Back from the border

A Reno vintage shop shows off Mexican art-to-wear clothes

This felt jacket is a part of Sharon Rock’s art-to-wear collection.

This felt jacket is a part of Sharon Rock’s art-to-wear collection.

Photo by David Robert

Sharon Rock displays an eye- catching vintage Mexican dress in the front window of her store, Paris-Vintage.

But it’s not the kind you would associate with a stereotypical “Mexican” dress—for instance, the kind you would see on a folklórico dancer. It doesn’t have lace, frills or the colorful ribbons that adorn the skirts.

The yellow, strapless dress is decorated with black swirls and stripes. Silver sequins line the black stripes on the skirt and bodice. It looks like a fairly contemporary summer dress, though the mannequin’s black, wide-brimmed hat gives it a more “vintage” appearance. Otherwise, it looks like something you could wear on a warm summer evening.

It’s an example of Mexican “art-to-wear” clothes, a term used to describe the hand-made, hand-decorated apparel made in the first half of the 20th century. Rock said that the clothes gained in popularity after Hollywood starting making movies in Mexico. Local artisans and merchants realized that they could make clothes catering to the movie industry employees and tourist population. A cottage industry was born.

But these weren’t machine-made, mass-produced clothes, according to Rock.

“It sounds like they were mass-produced, because they were made for the tourist trade, but each piece is lovingly done by an artist,” she said. “ It’s like having a canvas on fabric … Every piece is unique. … Since they are hand-painted, there aren’t any two of the same.”

The first art-to-wear item she bought was a salmon pink strapless dress with a cactus design.

“I bought this about three years ago and fell in love with it,” she said. “I had no idea where it was made or who made it.”

She figured it out later, when local fashion designer and historian Jude Gabbard explained to her that it was an art-to-wear outfit.

Art-to-wear can be traced back to the arts and crafts movement of the early 20th century, according to Gabbard. But the Mexican art-to-wear clothes only took off with the arrival of American movie stars and tourists visiting resort areas. The fashion grew in popularity, especially in California. Gabbard said that during the 1920s, the designs reflected a more high-fashion, Art Deco look, but later started to depict more ethnic motifs, such as sleeping villagers in sombreros or decorations like palm trees. Art-to-wear fashion reached its peak in the 1950s, he said.

Rock said the unbleached, heavy cotton used to make the clothes is probably why many of them have lasted through the decades. Some of the art-to-wear clothes she has in her store date back to the 1940s.

Felt was another commonly used fabric. One of the items on display includes a canary yellow felt jacket with appliqués of a dancing señor and señorita decorating the back. A cactus, a sombrero and other south-of-the-border embellishments were applied to the front.

Jewelry and purses were also popular art-to-wear items. Sterling silver was used to make many of the bracelets and pins she has on display; some are decorated with black or green onyx or abalone shell. The tooled leather purses for sale have designs such as butterflies, horses or flowers.

Although not all of her art-to-wear garments are for sale, models will be wearing these clothes and strolling down First Street during the Dia de las Flores event May 12. Several First Street businesses will be participating in the celebration of Hispanic art and culture, including sponsors Gallery Cui-ui and Parasols on the Riverwalk.

These clothes are rising in popularity along with other vintage styles with an ethnic flavor, such as Asian or Hawaiian sarongs and halter dresses. Rock said she’s seen prices triple in the last five years. About three years ago, she said, she could buy an art-to-wear dress for about $35. Now that same dress would cost over $100.

Although it has become more difficult to find art-to-wear clothes for a reasonable price, Rock manages to add more of these clothes to her collection. She said the Internet is a good source, though she’ll pay more. Sometimes customers will drop by with clothes that once belonged to a relative who has since passed away; she also has a few friends who go in search of these clothes.

“The yellow piece [the dress in the display window] is my newest piece,” she said. “My really good friend—I don’t know where she got it, I don’t ask her—I think she actually bought it at an antiques show. … If she got it at an antiques show, I can’t believe that no one else bought it.”

Rock, who opened Paris-Vintage, 254 W. First St., last year, has been collecting clothes for eight years. Her store mainly sells vintage clothes from the 1930s through the 1950s. But as anyone who has been in the clothing and retail business can tell you, fashion often recycles itself.

“In the year 2001, the clothes that you see now, they look exactly like the clothes in my shop," she said. "I have the originals."