Alligators, Old Mink and New Money : One Woman's Adventures in Vintage Clothing

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  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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Alligators, Old Mink & New Money is a celebration of the clothes that capture our memories and imaginations, that leave their indelible stamp on each of our lives. Alison Houtte-a former fashion model who runs the beloved Brooklyn, New York, boutique Hooti Couture-knows that every article of vintage clothing has a story behind it, and she uses these items as a springboard to explore such universal topics as relationships, self-image, the bond between mothers and daughters, and that elusive thing called style. Whether you're a flea market veteran who savors the thrill of the hunt, a couture shopper with a Vogue budget, or are simply drawn to the de rigueur world of vintage, Alligators, Old Mink & New Money offers a shopping adventure-through auctions, estate sales, flea markets, and clothing racks all over the world-to be savored, and inspired by!


Alligators, Old Mink & New Money
One Woman's Adventures in Vintage Clothing

Chapter One

Mothers and Daughters

Passing Down the Thrift Gene

Back in the mid-nineties, while I was visiting my parents in Miami, I was desperate for something to wear to lunch at the newly opened Delano Hotel, the place to be seen on South Beach at that moment. I was meeting an old girlfriend from my modeling days, a woman who now moves with a crowd in Manhattan a few notches above my social circle. I wanted to look good, and I wanted to be cool, literally. It was a ninety-eight-degree day.

Tucked in a drawer in my mother's dresser, which was jammed to overflowing with odd remnants like a monogrammed linen handkerchief and a single baby's shoe, I found an old navy blue slip whose fabric felt like rose petals in my hands. I knew that my mother had tucked away hundreds of such items throughout our house—from her youth, from the childhoods of my four sisters and brother and me—but I didn't know that this had belonged to my grandmother, Mom's mother, until I asked if I could borrow it.

Navy is not my best color, but I was in a bind, and I figured that if Madonna could wear a slip out in public, so could I. I put it on, and it fit beautifully, hitting just below the knee. It wasn't sheer, so nothing significant was exposed—no nipples, no panties. I cinched the waist with an inexpensive black stretch belt and completed the outfit with sexy, strappy black sandals and a python-patchwork clutch.

As I prepared to leave the house, my father was baffled. "Where's your dress?" he asked.

"This is my dress," I told him, and because I am his youngest daughter, my dad has seen it all and knows when to stop asking questions. He shook his head and laughed.

As I walked onto the Delano's terrace—a seductive sea of overstuffed wicker sofas draped with tanned bodies sporting Dior sunglasses, perfectly pressed Italian linens and rhinestoned Manolos—I was a bit nervous, though I knew I looked good and could hold my own with this crowd. My self-confidence kicked into high gear the minute I spotted my friend and her lightning-quick head-to-toe appraisal of my outfit confirmed my gamble. We exchanged an air kiss, and her first question was, "Where did you get that dress?" She was smiling the smile of a woman who always buys the best—or the most expensive, and equates that with "best"—and who also appreciates a great find. When I told her the source, she immediately responded, "Is there another one in that drawer?"

Lucky for me, my mother had style even when our family didn't have much money. Of course, when I was a little girl growing up in Miami, I didn't know this. My mother was simply an embarrassment to me and my siblings because of:

How she dressed—Roman sandals and loud prints, sometimes going braless.

Where she shopped—Goodwill and church rummage sales.

Her choice of deodorant for herself and her family—baking soda.

And what she expected us to wear—secondhand clothes, usually with "good" labels.

None of our friends had a mother quite like ours—Mom was a strong-willed, hot-tempered feminist, though I never heard that word used in our house. She hated—and still avoids—any kind of housekeeping, yet she would spend time almost every week carefully ironing our organdy and cotton dresses so we would be presentable for church. She was, and still is, a woman whose life can be marked, at least in part, by the clothes she wore—new and used—for minor and major moments in her family's life.

Mom got her sense of what was "good" from her own mother, Marie Neylon, a woman whose hair was always pulled into a bun, stray gray strands held in place by tortoiseshell combs, a woman whose "old country" (Bohemia-Hungary) way of doing things was an embarrassment to her only daughter, Jacqueline. Grandma cooked potato pancakes and beef stew with fluffy dumplings, boiled her bedsheets with bluing in copper pots after they came out of the wringer washer and braided her own rugs using upholstery fabric remnants. She was a woman who could sit in the basement for hours on end "picking" feathers, emerging with a halo of fluff on her head after separating the down—the softest, finest feathers—from larger, sharper feathers, so she could make the best down-filled pillows.

None of this sat well with Mom, who will be the first to admit she was a spoiled, unappreciative child when she was growing up on the south side of Chicago. Mom wanted a modern mother, someone who went to the beauty salon, served "American" food and aspired to own wall-to-wall carpeting, rather than sneering at it.

But Grandma Neylon did embrace at least one pastime the two of them could share: She loved to shop, and she patronized only the nicest stores, even though there was very little extra spending money for a family of five living on a policeman's salary. While my grandfather might be wearing a secondhand camel-hair coat—my mother remembers a man more interested in good books than clothes, as long as his uniform passed inspection—his two sons were dressed in Belgian linen suits, and his daughter never wore a hand-me-down.

In the thirties, Grandma Neylon's idea of a pleasant day away from her household duties was to take Mom to Marshall Field, which filled a twelve-story granite building covering a whole city block in downtown Chicago. Once inside this elegant store, Grandma would charge a half pound of fancy mixed nuts, freshly scooped into a box and still warm. Then, pecans and cashews in hand, she and my mother would munch their way from department to department, admiring all the nicest merchandise, lingering in the vast furniture department because that was my grandmother's favorite and shopping for clothes for my mother whenever she needed them. Invariably, at the end of the day, my grandfather would be circling the block in the family car, because they were always late getting back to their prearranged pickup spot.

Alligators, Old Mink & New Money
One Woman's Adventures in Vintage Clothing
. Copyright © by Alison Houtte. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Alligators, Old Mink and New Money: One Woman's Adventures in Vintage Clothing by Alison Houtte, Melissa Houtte
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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