The Story Behind Donna Lange’s Vintage Clothing Collection
Donna Lange’s collection of over 300 pieces of museum-quality vintage clothing is not frivolous…it is deeply personal.
As a child, Donna grew up admiring her mother’s taste. “My mother was a sharp dresser and an amazing seamstress,” Donna says. “She had sewn her own clothes for years. As a secretary for the president of Bremner Biscuit Company, she wore suits and dresses to work each day. On Sundays her dress attire for mass always included a hat and sometimes gloves as well. I loved watching her get ready for a special night out with my dad to dine and go dancing. She was so elegant. My most favorite and vivid memory was of a strapless satin purple ball gown with green insets in the back she wore on one of those occasions.
In college, I wore a suit mom had from the 1940s — we were big on hand-me-downs coming from a large family, but the clothes were made to last with broad beautiful seams that you could take in and out when you gained or lost weight.”
Donna’s mother died young and the six children were left to grapple with their grief. And to add to Donna’s sorrow, “About two months after her death when I was 23, I was ready to go into her closet, touch and hold her things that would surround me. I wanted to remember her and just immerse myself in what was hers. But when I walked into her closet, I was stunned! My mom’s closet was completely bare, empty, stripped of any trace of her belongings. My father had given all of her things to Goodwill. I was devastated.”
This event triggered Donna’s affinity for collecting vintage pieces, particularly the clothing of the 1900s-1940s that reminded Donna of her mother and grandmother. Left with only one wool plaid suit, she began to piece her mother’s legacy back together by searching out the fabrics, pleats, tucks, and fancy buttons her mother wore so well.
Since 1971, Donna has scoured estate sales and antique shops amassing a museum-quality collection of over 300 pieces from the turn of the century through the 1940s. She has painstakingly repaired, catalogued, and preserved these gems in tissue paper and old pillowcases that she keeps in two closets in her home (Donna prefers pillowcases to plastic because they don’t leave the residue that plastic does over time).
One beauty, rolled away in tissue paper, is a 1920s fully sequined and beaded royal blue flapper dress that was gifted to Donna by an antique dealer with the agreement that she would repair the dress to its original splendor. Donna managed to hand-stitch each string of sequins and replace the delicate lining — work that took over nine months to complete. But as she unrolls the gown to show me the finished product, her eyes light up at the sight. Her fingers fan down the intricate beadwork — her labor of love. “I wore this backwards,” she says as she holds it up to her frame showing the plunging neckline that cascades navel-deep.
“These pieces are meant to be seen,” Donna says of her treasure trove. These treasures include a 100-year-old art deco car coat, a 1920s straw bucket hat adorned with a real crow on the side, and a golden lame gown complete with a train. These stunners are meant for the runway, and Donna wants them to be freed from their meticulous storage boxes and cherished. Before COVID-19, Donna hosted elaborate fashion shows, complete with vintage records borrowed from her father’s collection, playing the soundtrack of the fashion’s heyday in the background. “I would never hire professional models. I liked to have real people — friends, family, volunteers from the organizations — wear and experience these clothes. I would tell them, ‘You are who you are. Just go out there and be yourself.’”
And now Donna is reevaluating what to do with her treasures, and how to help them be seen again. During the quarantine, she decided to inventory her collection and document each item. She has over 1,000 photos and has checked hundreds of seams, mended stitches, ironed and whitened Victorian blouses. She has sold several pieces to vintage stores such as Nitty Gritty and Cactus Flower, has reached out to Jennifer Lawrence’s agency with the hope they might snag that elegant golden gown I was able to marvel at for a minute in Donna’s living room.
“I don’t have any daughters — isn’t that awful!?” she laughs. Donna’s nephew and daughter-in-law have claimed a few pieces, but Donna is ready to find her collection a proper home just as her mother would have wanted for her classic pieces.
“My mother was the middle of 10 kids, but was a dresser. She put so much pride into making an outfit. She didn’t have much money, so when she bought a piece, it was meant to last, and it was high quality. She taught us to buy two of something that you love in different colors.
“I would watch her get dressed all the time. Once she said to me, ‘You’re so pretty.’ Well, I was gangly and awkward and went into the bathroom to see if I could see what she saw. I didn’t, but I think she could see what I would turn into. She made us feel good about ourselves.”
I want them to go to people who will appreciate them, and pass on what I’ve learned.”
When Donna wears one of her vintage pieces, form-fitting with tucks and pleats, she exudes that same confidence she learned from her mother. Now, Donna believes, it is time to pass on this fashion history.
“It surprised me how emotional it was for me when going through these items. I want them to go to people who will appreciate them, and pass on what I’ve learned. I won’t make much on the sale, I just want them to go to someone who will hopefully wear them and get the same pleasure as I did from the experience. But I will keep mom’s 1940s suit, her hat, a purse, some gloves of hers, and a few classics. Each item had a life in a particular era, a second life with me, and now it is time for their next life.”
By Megan Seckman | Photos by Erika Doll
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