Forget Mad Men: Adventures in Boardwalk Empire-esque Fashions

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"Sweet suit, Nuck."
Between Christmas and New Year I picked up a crack habit, in which crack=Boardwalk Empire. Yeah, yeah, I know--I'm a little late to the game. My husband and I wanted to get caught up on Dexter while we enjoyed our individual bouts of the flu over the holidays, but when the discs we wanted to rent (WE'RE OLD) were checked out, we just kind of grabbed Boardwalk Empire to pass the time.

We watched the first two seasons in two days.

The storylines are stunning, but the show captured me visually right from the start. The costuming is so integral to the show, that it actually becomes part of the storyline when main character Margaret goes to work at a local high-end ladies store. Though that particular storyline is short-lived, Margaret's clothing continues to be significant in the way she interacts with characters, and even how she perceives herself.

Period films and television shows always rely on the importance of costuming to lend historical accuracy, and in many cases to identify characters in unspoken ways: servants versus aristocracy on Downton Abbey; the cool, elegant '50s glam of Mad Men ad men (and women) that inspired Banana Republic to launch three MM-themed collections; Civil War-era America in Lincoln, in which iconic figures were brought to life on-screen.

So why hasn't Broadway Empire taken fashion by storm the way Mad Men did? There are probably a few reasons for it. First, 1950s fashion is easier to reference than 1920s, especially for younger consumers. Second, 1950s fashion is a little easier to wear than 1920s, with its dropped waists for women and broad ties and wide lapels for men. When referencing another era with clothing--through vintage finds, or modern pieces inspired by that era--it's easy to step over the line, and look like you're wearing a costume.

So with all this in mind, when I received an invitation from a friend to attend the Houston Young People for the Arts Gala "Bootlegger's Ball: A 1920s Prohibition Rendition" I was at once elated and nervous. I need a dress that reads 1920, but not so much so that I can't wear it again; ideally, something that can be styled to scream 1920s that only whispers it for the remainder of the time that I own and wear it.

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Photo by Shabby Apple
So, where to turn? Most of my old standbys--Banana Republic and J.Crew--do a great job of referencing '50s, and even '40s, but it appears the '20s are a bit of a stretch. My mind immediately went to Shabby Apple, where I find many adorable retro-inspired dresses. I was richly rewarded with their All That Jazz Collection. In addition, I was particularly enamored of this dress, "Crème Noeud #5" which has everything: boxy shape, dropped waist, and sash. Alas, the dress takes five weeks to ship, and most dresses I've ordered from Shabby Apple require a trip to the tailor.

Next I decided to try keywords, rather than going directly to retailer sites. Using phrases like "Gatsby inspired dress" and "Prohibition era fashion" I stumbled across a site called ModCloth, which had a couple of interesting possibilities.

"The Sweetest Style Dress" is a trapeze dress with embellishments that are, in and of themselves, quite modern. Add a brooch, a long strand of pearls, and a hat (or maybe a boa!) and the 1920s are referenced easily enough. Unfortunately I'm not a fan of a handkerchief hem, and the vanilla color seems destined to wash me out; for $75 I need to love the dress.

My heart leapt when I found the "Great Gatsby Dress" but hopes were quickly dashed when I realized it was no longer available. "A little too on-the-nose," I consoled myself. "Turn off the goddamned computer and go to sleep!" yelled my husband. Apparently dress shopping at 1 a.m., in bed, is inconsiderate.

Finally, I thought I'd found the one when I came across the "Dreams and Sugar" dress. Perfection! And at $99 pretty reasonable--I began styling it in my head--but quickly saw that it was out of stock. None of the other 1920s dresses at Mod Cloth felt quite right, but they do have other, quite lovely options.

Additional searches for "Art Deco dresses" turned up a few potential winners, but most were out of my price range. Further, so many of the dresses were in shades of pale peach, nude, and ivory (which wash me out) I have been left with no other option than to--gasp!--leave the house and shop at a real store. And frankly, when you're 4'10 and shopping for dropped waist dresses, that's probably your best bet, anyway. I have a back-up plan: if all else fails, menswear. Black pants, tuxedo shirt, my high-heeled spectator booties, a fedora, and multi-strand pearls.

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