TORONTO — Cabaret is a good name for the vintage clothing store on Queen Street West that is lined with racks of theatrical women’s wear. I enter the narrow confines to find a red English hunting jacket from the turn of last century and puffy dresses seemingly straight out of “Gone With the Wind.”
I eagerly make my way downstairs to Kingpin, the men’s clothing section that has the feel of a speakeasy, and wander over to the sports jacket section to try on blazers. Nothing works. Then I spy a velvety black dinner jacket with a Barney’s label that could have come from an early “Mad Men” episode. I put it on and it fits like a glove.
There’s nothing quite like discovering something you need — or want — at a vintage clothing store. When it fits like Cinderella’s shoe, it’s as if you were meant to find it. It doesn’t matter that it had a proud owner who once paid full price. Maybe the flair of the former owner will even rub off on you. In the case of the smoking jacket, I picture a debonair sort with a quick wit who was quite gregarious at dinner parties.
As an undergrad at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I would often make the four-hour drive here to find vintage winter coats and dress clothes. Toronto has an astounding number of vintage shops, more than 50 just in its center. The city is an important hub on the used-clothing circuit because of its location as a shipping access point in the middle of North America and its large number of warehouses for sorting and storage.
“We have an incredible amount of space in town,” says Wendy Woods, an image consultant who specializes in taking clientele to the city’s finest vintage shops. Her first stop is The Cat’s Meow on Avenue Road in the Yorkville neighborhood. Woods is quick to point out that her definition of vintage clothing is apparel that’s at least 30 years old. Many vintage shops like The Cat’s Meow also sell modern designer wear that has a retro appeal.
“It’s always wise to ask where’d you find this, to see if it’s really vintage or not. But when you hit it, you know. There’s a certain unique quality of dresses from the ’30s and ’40s,” says Woods.
Much of the merchandise from The Cat’s Meow comes from estate sales. Prices can range from $20 for a blouse to $900 for a 1920s Art Deco dress. It’s not immediately apparent that you’re shopping in a second-hand store. Younger women try on one-of-a-kind dresses for an upcoming prom, while others peruse the jewelry and handbags. What sets these shops apart is their boutique atmosphere.
The hub of the city’s second-hand shopping has always been Kensington Market. Kensington Avenue is lined with vintage clothing stores, including Courage, My Love, opened in 1975. Racks here are overflowing with an eclectic mix, like walking into grandma’s attic. Canadian flannel shirts share racks with furs, top hats, and a large button selection, guaranteed to match the clothes of yesteryear. The store is known for its bargain-basement appeal.
“I once found a pair of Chloé shoes for $40 here,” says Woods.
In the past three to five years, many purveyors of vintage wares have moved to Ossington Avenue, off Queen Street West, once home to Little Portugal. I Miss You sells Chanel, Dior, and other designer label eveningwear from the ’50s and ’60s, along with jewelry and other accessories. House of Vintage has moved farther down Queen Street West to the Parkdale neighborhood, showcasing Burberry coats and a vast selection of boots and shoes.
“House of Vintage is popular with the Japanese shopper, who lately has been looking for cowboy boots and military wear like Air Force bomber jackets and Navy pea coats,” says Woods.
Cabaret opened on Queen Street West in 1996. Owner Tao Drayton carries on his father’s tradition of finding stylish designer dresses for that special occasion. Thankfully, he hasn’t forgotten the male species, even if we are relegated to the basement. I slip into the dinner jacket and feel like a new man, one that soon will be $185 poorer.