08/25/2014 04:15 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2014

The Magic of the Vintage Woman

Zero Creatives via Getty Images

Most people are pretty content with the fact that the '50s are over, given that civil rights, equal(ish) pay for women and not being institutionalized for homosexuality are all good things. But there's a subculture of people who have attached themselves to the more positive aspects of the past. Referred to as "vintage enthusiasts," these individuals have adorned their bodies, furnished their houses and styled their lives after the '40s, '50s and early '60s. It's not some hobby, either, as thrift shopping is for so many other, less extreme people; they're committed to keeping up a retro veneer at all times. I spoke with three women who are active in Los Angeles' vintage scene: Doris Mayday, who was featured on TLC's My Crazy Obsession and currently models for Pinup Girl Clothing; Dollie DeVille, who was on the TLC special Wives with Beehives and runs the popular blog The Rockabilly Socialite; and Melissa Lokos, whose Etsy shop and Instagram have amassed her hundreds of followers.

Doris refers to herself as a "vintage enthusiast," saying that other people use terms like "rockabilly" and "pinup." I asked her if she feels that people are co-opting her lifestyle when they wear things from the Pinup Girl Clothing shop where she works. "You've got to accept that not everyone knows every Johnny Burnette song or can pick out a Mercury from a Cadillac," she said. "Some people just want to look pretty."

But some people want to do more than just look pretty. They want to really live the lifestyle. "There's a joke that me and my friends have -- I'm so rockabilly I sh*t with vintage toilet paper," Dollie said. "Some people look for vintage sanitary napkins. Me, I'm crazy. I might go on eBay and buy a vintage shower curtain. I'm painting my house, and I can't just go get any color paint I like. I have to use vintage paint samples and get reproduction colors."

Melissa owns 11 catsuits, one costing over $1,000. Doris wears vintage undergarments -- girdles, stockings, garters (and bullet-point bras, the wires of which Dollie told me can stab you in the arm and leave scars.) She's travelled to other countries to go to rockabilly festivals, where she stays with people from the scene. There's a real closeness among vintage fanatics. "You all know the same bands and designers, and you collect the same stuff," she said. "It's a great community."

They came to the subculture in a variety of ways, but there's a thread running though all of their stories: they didn't fit into modern-day life, and the past just seemed better. Melissa said she feels most like herself when wearing vintage, and Doris described growing up immersed in '50s culture, with a hot rod mechanic dad and former-DJ babysitter, plus her mom's old rock and roll movies. But for Dollie, the connection runs deeper. She spent much of her childhood living with her grandparents, and "they'd fill the house with old music, really treasure their old things, old china, old paintings." Collecting vintage clothing and furniture and turning her life into a living museum, is a way to connect her not just to some abstract past, but to something that comforted her as a child.

So what is the real appeal of the past, beyond the aesthetic? It's one thing to own a few vintage dresses or a retro couch, but to devote your entire lifestyle to the '50s is a completely different animal. Melissa noted that there's more adventure and versatility to the style and suggested that people are attracted to both the simplicity and complexity of the '50s. Which struck me as odd, initially: why this desire to go back to a time pre-second wave feminism, pre-Civil Rights, pre-sexual revolution?

I spoke to Dollie about this. "People have a fondness for the '50s," she said. "It's the Greatest Generation. There were things that were wrong with the '50s, but it was a time in America where people had a lot of hope. Things were finally starting to look up. We consider it the happy days." She told me that older men often stop her on the street to say that she reminds them of their high school sweethearts; sentimentality, she said, is a very strong force.

I asked Doris what exactly attracts her to the past, and she said it was difficult to pinpoint, but that:

I love the energy of that time. Post-war was filled with the idea of endless possibilities, and there was an excitement. From the clothes being bolder, music being louder... that hope is attractive. On the other hand, there is a charming simplicity of it. Without modern amenities and the distraction and mess of social media, life seems like it was simpler, genuine, and heartfelt.

To Dollie, Melissa and Doris, the '50s weren't some buttoned-down hellhole of repression. It was instead a decade of hope, of something sunnier and optimistic. Because in the '50s, no one knew what madness was going to hit the fan in the next few decades: no one predicted the Kennedy assassination, or Vietnam, or Watergate, or AIDS. It was an era where things seemed like they could only get better; the American dream mythology had never been stronger.

There's a passion for the past that goes far beyond having a soft spot for Rebel Without a Cause or a nice sweater set. By reveling in the past, these women have found themselves saving it. "Any substantial piece I buy, I ask if [the owners] know the backstory. If you know the story of something, that makes it even more of a treasure to you. You feel like you're preserving it," Dollie said. She told me about the china that her grandfather bought for his mother in Japan during World War II that was passed down to her. "Maybe it isn't my favorite pattern, but I appreciate it so much because I know the history of it. I'm still going to love it, because it's old."
Doris agreed that it's something of a treasure hunt. "Collecting vintage, everyone remembers where they bought their dress or lamp or sofa, and how much it cost, and the story behind it. It begins a hunt to get the stuff. There's a lot of heart and passion. It's like finding a treasure," Doris said.

Melissa listed her gold lamé sequined Ceeb cat suit as her "absolute favorite," and remembered the exact price, place and time of day that she found it. There's something almost savant-like to their ability to remember every detail of every piece that they own. It connects them to their clothes and their furniture and, by extent, brings them closer to the era that they love so much.
The goal here is not to shun modernity and revert to the past -- the women all have phones and computers -- but to recreate as much of the '50s as is possible. It's all about spirit and passion; little details are forgiven, such as Doris' vegetarian spin on her grandmother's old recipes, or Dollie's modern-day backpacking gear.

There's also interplay between personality and persona. "I do feel I've adopted a persona," Melissa said. "In my youth, I wanted to be the best, always dressed as if I were going to meet Elvis for a cocktail party." I asked Doris if she ever feels the need to suppress parts of herself for not aligning with the "Doris Mayday" brand, and she told me that this isn't the case. "I decided early on that I couldn't really suppress myself and try to dress like everyone else," she told me, saying that dressing like everyone else makes her feel disheveled and unattractive. She's just so drawn to the vintage style that it's become a part of her. She did say that, with pin-up modeling, there is a character, but that, "I still wear those clothes. Maybe not smile as big. It's just an extension of myself."

Dollie said that a persona, to her, would be "more like a model who just dresses that way for a photo shoot," and then sheds the wiggle dress and updo and goes back to a different life. She also told me, though, that there are some personality traits that she recognizes as important for living this lifestyle. "You need to have an appreciation for the past. People who are vintage collectors collect [the items] because they don't want other people to have them. We're saving a piece of history."