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Exclusive Interview w/ Fashion Historian & Author Jonathan Walford – High Low Vintage

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Jonathan, you have such a breadth of knowledge on all things vintage, where did it start? How old were you when you first discovered fashion as a subject?
Thank-you… Honestly, I would have to say the first time I twigged to fashion being interesting was when I was nine or ten years old and I wanted to watch the Six Wives of Henry VIII on television. I had seen the first episode and the clothes appealed to me and I wanted to see more. I remember my parents weren’t happy because it was on after my bedtime, and I remember pouting and whining, which usually never worked on my parents, but they must have realized that this was important to me because they let me stay up to watch the rest of the series. I was thereafter drawn to historically-set films – Cabaret, The Sting, The Great Gatsby…

Is there one piece you remember seeing or buying that was your epiphanous moment?

There were a series of smaller events that encouraged my interest in historic dress. Despite my hoarding tendencies, my family were not keepers. I grew up in a post and beam mid-century modern home built in 1959, with Danish teak and Italian glass. My mother had a trunk in the basement with her wedding dress and old photo albums from her childhood, but that was all that wasn’t contemporary in our life. When I was about 13, and a choir boy at the local Anglican church, there was a church picnic where everyone dressed in ‘old fashioned’ clothes. One of the parishioners wore her grandmother’s wedding dress, which amazed me. I was delighted to discover that museums weren’t the only places in the world that had examples of old fashions. Since the late 1960s vintage clothing boutiques had been opening and I soon discovered where those stores were! With my first paycheque from a summer job in 1978 I bought a black net dress from the 1890s and so began my collection, and a full turn towards historic dress as my lifetime passion. 

Your new book “1950s American Fashion” is wonderful…..why did you pick the focus of the 50s? Was there a sea-change in world fashion in the 1950s that was different than previous or subsequent decades?
In this case the topic picked me because Shire publications was looking for an author on this topic — my previous books have been more of my choosing. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t like the 1950s, in fact it is one of my favourites. It was a odd era in many ways – both demurely conservative and conspicuously modern at the same time; a mix of futuristic materials and Victorian silhouettes – liberating sportswear and debilitating feminine styles. It was also an era when Paris was a its strongest influence and under a growing threat as American designers became more important and drew attention and sales away from the great Paris couturiers of the day.

HLV always has your book “Shoes A-Z” on the desk. It’s a great reference for anyone interested in shoe designers. Could you name a few of your favorite shoe designers and why? Maybe lesser known….
If I mention who my favourite designers are I might be shooting myself in the foot (so to speak) because prices on their shoes will go up! A perennial favourite of mine is Beth Levine – her shoes are a great mix of wearability and design fun. Moya Bowler, who designed under the Jerry Eduoard label, has a great eye and sense of novelty. David Evins produced some beautiful shoes for the high-end American market, and I have to say for consistency, Charles Jourdan has created wonderful shoes for decades. My favourite contemporary designer is probably Nicholas Kirkwood.

Thanks so much!  And to all HLV’rs, be sure to check out Jonathan Walford’s newest book “1950s American Fashion“.