GONE ARE THE DAYS OF the lament of "Hand-me-down Rose," who wore secondhand clothes.
Today, fashion-minded men and women, professionals and pregnant women, students and brides are seeking out consignment and vintage clothing stores for personalized, put-together looks, without the expensive price tag or the secondhand stigma.
Vintage clothing stores emphasize fashions from bygone eras, such as the sleek silhouettes of the '40s or the groovy look of the '60s, while consignment shops often stress fashions bought within the last few years. Both types of shops are seeing increases in customer interest, and some are branching out to include men's wear, maternity clothes and bridal fashions, as well as women's and children's clothing.
"We've been seeing a resurgence in vintage clothing all along," says Susan Justice, owner of the Fells Point vintage clothing store Oh! Susanna for 10 years. "But now it's become more mainstream [to shop for vintage clothing]." Some people may have trouble getting into the used clothing craze, but many soon realize that the combination of price, quality and individuality can't be beat.
"It may seem awkward the first time, but once you get into it, it's an addiction," says Estee Klein, owner of the 10-year-old Just A Second consignment shop in Mount Washington. "It's really like an adventure or a treasure hunt."
The heightened interest in vintage clothing also springs from current haute couture fashion trends. As designers reach into the past for inspiration, more and more people search for the real thing.
"I've worn vintage clothing for 20 years because I'm very conscious of good quality fabrics," says Ron Barlow, owner of Retro Vintage Clothing in Fells Point for five years. "But [vintage clothing] also gives me a unique identity without looking so different from everyone else."
"After all, all fashion is a repeat, nothing is ever new," says Mr. Barlow, who spends the majority of his time beating the bushes for new sources. "A 1940s black, spaghetti-strap cocktail dress is the same basic style as what you would find in department stores, and it's less expensive."
Top quality vintage clothing costs a fraction of the price of comparable current clothing, agree Mr. Barlow and Ms. Justice. For example, Retro has men's cashmere sports jackets for $40 that would probably retail for about $500 to $600, while Oh! Susanna has sold sleeveless, white-sequined dresses for $30 to $40, compared with a $125 retail price.
Ms. Justice, and her assistant, Rebecca Rich, say '40s looks, such as swingy tops with tights or leggings, or polka-dot bloomers and boys' shoes, are always in demand. But, '60s creations are hot.
"Many of our customers are looking for miniskirts and go-go boots, or bell bottoms, bodysuits and psychedelic prints," says Ms. Justice. "Even the men are loosening up and wearing fun pants, platform shoes or wide ties."
"We're selling a lot of full, swingy, trapeze-cut coats and some leather fringe jackets from the '60s," says Mr. Barlow. "It's tough, though. Genuine hippies didn't have a lot of clothes and they wore them into the ground."
While customers of Oh! Susanna tend to "mix-it up," pairing things such as a hand-beaded top with an Indian print skirt, customers at Retro tend to go for the total look, the clothes, the shoes and accessories of a particular period.
Debra Fetters, manager at Retro, specializes in looks from top milliners, such as Dior, Lily Dache, Hattie Carnegie and Adolfo, and the store has a wide array of men's neckties.
On the current clothing scene, business is brisk for upscale used clothing at consignment shops such as the Cockeysville Exchange on York Road, the Clothes Closet in Roland Park and Just A Second in Mount Washington.
"We sometimes call ourselves 'Macy's South,' " says Barbara Lewis, owner of the Cockeysville Exchange. "We sell a lot of the same brands and styles, accessories and collectibles in like-new condition at lower prices."
Lorraine Stutman, owner of the Clothes Closet, agrees, "Consignment shopping is a good way to get boutique, designer styles at affordable prices."
Business is so good that some shops are branching out into specialty areas, and they can't get enough merchandise to satisfy the demand.
Tried But True in Cockeysville started about eight years ago as an infant and children's consignment store, but the demand for maternity clothes was so great they expanded.
"I've been amazed at how many people shop consignment stores," says Judy Conoscenti, one of the three owners. "We have a lot of working moms who want current, tailored business clothes, and we have such a demand for outerwear and dress coats that we've started buying new things, which we don't mark up."
Sherry Strovel, owner of Formally Yours on Harford Road, has experienced similar trends. "I started selling only consignment bridal gowns and formal wear, but I couldn't get enough gowns to sell, so now I sell some new gowns as well."