The Dress-Up Closet

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No caption. Photo by Anisha Suterwala.

In my more romantic moments, I imagined that entering Fashionista Vintage & Variety, the vintage clothing store on Whitney Avenue, would be like stepping into a time machine — women in flapper gowns, cigarettes in pencil-thin holders, and a crystal chandelier. But realistically, I was expecting a dank antique store whose clothes should have been thrown out years ago.

Instead, I enter something that resembles the costume room of a theater. Feather boas, hats, elbow-length red gloves, and other accessories swing from the mini-cabana that houses the cash register. Clothes, of impossible variety and in every color, hang from racks crammed into the viewing rooms of the boutique. A line of petticoats in pastel colors forms a curtain in front of the street-facing window. Only the jazz playing in the background belongs to the 1920s milieu I had thought I would see.

I’m still absorbing all of this when Todd Lyon, manager of the boutique and business partner to owner Nancy Shea, sweeps in from a back room. She’s a bottle blonde and cheery, wearing black from head to toe: a black lace shirt, a black skirt, black tights, black leather oxfords, and a studded black belt. She tells me she chose her outfit that day because she had just cut her hair into a mullet and “wanted to look a little tough.”

Fashionista, she says, started off as a tag sale. At the time, Shea was working as an environmental planner for the city of Waterbury, and Lyon didn’t feel satisfied by her career as a freelance author. The two quit their jobs to open Fashionista, undaunted by the risks of the retail world. “We’re just making it up as we go along,” she says. “One of our mottos is, ‘We don’t need a business plan.’” Their free-spiritedness shows in some of the boutique’s traditions: Lyon and Shea host dress-up karaoke parties, and every day at around 5:30 p.m. they open up a bottle of wine, in a ceremony they call “wine-thirty.”

Right now, however, Lyon is focused on a more immediate concern — a new batch of clothes just picked up at an auction. “Let’s untie it and see what we bought,” she says. The contents: a peach lace-up bustier, a striped vest, sixties floral pinafores, and a handful of failed attempts at early 1900s-style costumes. She matches a flouncy peaches-and-cream striped skirt to the bustier and finds the bustle that goes with it. The costume comes together, but Lyon wonders if the bustier could be put to better use. “Some girl could rock it just by itself,” Lyon tells me, grinning.

Lyon takes me on a mini-tour of the boutique — first, the window display full of what Lyon calls “cupcake dresses,” and then onto the Tunnel of Love, whose items include nightgowns, lingerie, and a pair of thigh-high black leather boots, and the fur room. She’s an exuberant guide, spilling anecdotes about everything from her new boyfriend to the origins of certain items of clothing. There aren’t any other customers, but then, there hasn’t been a “fashion emergency” today. Fashionista specializes in these: the latest was a wave of Yale Forestry students seeking appropriately gaudy attire for a tacky prom.

But Fashionista isn’t just a camp store for people playing dress-up. Amidst coats made of chinchillas, Lyon tells me that many customers have come into the store expecting only costumes, and instead find something that entirely changes their style — a man who thinks he can only “dress in Abercrombie & Fitch” and instead finds that a pair of 70s style, short leather boots suits him more. “It’s fun pushing people’s perceptions of themselves,” Lyon says. “Sometimes we can actually see people evolve, because they haven’t seen themselves in a certain light before.”

I stay for a few minutes after Lyon concludes her tour to browse through crowded racks of dresses. Many are too flashy for my style, except for a quiet dress in coral, or what Lyon calls “thinking girl’s pink.” It’s comforting to know, though, that if I ever wanted a shiny gold one- shouldered dress or an African beaded skirt, I could come to this boutique on the outskirts of campus. Just like it was a way for Lyon and Shea to reinvent their lives, it’s a way for anyone to escape to their own private dress-up closet — as Lyon calls it, “fantasyland.”

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