An old town Bluffton shop is bringing back a mad love for vintage looks.
On the Facebook page for her store, Madhouse Vintage, Caroline Noble sends out regular pop quizzes to her style-obsessed followers. “Tell me who you think wore this and when?” Noble asks about a 1970sera cotton sun dress, a full-length, sleeveless pink-and-green daisy print number with an empire waist (tied with a pink ribbon) and a scoop neckline. Its label reads: “The Daisy Pot – Honolulu.”
Some of Noble’s hundreds of followers begin to weigh in, guessing Elizabeth Taylor or Doris Day. But before too long, island resident Lindy Ellison Russell, wife of entertainer Gregg Russell and co-founder of Hilton Head Heroes, posts that she once owned the dress — and wore it to a Jimmy Buffett concert in Miami. Just like that, a Madhouse Vintage vignette is born.
“Each piece has a story to tell from its past life,” Noble says about the vintage collectibles she purchases (mostly from eBay and Etsy) for her shop on the corner of Calhoun and Lawton streets in Bluffton. Inspired by such fashion icons as Audrey Hepburn, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and even Barbie, Noble opened her store in September to showcase ‘50s, ’60s and ’70s vintage clothing and accessories, most of which have never been worn and remain in mint condition. It is Noble’s first stateside business venture after moving to Long Cove five years ago from Spain with her husband, Peter, and their children, Eden, 11, and Maddy, 9. “What makes perfect sense in times of uncertainty is the ability to reinvent yourself,” she says.
Noble’s passion for collecting and archiving vintage wear was sparked during her childhood in Brighton, England, where she was ferried to auctions and estate sales by a mother who dealt in antiques. She drifted away from it for years, but after stepping up last spring to costume the Hilton Head Preparatory School’s production of “Grease,” found she missed the thrill of the hunt. These days, most of her buying is done online, though she insists that “I know what I’m looking at.”
She credits “Mad Men,” the stylish AMC ad-agency drama set in ’60s New York, for re-igniting interest in dresses. On the racks in her store, Noble pointed out shirtwaist dresses with nipped waists and full skirts and sexy cocktail dresses in silky fabrics, pieces that could come straight out of the show’s costume design. “Everything back then was about the foundation,” said Noble. “It was a tight girdle that gave them that hourglass, wiggle shape.”
Dresses at Madhouse Vintage range from about $50 to $300; a majority were made in America. The quality — full linings and hand finishing — reflects an American fashion heyday in which big cities and small towns alike sported fine women’s dress shops.
Noble admits that “Mad Men” mania has affected the price of well-preserved pieces from the late ’50s and early ’60s. But, she says, it’s also affected fashion, in that designs from that era tend to appeal to women with a lot of confidence in their own style. “It’s not a statement of rebellion like ’60s hippie or ’70s punk was,” Noble said. “When you wear it, you’re making a statement almost to yourself. It’s about the power of the dress. Who’s to know whether it’s vintage?”
PHOTOS BY BO MILBOURN/33 PARK PHOTOGRAPHY