Hunting through a house of vintage fashion

By Kirsten Warner

All vintage clothes have their own story, but this collection has the photographs to prove it.

Mandy Neugebauer in vintage shop Black Betty in Pt Chevalier. Photo / Babiche Martens
Mandy Neugebauer in vintage shop Black Betty in Pt Chevalier. Photo / Babiche Martens

Tucked away in an unsuspecting shopping arcade in Point Chevalier, you'll find the quirky vintage shop Black Betty and, unfolding within it, an unusual narrative told through 50 years' worth of one family's clothing.

It is the Bailey Collection and locals get to see snapshots of local history in the ever-changing shop window displays. From big-skirted 50s dresses to trendy 60s and 70s ensembles, they come complete with photos of each garment being worn by its original owner.

Vintage fans from further afield follow the collection on-line and make special trips to the store to check new releases.

It all started when Black Betty's owner Mandy Neugebauer stumbled across a treasure trove of garments when a neighbour's house went on the market. The For Sale sign outside showed intact 1950s décor so, being a lifetime retro collector, Mandy went to an Open Home. "It was just immaculate, beautiful 40s and 50s kitsch but well looked after, it all looked like brand new."

Mandy got chatting with the vendor, Raewyn, and asked if she could have a look in the rubbish skip. "Raewyn said 'sure, we've been throwing all sorts of things out, shoes, dresses' ... And that's when alarm bells started ringing."

Mandy was invited to look at the clothing that was left. She could buy it as a job lot for a flat fee - but, she was warned, there was a lot of it. "I thought how much could it be?"

Cupboard after cupboard was emptied on to beds, stacked high in room after room after room, says Mandy. "After a while I was going yip, yip yip, I was taking everything. I had to make trip after trip for days to extract the stock from the house in black garbage bags. It was all on old-fashioned wooden hangers. I bought all that I could afford."

Meanwhile, Raewyn's niece Linda was scanning snapshots of the family wearing the same clothes Mandy was buying. "You just don't get a story like that with clothes; vintage clothing can be quite soulless these days. I thought wow I'm going to have to put these together and let people know that they're buying clothes from the first owner. This is straight out of someone's house. And it's local. If I don't have photos of the actual piece I can tell you which member of the family it belonged to and a quick rundown."

There were Raewyn's clothes from childhood to her early 20s. "I could see pockets of her life and how she interacted with her brothers and sisters based on these clothes."

On the shop wall is a 1960s jewelled lavender ball gown - the gown Raewyn wore only once to go out with the boyfriend who two-timed her and ran away to Australia, and for whom she waited for 10 years.

There's a recent twist to that story too: Mandy discovered and bought the dress in a recycle boutique. "When I saw it I had all the photos for it on my phone and I referenced it on the spot. I actually had to sit down, 'oh my goodness I've got a photo of Raewyn wearing that dress'.

"I raced home, stood on Raewyn's doorstep, held the dress up, big smile on my face and she sort of put her head in her hands and laughed! (She said) 'Please don't be mad at me but we got rid of all these dresses beforehand'."

Raewyn's grandmother Bailey (the rest of the family have a different surname and want anonymity) was a seamstress by trade. "I got one of her tins of buttons," says Mandy, "and pins and zips and some of her sewing things, there were wooden cotton reels, but I just could not take everything, I'd need another house."

Grandma Bailey's husband died young and she devoted her life to raising three children and three grandchildren in the house bought in 1944. Mandy has sets of matching dresses made for the three granddaughters, and there are a lot of teenage dresses made for Raewyn and her sister Lorraine - the quintessential 50's summer frock, with tiny waist, metal zip, shelf bust - immaculate stitching, ruching and pleating. "Look at the work in this," says Mandy, "this is a woman who knew what she was doing."

The Bailey women went to balls, dances, to the races (their brother was in horse racing). They were well turned-out, always wore a hat (often one they'd made themselves) and had hair-dos from Lorraine's local Pt Chevalier hairdressing salon (a set of matching salon smocks is for sale).

"They weren't well off but they certainly weren't struggling because there are some beautiful store-bought things as well."

Often there was the same garment in different colours, and beautiful matching coats for the children.

Did they keep up with fashion? "I've got a picture of Grandma Bailey when she went to Australia and she's got the two-piece patio suit on, a pink and purple thing, with the loud Pucci chain, the teased roller hair-do and big sunglasses, white-rimmed. So yeah, they would have rolled with the fashion."

So far only certain rooms of the house have been cleared. "Raewyn has told me, 'I've got all these 70's frocks, you're not interested in the 70s are you?' and I've said 'hell yes'. I'm guessing there's going to be lots of maxi dresses and chiffon bell sleeves and flutter things, because if it seems if there was a trend they were on it."

Not all the clothes are pristine. Some were well-worn and some stored unwashed, which has caused ageing and yellowing. But retro aficionados don't mind signs of authenticity and luckily prefer to restore garments themselves. "Otherwise I would just spend every waking minute I've got hand-washing."

Is the temptation to hold on to things?

"I'm a hoarder. As a collector you want to protect the clothes that you buy, you covet things. Having this shop, and I still keep way more than I should, has been very helpful in moving stock out of my wardrobe and on to the shelves."

Mandy's own style is eclectic rather than devoted to one era or look. She will wear an embroidered black dirndl with a ripped hem over a band T-shirt with lace tights, new belt and modern shoes.

"I don't like fashion, I like clothes. So I have 80s moments, I have 50s moments, I have huge fashion mistake moments."

And Black Betty? She's the shiny black store mannequin in the window modelling the Bailey Collection.

* Shop A2 Pt Chevalier Arcade, 1197-1205 Great North Rd, Pt Chevalier. Visit the Black Betty Facebook page for more inspiration.

- NZ Herald

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