At a social event or gathering, even a black-tie affair, most people aim to blend in. To sip their punch and say their hellos with a nod and a smile. But Sheila Markley Black is comfortable standing out in a crowd.
“I think people are afraid of making mistakes,” says the 61-year-old Black, as she fans the 1920s flapper dress she’s wearing. She takes care to point out the devore velvet and black combination was popular in the era. “People often don’t know what to wear, or how they look in it.”
An attorney at Day Ketterer, Black dubs herself a “stylist at heart.” And it’s apparent she just knows what looks good.
When it comes to vintage clothing, many say Black is the gal to go to. She owns 200-plus pieces, and she has been collecting for about 30 years. Her love of clothing began at a young age.
In the living room of her Hills and Dales Cape Cod home, she recalls one of the highlights of childhood: shopping with her mother.
A sales associate once pointed out, “Sheila really likes clothes.”
Her mother turned to find a young Sheila with a dress turned inside out, trying to figure out how it was made.
A Hoover High School graduate, Black studied British history at Mount Holyoke, a small women’s college in Massachusetts. She earned her law degree at Duke University. But it’s her reputation as a vintage clothing aficionado that often precedes her. People she never has met ask her, “Oh, do you still collect vintage clothing?”
Black’s first vintage find was an 1880s lingerie dress. One of her favorite pieces is a pink wool suit from the 1960s. Another favorite: a cape with a jacket built into it.
Other pieces in Black’s extensive collection range from an ornate 1920s dress made of silk, netting and
heavy beading to a 1940s romper (similar to the ones worn by Marilyn Monroe) to an Asian dress from the 1950s, and even a yellow party dress from the late 1800s that belonged to her husband’s grandmother.
There are others in her collection that she hardly thinks of as vintage: Silk slacks from the 1940s and 1960s, a navy blue suit from the 1940s and matching shoes, which, she says, are “great to wear in court.”
“She pulls it off like not many of us could,” said Jill McQueen, a colleague at Day Ketterer. “There’s something very inspiring about it. It’s strong in silhouette, but still very feminine.”
Black knows the history behind her vintage pieces, too. And if she doesn’t, she’ll find out.
“It’s always much more interesting if you can find something out about a piece,” says Black.
The history, coupled with the versatility and beauty of the fabrics and the quality of the design, gets Black every time. The 1920s is her favorite era.
“So many things were changing in the way people lived,” Black explains. “There was the emancipation of women in terms of them getting to vote and, in a small way, their entrance into the work force. The U.S. also was beginning to take its place as a world power.”
Black once shared a display of her 1920s dresses with the United Way Women’s Leadership Council and quizzed the women on the history of the pieces.
“I knew she had an interest in clothing, but I didn’t realize the scope of it,” explained Angela Perisic, the United Way of Greater Stark County’s director of corporate and workplace giving. “She has her own fashion sense, and she’s always very puttogether. She has a passion for it.”
Perisic added that Black also is very active in the community, and she is “very committed to whatever
it is she becomes a part of.”
Black’s husband, Warren (known to many as “Pat”), also has “committed” to building a giant closet for his wife’s vintage collection. He jokes. But, for Black, clothing is no laughing matter.
VINTAGE SHOPPING TIPS
Sheila Markley Black says many store clerks are not trained to be of help to customers, unfortunately. This makes a personal shopper worth the investment, she says. An even better bet is to take a friend, someone whose opinion you admire and trust. Just make sure that person isn’t afraid to be brutally honest. Or, find someone whose style you admire and opinion you trust. Take that person shopping.
WHERE TO LOOK FOR VINTAGE CLOTHING
Resale shops, particularly in larger cities such as Cleveland, are great places to look for vintage clothing, according to Sheila Markley Black. Many boutiques offer a vintage section. The Internet also is a great place to find vintage clothing.
HOW TO PULL OFF A VINTAGE LOOK
Sheila Markley Black recommends:
Start with an accessory, such as a hat, purse, gloves or jacket.
Stick to one standout piece at a time. Do not dress head-to-toe in vintage.
Stay away from shoes.They can’t be altered, and vintage shoes are not always comfortable.
The little black dress has been around for a century.Wearing one can help you “blend in perfectly at a party.”