel with athletic endeavors. I discovered this the hard way after wearing a great pair of elephant-ear breeches for a day on Salisbury Plain with the RA, only to find that the seams rubbed savagely from the start just where they sat on my kneecaps.
Avoid being picky
The Business apron from a friend’s grandmother and the Roberts & Carroll coat that came with the side saddle my mother bought decades ago are the foundation of my much-admired vintage side saddle habit. The occasional moth hole or visible repair shouldn’t deter you from purchasing a garment because they will enhance its charm.
Try looking through collections like Martha, Lady Sitwell’s line for Harry Hall, if you can’t find the ideal item. The moleskin waistcoat with its erect collar in the Regency style is perfect for hunting. I had a pair of my old side-saddle breeches replicated, with contemporary elastic added to the leg base in case they ever stop fitting.
Invest in a genuine antique if you don’t feel ready for a full-on vintage look or find the idea of wearing second-hand breeches repulsive. Examples include:
- A lovely old whip.
- Patinated leather saddle flask.
- Bamboo shooting stick.
- Exquisite Victorian stock pin.
The ideal middle ground for formal clothing
The ideal setting for wearing antiques covertly is formal dress, but there is a catch. Ladies should, at all costs, refrain from wearing tartan dresses by Laura Ashley over moth-eaten furs with ghoulish dangling feet. Instead, go with your grandmother’s most elegant and classic debutante dress, modified as necessary. Guys, ensure grandfather’s white tie is ventilated correctly because nothing slows the heart rate like the smell of damp camphor.
Never undervalue the influence of a thin strip of silk. A good vintage silk scarf in a pattern that never goes out of style or in a riot of brilliant colors makes for a multipurpose accessory. A tastefully designed pocket square for the men might inject some color and character. A scarf is the ultimate fashion workhorse for women because it can be worn in many different ways, including tied over the head or neck, braided into the hair, as a purse accent, or as a waist-cinching belt. At the Festival of Hunting this year, I made a scarf into a skirt, and Lady Sitwell cinched her fox-print ensemble around her waist.
The daytime attire
For a conventional wedding, the morning suit (with a black silk hat) worn at Royal Ascot is required attire. Black morning coats and striped or houndstooth trousers were made to last and are relatively easy to obtain used, which is an excellent incentive to avoid multiple (and expensive) rentals and invest in a complete ensemble rather than wearing pale waistcoats that rarely last generations.
The shabby outfit
An authentic “demob” suit with the fabled utility mark CC41 is a must-have outfit for occasions like the Goodwood Revival. Still, if you haven’t (yet) inherited your great-Battle uncle’s Britain-era wardrobe, the country-gent look is always appropriate for Cheltenham, a point-to-point race, or a country-house weekend. A brown trilby, a tweed jacket over a waistcoat or a sleeveless V-neck sweater, a shirt and tie, corduroy or flannel pants, and rounded-toed leather brogues complete the ensemble from head to toe. Avoid low-waisted pants, tapered or flared legs, narrow lapels, and slim-fitting jackets.
Suitable accessories are crucial; a hat (wide-brimmed trilby or tweed cap) is required, as are neckties, cravats, and bow ties, plus a non-matching handkerchief. Why not grow a mustache? An umbrella works (especially on this side of the Channel).