Dior, Elizabeth Taylor and Mary Pickford: How vintage fashion is saving the Alexander Mansion

Karen O’Leary, left, wears a 1950s “new look” Christian Dior design. Sarah Wright, right, wears a 1970s Jessica McClintock dress with lace details. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio.)

Sarah Wright and Karen O’Leary walked into the speakeasy wearing black cocktail dresses with squared shoulders, nipped waists and hemlines that hit the middle of their calves. 

But the year wasn’t 1920 or 1940 as their attire might suggest. It was 2017, and the women were ready for a night on the town.

The garments they wore couldn’t have been more different from the short, tight slinky dresses on many of the club’s guests. The distinction caught the attention of everyone at the Deep Ellum haunt. 

“We kept getting invited to the VIP areas, and I think it was simply because we were wearing something different,” Wright says. “When we came in, we made a spectacle. It was so much fun, and we had a blast that night.”

Showing off their vintage attire is something the women do regularly — at events, symphonies, parades and old movie showings.  

At the Alexander Mansion, the pair model their clothing at teas and fashion shows they’ve organized through the newly formed Fashion and Style Department at the Dallas Women’s Forum. The group raises money for the preservation of the historic home.

Wright and O’Leary, who serve as co-chairs of the department, are joined by five other women who all share a passion for vintage clothing and a desire to educate residents about the house through community events.

During the holidays, department members displayed their outfits next to informational placards throughout the mansion, which was built in 1904 at the corner of Ross and Annex. In February, the group has planned a tea and fashion show, where they will model clothes inspired by old Hollywood icons.

The hope is that such events will not only help preserve the home, but instill a greater appreciation for vintage clothing among women and girls. 

“I like to educate the younger girls because they’re growing up in the age of Kim Kardashian and Instagram,” Wright says. “Everyone likes to act like they’re a celebrity. ‘Oh, I took a selfie in this outfit, so now I can’t wear it again.’ 

“They’re buying a lot of cheap, poorly made clothes. It’s not quality stuff. I would like to get back to where we’re educating the youth about quality over quantity.”

While many women search for their vintage looks on online websites like ModCloth, the members of the Fashion and Style Department haunt local thrift stores, estate sales and even their relatives’ closets. If they’re lucky, friends and family members will pass along their vintage items for free.

“A little old lady at church will bring me stuff every week,” O’Leary says. “She’s brought me pantyhose, hats. She eats it up, and I’m like, ‘Bring it on’ because you never know what you’ll find.”

A little digging has helped the ladies find everything from a $5 vintage hanky to a $2,000 authentic 1940s leopard coat. But their favorite garments aren’t the best bargains or the most expensive items. They’re the pieces that tell a story. 

For Wright, the jewel of her collection is a pink and turquoise ball gown from the private collection of silent movie star Mary Pickford. Another favorite is a leopard robe that actress Elizabeth Taylor made famous in the 1960s film “Butterfield 8.” 

Remembering those bygone eras through dress was the first draw to vintage fashion for many of the women, who grew up wearing handmade clothes and wishing for the outfits they saw in the Sears catalogs. The workmanship and tailoring displayed on each vintage piece is what kept them interested later in life. 

“I always had an appreciation for fashion and an eye for expensive things, not that I could always afford them, but these couture-looking pieces, you can’t find in a department store,” O’Leary says. “What you’re wearing is one of a kind. It’s a piece of art, not a piece of clothing.” 

(Photo by Danny Fulgencio.)

WANT MORE?
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.
Written By
More from Jaime Dunaway

If you are what you eat, visit this unicorn-themed dessert bar for a bit of magic

A unicorn-themed sweet shop that is sure to make this holiday season...
Read More