Shop of the Month - Elaine's Vintage Clothing

Vintage isn't what it used to be. Up and down the high street, chains such as H&M and Topshop are offering up a rail of 'vintage' clothes that might make you ask yourself, 'hang on, isn't this just second-hand?'

Feature by Caroline Hurley | 15 Feb 2006

Vintage isn't what it used to be. Up and down the high street, chains such as H&M and Topshop are offering up a rail of 'vintage' clothes that might make you ask yourself, 'hang on, isn't this just second-hand?' A word that once carried connotations of classic and collectable has become simply a clever marketing term for chain stores determined to assimilate - and profit from - every trend they can. There are, however small pockets of resistance to be found around Edinburgh, places where 'unique' still means one-off and 'original' still means authentic. St. Stephen Street in Stockbridge has just such appeal and nestled in at no. 55 is Elaine's Vintage Clothing.

With its art nouveau inspired shutters, Elaine Kowalska's shop would not look out of place in Monmartre. A sense of the bohemian continues inside as incense encircles the ostrich feathers and silk scarves. Having inherited her mother's love of vintage clothing, Elaine opened her shop almost twenty years ago. Containing both perfectly preserved vintage pieces and some examples of well made, affordable second-hand, the shop gives her a chance to see beautiful clothes get "a new lease of life". The size of the shop allows the owner to engage with browsers and share her passion for elegant and unusual garments. Customers range from local residents, young and old, to art students, actors, regulars who have visited for twenty years and curious passers-by.

Elaine's zeal for fashion and textiles comes through as she presents some of the pieces, pointing out details and explaining individual histories. There are some very local treasures, with labels such as Beatrice Kay and Darlings dating from 1950s and 1960s Edinburgh boutiques. As you would hope from a vintage shop, the rails offer a tour of highlights from different eras: the subtle femininity of a 1940's dress sits alongside the bolder cut and movement in a 1950's princess-collar coat. Several pieces align perfectly with new Spring/Summer collections whilst simultaneously offering a break from the repetition of the high street. Silk nightgowns from the 1930s might recall Katharine Hepburn and dry martinis, but also fit perfectly into this season's lingerie-inspired lines. The 1960's pinafore dress is sure to have a renaissance among June Carter-Cash fans with the release of 'Walk The Line' later this month and where better than the 1970's to look for summer's bold prints and eye-catching colours?

The clothes are presented with thought and care, making it a pleasure to look around, a relief compared to the dizzying clutter of some larger fashion retail shops. Elaine explains that it is her policy to stock pieces that are in good condition, taking in only exceptional items that require a little mending. The reason for this, she explains is that many customers have never been taught how to repair clothes and are put off by the idea. It is not only basic mending skills that are being lost, the difference in quality of true vintage clothes and those manufactured now is sadly obvious. The best items have a delicacy, attention to detail, and standard of tailoring that was commonplace at one time but could only be expected of couture today.

Elaine's Vintage Clothing reflects not only changing styles, but also the change in attitude towards what we buy and how we regard it. The garments here were cherished and taken care of in a way that we no longer bother to do because our wardrobes are flooded with cheap, mass produced goods. A genuine vintage shop is as rare as the clothes it contains, and should be treasured in the same way.

Elaine's Vintage Clothing, 55 St. Stephen Street, Edinburgh
Open Tues-Sat, 1pm-6pm. (0131) 225 5783.