May 7, 2014
02:51 PMStyle & Design
Historic Style Given New Life for Vintage Fashion and Textile Show
Melanie Stengel/New Haven Register
Dress restorer, Mary Troncale in her living room, with a petticoat that she is restoring.
These are busy days for Mary Troncale. Her needle darts. The ironing board stands ready.
You look in on her, sitting sewing on a couch in a sunroom of her Branford home, and, even wearing jeans, she reminds you of the serene women in early 20th-century paintings. This is not surprising because Troncale (pronounced tron-kolly) seems to live in a world that is far removed from 21st-century Branford.
This world is filled with elegant garments, lace and silk, sometimes glittering with tiny pearls and sequins, that were created in the early 1900s and back into the 1800s.
She’s working on these now, preparing for the Vintage Fashion and Textile Show that will take place in Sturbridge, Mass., on May 12.
Troncale is in the vintage-fashion business—she is a restorer and buyer and seller of vintage garments. Vintage to her means from the 1940s going backwards to 1900—that’s her era. She is impatient with people, especially young people, who think stuff from the 1980s and even 1990s is vintage. Horrors.
(Troncale restores a vintage petticoat, right. Photo by Melanie Stengel/New Haven Register.)
The Sturbridge show, which is held a day before the famous mammoth antique show that covers the fields in nearby Brimfield, Mass., is a capital-letter Big Event for Troncale and others of her ilk. Troncale, who has been in the business for 30 years, used to do eight shows a year, a number of them in Manhattan, but she has shaved her showings to the three a year in Sturbridge. She’s been doing shows a long time—but still, she feels some edginess before the show, which is understandable: Serious collectors, a rabid lot, will be at Sturbridge, as well as designers who will be looking for ideas they will “interpret”—which is to say modify for new designs in coming seasons. Exhibitors all check out other exhibitors’ booths…and, not incidentally, a lot of money changes hands.
The shows are high points in the trajectory of running a vintage fashion business. The fun part for Troncale is finding the stuff—at auctions, estate sales, shows. “I love the search. It’s the hunt,” she says. She works all year hunting and restoring, and then the last-minute stitching gives her that harried feeling when May approaches.
(A dress from 1920s that Troncale restored and wore to her son's wedding, over chair, left. Photo by Melanie Stengel/New Haven Register.)
In a way, she has been a vintage-clothing connoisseur for longer than she has actually made it a business. She and her husband, Frank, a physician, lived in Thailand from 1965 through 1967; Frank had been drafted and was with a medical unit. In Bangkok, Mary discovered that local seamstresses created what were genuinely haute couture dresses…and so she had dresses made for elegant occasions like meeting the Thai king, Bhumibol. “He was a good guy,” she says parenthetically. One of the dresses King Bhumibol might have noticed is still owned by Mary; it’s of beaded pink silk,
Fast forward: the three Troncale children were in school and Mary decided she wanted to have a business. Pondering what road to take, she remembered that when her third child, a daughter, was born, “I decided I could take the train off my wedding gown and make a christening gown. I got a pattern with a little bodice…and I thought that’s not so bad. I did it and it worked. That was the beginning.
Then she bought a trunk of clothes from a friend, and was happy to find it full of old threads and needles and an 1800s gown. She realized she needed to educate herself so she started buying books—at the Metropolitan Museum of New York she would buy as many books as she could carry. She now has book cases jammed with books that have “lace” in the title.
From the beginning, Troncale saw her interest “as a business. I wasn’t going to lose money. But then it became an enormous passion.”