A new vantage point on vintage clothing

Just a few blocks away from our warehouse, on a dead-end street, inside a non-descript building, is home of Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing LLC (HUVC). Helen Uffner, the unassuming, affable and good-humored owner of one of the largest (and most fabulous) costume rental houses in NYC also happens to be an MFTA donor! It is not unlikely that some of you, our readers, have benefitted from some of her wonderful donations, which have included pictures frames, fabric, and even some fabulous furniture.

Meticulously organized and abundantly stocked, HUVC marks 2012 as their 35th year in full service business.  Renting authentic period clothing and accessories that span the 1850’s through the 1970’s, HUVC clothes have been featured in over 1000 films, theatrical productions, TV shows, magazines, book covers, commercials, music videos, and special events. Early film projects range from Out of Africa to Zelig to The Color Purple. Recent TV projects include Boardwalk Empire, HBO’sforthcoming Liberace bio-pic “Behind the Candelabra” and 666 Park Avenue.

Helen Uffner at her studio

We were fortunate enough to get a tour of the space from Helen, as we chatted about her interests, background and inspiration. We even got a history lesson! For a slide show and more…

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So what are your favorite pieces? Anything quirky or that makes me laugh; beautifully tailored pieces from the Edwardian Era and high style 1950’s periods; pieces with lots of texture, handwork and embroidery; simple country garments that are hand-made and imperfect,  that and tell you more about the person who MADE the item rather than the person wearing or using it.

How many pieces are in your collection and where do you store all of it? Thousands! We did inventory approx 6 yrs ago and counted 8500 dresses and we keep adding! Most of the collection is in LIC, some higher end pieces are in climate controlled storage. We also have a collection of original fashion magazines dating as far back as 1855, including Woman’s Home Companion, The Delineator, The American Woman, a 1913 issue of Vogue, as well as more up to date magazines.

Movie studios often want the actors in the original underpinnings of the time (ie. a corset or girdle), so we try to acquire as many pieces as necessary. Even if it isn’t visible, it gives the actor a certain gait or stance that promotes the posture of the period the film producers want to evoke.

How do you resist not wanting to wear everything? How do you deal with sizing? Most of it doesn’t fit me so it’s not a problem, but the entire staff loves to try on clothes and hats all the time! (If you visit Helen’s blog, if it looks like they’re having so much fun, it’s because they are!)

A 24 inch waist is the smallest I buy, as well as shoes size 6 and up. We have some smaller pairs but I generally shop for the modern body and try not to buy clothes that are too small. There is no limit as to how large items can be though – we even have a man’s suit with a 62 inch chest!

As far as size requests go, male actors tend to say they are taller and have smaller-waists than they actually are, and female actors…well YOU know!! They wistfully think of their smaller figures of ten years ago!

What are your inventory sources? The proliferation of on-line sites like e-bay makes it harder to find unique items, since I like to see and feel the garments myself rather than buy in two dimensions. I get calls from people who see our website, lawyers and antique dealers handling estates and I enjoy going to estate sales and flea markets. Some of my clients are MFTA donors!!!

So what happens when a studio rents something but it doesn’t exactly suit their needs? We allow studios to alter items (such as hems and cuffs) as long as it doesn’t change the integrity of the item. They can’t cut or change the color without our approval, which we rarely give with the main exception of allowing the toning down of bright white items for the camera.

When men’s items are enlarged, they can return them as such, but if taken in, they must enlarge the pieces before sending them back to us.  It’s hard to find early men’s suits that fit contemporary men.

On the Fame crazed and vanity obsessed Helen shared a fun fact with us on the subject of men’s clothes: In the mid to early 1800’s men’s vests were padded so as to make the man’s chest appear more developed and more masculine. Even earlier around the time of the French revolution, when men wore pantaloons, they padded their silk hose with fake wood calf inserts to make their calves appear more muscular!  Helen told us that men were much more of the peacocks when it came to appearances. More proof of this is the large collection of colorful suspenders she has in storage.

We have the occasional “stalker” who contacts us wanting to buy specific film clothes (Kate Winslet’s dress from The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a popular one), which we have received emails about as far away as England and Australia! There are always fans, collectors and people who are obsessed with a specific actor or item.

What other affiliations do you have with organizations besides MFTA? We do lots of non-profit work, not only Hollywood glitz! Theater, film, TV, book covers, collaborations with artists (ie. Matthew Barney), fashion shoots, commercials, CD covers, Broadway shows, posters and we are the secret source for high end fashion designers’ inspirations, who come to us to copy details and fabric!

We have donated fragile Victorian and 1920’s clothes that are too delicate to wear to university costume shops so they can be studied, as well as having donated and loaned wardrobes to the New York Historical Society, FIT, Hudson River Museum, Tribeca Film Festival and the Tenement Museum for special events and exhibitions. We also have donated tours of our place and items for charity events such as DIFFA and Taste of Long Island City.

We have given tours to university classes and grade schoolers …we really want kids to have access to these items..

What led you down this path? The only child and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Helen was born in Brussels and came to NYC first at age three and settled here permanently at age eleven. Helen told us “Back when my parents were growing up, you bought only one or two great clothing items a season. As a child my mother did this and it planted a seed in appreciating finely tailored and well-made clothes…I don’t read fashion magazines or follow clothing trends – I like to think I have my own unique fashion sense!” Helen studied fine art in both high school and college. “I’ve always collected beautiful, old clothes from thrift stores but I just wanted to look at them and admire the handwork. It never occurred to me to wear them! My father used to say “thrift shops? People will think we can’t afford to clothe you!” Later he proudly boasted “Helen was one of the first to shop in thrift shops! “

When prodded about how one collects so many marvelous items, Helen admits that she has a good eye and can spot quality in a mound of junk. Her personal collections include arts and crafts, folk art, pottery, early books, fine art and mid-century modern items. Helen’s quirky collections include 18th century men’s vests and suspenders, women’s turn of century embroidered and beaded stockings and early undergarments, including one of the first bras made, which is stuffed with horse hair!

What are some of your earliest/ noteworthy purchases? The first items I ever bought were actually hand-embroidered, made in Austria, silk blouses that I paid 25 cents for in a thrift shop when I was about 13 years old.

My first “major” purchase was a 1920’s beaded dress that I paid $5 for over 40 years ago in furniture recycling junkyard, which I still have!

My next oh-my-god-can-I-afford-it purchase was a delicate Edwardian embroidered white lawn dress completely decorated in covered buttons for $20 (which at the time was an outrageous sum!) purchased a few years later at a flea market. I still have that one too!

Of course, we have come a long way, since I can spend several hundred dollars on an unusual vintage item now and not even blink!

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One Response to A new vantage point on vintage clothing

  1. Isn’t HUVC beyond wonderful? Helen’s warehouse is like PeeWee’s Playhouse for fashion buffs and historians — and she’s like Pee Wee Herman’s character, leading you on a fabulous journey.
    Merci!

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