In the Closet with Sarah Corbet

Hamilton-based librarian Sarah Corbet talks to Natasha Francois about why she has a thing for trousers, how a turban teamed with a linen suit turns heads in Countdown and why she’s too poor to be a purist.

“When you work in a library, people almost seem to expect the stereotype of the twinset and pearls,” says Sarah Corbet.

The 43-year-old, who originally hails from Nottingham in the United Kingdom, loves being able to wear her own clothes to work.

Sartorially she looks like a cross between a woman supporting the war effort or one out to smash glass ceilings for girls in the typing pool, and says there’s nothing better than having her efforts noticed by those of a ‘certain vintage’!

“I get a real buzz off the older ladies that come in and tell me that they used to wear dresses like mine and style their hair like mine which is incredibly flattering coming straight from the source.”

Read on for a glimpse inside Sarah’s closet!

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You seem to have a great wardrobe. Wanna take us on a tour of your closet? What would we find within?

Mostly items from the 40s and 50s but there are also a lot of modern pieces that have, what I like to think of as the “essence” of these periods; clothing that evoke a time period that help to create the overall impression that I am just off to work on my war effort or break some glass ceilings for the gals back in the typing pool.

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Are you a vintage purist or do you wear repro pieces occasionally too?

I’m too poor to be a purist and am incredibly jealous of those with both the budget and patience to be one. I am learning to be more discerning when it comes to vintage clothing and try to restrict myself to collecting items I know I will wear well and wear often. A wardrobe full of organza and tulle is fun and beautiful to look at but I’m not a Real Housewife so more day-wear is my current mission.

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What are some of your most prized pieces in your vintage collection and why?

I have a late 1940s Paul Sachs crepe, camel brown dress with chocolate velvet trim that I adore. I also have a 40s pale lemon flocked gown that unfortunately has the dry rot so it now lives on permanent display in my bedroom.

She fits beautifully but is only really being held together by love. A lot of my most beloved pieces are quite delicate as by the time vintage clothes get to a price point that I can afford, they’re pretty thrashed.

I’ve worn somethings to death because they’ve become solid wardrobe staples and it can be heart breaking to have to permanently retire items.

The roulette wheel of vintage clothing can mean you will never see another piece like it, or that if you do, it inevitably won’t fit.

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Held together by love: The 40s pale lemon flocked gown that has dry rot so it lives on permanent display in her bedroom.

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How did you first become interested in vintage style?

I have always been a bit different when it comes to my own personal style. When I was a child I was obsessed with people like Cyndi Lauper and Madonna and how they were both so fearless when it came to their identity. For most of my life music has had an intrinsic relationship with how I dressed.

In the late 80s I started getting into rock and alternative bands and even had a momentary Goth stage when I was about 14. All I would wear was black from head to toe, which I’m sure looked cool when I was sneaking underage into Rock City in Nottingham, but has left me now in later life with a weird aversion to wearing anything darker than navy blue.

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She’s so unusual: For most of her life,  music’s had an intrinsic relationship with how Sarah dresses.

The early 90s were my heydays when grunge arrived and I was at Art College so anything went really. My friends and I were in constant competition to create the most bizarre outfits and it wasn’t uncommon to see one of us wearing a chopped up 1950s wedding dress with a tiara and army boots (Courtney Love was our spirit animal at that time).

I’m ashamed to say that a lot of vintage didn’t make it out of the 90s thanks to me and my friends but even in those days all the more valuable and collectable items were becoming harder to find in charity shops.

I took a break from vintage in the early 2000s because of living the single girl Sex and the City life which meant trolling the high street for Carrie Bradshaw knock offs. Then I found myself in New Zealand which is a whole different story.

What is it about vintage clothing that appeals to you the most?

It’s the aesthetics of vintage clothing that appeal to me the most which is sadly missing from so much of the mass-produced “fast fashion” of modern times. It just feels so much more considered and artisanal and the quality of fabric and tailoring has often left me slack jawed. Wearing something that someone else is unlikely to own pleases the individualist in me also.

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Fiercely individual: Sarah enjoys standing out in a crowd.

What are your favourite eras when it comes to vintage clothes?

I’m not an elitist or purist about any particular time period but I do love the classic tailoring of the 40s and 50s, especially the trousers. You can build an amazing look around a good pair of pants. The delicate line between masculine and feminine was manipulated so well at that time and essentially created a look that has endured through design over the past century.

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Enduring style: There’s nothing quite like a classic tailored pair of trousers.

Where are your favourite shopping haunts and why?

I used to be a die-hard op shopper and there are plenty of those here in Hamilton but finding vintage out “in the wild” as they say is so hard these days. I used to get a lot of great pieces from Sarah O’Halloran when she was running Bellavintage but now that she’s shut up shop I have to do all the hard work myself (shakes lazy fist at world).

Eclectic in Nelson has the most beautiful vintage items if you’re ever lucky enough to be in that part of the country so when I am I like to treat myself and worry about paying rent later… TradeMe still occasionally throws up some treasures if you’re prepared to wade through all the “super rare” 1980s Dynasty dresses, but of course there’s always a bit of a bun fight for the good stuff.

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Sarah channels Katherine Hepburn.

Do you have general thoughts about op shopping and vintage shopping in New Zealand?

I love the Kiwi tradition of not throwing anything away if it’s still useful, which I guess comes from being in such an isolated part of the world. This means you’re never far away from an op shop or an antiques dealer, but in terms of vintage clothing you really have to look overseas, especially America and Europe for the truly fabulous stuff. The Internet has made the vintage market a lot more accessible here in New Zealand but it’s still a thrill when you stumble upon some unexpected treasure at the Sallies.

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Whose closet do you envy and why?

I LOVE Jessica Parker, (@noaccountingfortaste), whose outfits are a huge inspiration for what goes into my wardrobe. I’m also a big fan of a lot of drag queens because they have that fearlessness about them which I find inspirational.

Violet Chachki is the re-incarnation of every Hollywood starlet smashed into one tiny waist. Their whole life is just being a glamorous doll that people love to dress-up and that’s something I can totally relate to, she says writing this in her pyjamas.

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Glamour guru: Violet Chachki

Who are some of your style icons and influences?

I love trousers so it has to be Katherine Hepburn with a bit of Lauren Bacall thrown in. I’ve never been a girlie person so women that have a slight masculine edginess to them light little vintage fires inside me. Did I mention I love trousers?

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Masculine edge: Sarah likes to tread the delicate line between masculine and feminine.

Can you remember the first vintage piece you bought? What was it?

It is a handmade 1950s dress made with a green, repeating rose design, cotton fabric. I bought it when I was about 16 years old for, I think, about nine pounds which in those days would have been a lot for me as a poor student. I still have it so it comes out occasionally for another showing each summer. And, yes amazingly it still fits! RIP my dreams of ever getting boobs.

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Librarian chic:  Sarah looks effortlessly elegant in her vintage threads.

How do members of the public react to your getups?

I do get a few compliments every now and then with the, of course, predictable “are you going to a costume/fancy dress party?” etc. Because I’m not trying to exactly recreate eras with what I wear or make historically accurate statements, it seems to be less jarring for most people. Although a turban with matching lipstick and a 1940s linen suit will turn heads in Countdown.

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Do you wear vintage to work as well? What do you do and how is your style received in the workplace?

I’m really lucky that I get to wear my own clothes to work. When you work in a library people almost seem to expect the stereotype of the twin set and pearls. I get a real buzz off the older ladies that come in and tell me that they used to wear dresses like mine and style their hair like mine which is incredibly flattering coming straight from the source. Although none of them have yet to donate to me said dresses I still live in hope that one day there still exists out there the mother lode of vintage with my name on it. A lot of the little kids just think I’m a Wiggle.

Does your vintage obsession extend into other areas too such as home decor, car, accessories and other collections?

My home definitely reflects my taste for old used things which wasn’t really thought of as “vintage” back in the day; it was just buying second-hand. I’m a bit of a nomad so moving around a lot does prevent accumulating lots of collections of things but it also means you have to be selective with what you own and you can’t be too precious about stuff. I’ve settled in Hamilton for now but thanks to rental inspections and a housemate I haven’t been allowed to hoard my house to the rafters with doilies and knick-knacks.

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Anything that you’d never be caught dead wearing?

I think history has shown that I will give most things a try so who knows what my next vintage sartorial phase will be. I kind of like the idea of entering an “Elizabeth Taylor during her second marriage to Richard Burton” era where I wear nothing but kaftans and diamonds but I guess we’ll just have to watch this soon to be bejewelled space.

Follow Sarah on Instagram– where she goes by the moniker @professional_spinster

So, what do you think of Sarah’s sartorial style? What is your favourite outfit pictured? Let me know in the comments. 

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Plastic Fantastic: An interview with Naomi Thompson

In the second installment of our Plastic Fantastic series Natasha talks to vintage plastics collector, enthusiast and dealer Naomi Thompson.

Naomi Thompson’s vintage plastics hoard has grown so fast in the last three years – even she doesn’t know how many pieces she has. Her collection spans the earliest versions of plastic (think jet, gutta-percha and horn) right up to modern day designers such as Bill Schiffer, Marion Godart and the coveted Shultz.

The former personal shopper, vintage stylist and book author describes herself as a “costume jewellery collector with an interest in plastics, both natural and man-made.”

A London refugee now residing in sunny Southsea, she’s now bringing up her daughter seaside style, in a life full of car boots, church sales and maritime history.

Her desire to collect plastic jewellery is fuelled by discovery and learning, as well as the escapism involved in searching for the perfect piece.

Read on to see some of the incredible pieces in her collection…

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Eye catching pieces from the USA.

What is it about vintage plastics that attracted you in the first place? 

Bright colours, big shapes and timeless design. I find them both accessible and mystical. ‘Vintage’ was becoming a twee parody of itself and buying, collecting and then selling plastics allowed me to continue searching and discovering new things in a different less clichéd direction’. 

What do you like most about them now? 

The same!

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“1940s novelty print seersucker and 90s French dungarees. “

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Would you mess with her? #bakelite #dailybake #carved

How did you get learn so much about them? 

I was lucky. Someone was kind enough to show me many ropes, and I will forever be in gratitude. If anyone is good enough to share their knowledge with me, I make a mental note of what they like and try and find it. I look for stuff, all day, every day and I never tire of it. Discovery and learning is what drives me, as well as the escapism. And helping people find things they love. 

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An assortment of Bakelite rings.

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Carved #bakelite bar brooches. My fav is the over-dyed one. #dailybake

The rest eventually came from handling, being nosy, asking suppliers lots of questions about provenance. Especially if someone has a lot of old factory stock. I would love to know how to do proper academic research, like my friend Liz… 

I also started off by doing crib sheets of different properties. I still know relatively little but I can generally spot Bakelite from sight. Especially French pieces.  

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Good enough to eat and there is a cheeky cherry amber Bakelite in there.

When did you start collecting them? 

Properly, about three years ago. I took a break from all things vintage and went to work at Laura Ashley. Then, when my daughter turned one, I decided to find a way to rekindle my love of old, timeless design that would be sustainable full time.  After having to battle to get her first birthday off I decided to go back to working for myself. 

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“Give me a laminate any day over a carved bangle.”

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Bakelite napkin ring in the shape of a Scottie dog.

 

Can you describe your particular taste/ aesthetic? What sort of designs draw you most? 

Anything  that is hard to date: sleek laminates; bold colours and shapes; stripes. I think there is about to be a huge market shift in this direction. I’m not so fond of twee and novelty but there is a huge market for this, especially in the United States. I don’t buy a huge amount of carved stuff these days as so much is faked. 

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“My best ever green marbled Bakelite, an Italian violet and a mystery American swirl. “

Do you have any favourite hunting grounds for plastic treasures? 

France! Brocantes and vides greniers in particular. I am fortunate that my mother lives in southern France – though she has now got in on the act and I am constantly appraising her finds! 

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These two will be getting a lucite brother soon. I don’t even like horses…. #dailybake

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Some improvement on the #celluloid prison ring (and one #bakelite one from #Alaska) collection. #collector #plasticaddict #plasticjewellery#dailybake

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The Bakelite drawer. #dailybake

 

 

Can you tell us about your personal vintage plastics collection? How vast is it? And what plastics does it include- is it everything from jet and horn to Bakelite, Celluloid, Lucite and more modern artisanal pieces? 

It’s quite big now and it bothers me somewhat that I don’t quite know how many pieces I have. However, I am in the process of cataloguing them. I would like to find a way, one day, of presenting them as a collection. 

It spans from the earliest versions of ‘plastic’ right up to modern day designers. 

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Selection of Bakelite hoop earrings.

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Assortment of novelty brooches.

I notice you are often de-stashing and listing pieces for sale online, given that Bakelite etc. is a finite source do you ever worry about the supply drying up? 

Yes and no. There is without a doubt less available and prices are going up but I spent quite a while fostering relationships with other dealers in other countries and this seems to be paying off for now! 

What are some of the favourite pieces in your collection? 

My carved galalith cicadas. 

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“These are all early examples of carved horn. These were not cheap when they were new and most of mine are signed. These ones are by Lucas.”

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Do you have a favourite type of plastic? Why? 

Wavy marbled French Galalith, totally underrated! I am currently trying to find out how/where it was made. I’d like to know the specific factories. It doesn’t ‘turn’ or dull. 

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I like to start the day with a show and tell of all the plastics with @loraleopard. I call that a breakfast of champions. #dailybake #collector #vintage#plastic #galalith

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A tasty confection of Bakelite jewellery: On today’s menu we have green, torty, yellow, pumpkin and red. #DailyBake

What are your Holy Grail pieces that you dream of finding? 

An Atelier Papillon artisan piece. I’m saving for the right one. There is fluidity to his work that is mesmerising.  

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Outstanding work by Atelier Papillon

Do you have any tips for shopping for Bakelite and Celluloid etc.? 

Don’t believe anything you read on eBay. People can be at best ignorant and at worst down right dishonest. Someone told me last week they had tested a piece with simichrome. Of course they handn’t, and when probed it turned out they didn’t even know what simichrome was… 

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Any pitfalls to be wary of? 

Avoid anything warped or weeping or smelling of vinegar! Or anything that looks dried out. Also, anything that goes sticky under water (Bakelite, especially). 

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SO MUCH eye candy! What is your favourite piece?