012518 Fashion: In any era, a collector is always in style
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A cocktail dress from the 1950s was worn by a Georgetown woman.

Fashion: In any era, a collector is always in style

By Carrie Humphreys
Coastal Observer

There are collectors. Then there is Melissa Levey. The ultimate collector.

Levey’s home in The Reserve is swathed in what she calls her “passions.” It bursts with antique dolls, colored glass bottles, Venetian masks, bears, teapots and tea cups, fragrance bottles, antique compacts and powder boxes, celluloid ring boxes, buttons, pinecone elves, and a potpourri of other, what she calls, “stuff.” The giant Christmas tree glittering over the cluttered nooks and crannies has over 1,000 ornaments which she started collecting at age 12.

But it is her collection of vintage gowns, jewelry and hats, some of which are often on display at the Kaminski House Museum in Georgetown, that truly wows. When building her home, she actually included a special room just for displaying her collection. Her vintage room contains mannequins dressed in the fragile old garments, accessorized with vintage handbags and chapeaus, gloves, jewels, even shoes. Lighted display cases protect some of her treasures.

The remainder of her more than 100 dresses, dating from the 1920s to the 1950s, are separated by color and stored in closets, carefully wrapped in acid free paper and covered in white sheets. Dangling from padded hangers are wedding gowns, ball gowns, tea dresses, Edwardian suits, beaded and embroidered cocktail creations and silky lingerie. Several outfits belonged to Levey’s aristocratic grandmother. Her surplus of classic clothing in silk, satin, cotton and wool are squeezed into crates. All are exquisite.

Levey has spent years collecting vintage paraphernalia. “The first piece I ever bought was a 1940s wide brimmed purple straw hat,” Levey, 64, said. “I was 14. I used to wear it. I love hats.”

Today, she rarely wears any of the dresses or the hundreds of hats crammed into hat boxes in her collection. Nor does she carry any of the extraordinary handbags. Or accessorize with her rare antique jewels. Nothing is for sale. Her priceless collections, she admitted, are just for viewing, for her pleasure.

“I bought these things because they were beautiful. I will pull things out once in a while and say, ‘oh, I forgot all about this one.’ And I like to change things around in the vintage room and on the mannequins according to the season.”

Why such an obsession to collect?

“I joke about this but I think there is some truth to it. I grew up poor. People didn’t have anything when we were kids. There were five kids in my family and I had so little growing up. I think I have so much jewelry with rhinestones because as a little girl I wanted a diamond tiara and rhinestones around my neck. I guess it is kind of satisfying having what I couldn’t have as a child. That sounds dramatic, but I’m not taking the food out of the mouths of anybody. Collecting is fun.”

Fashion was always a calling, said Levey, a skilled seamstress who remembers making herself a dress at age 8. Raised near Niagara Falls, N.Y., she attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and enjoyed an early career as a children’s wear designer before raising her family in Queens. Levey and husband Chet, a retired police officer, moved to Pawleys Island in 2010. “My husband calls all my stuff ‘crap,’ but he goes along with it.”

Levey discovers her keepsakes at antique malls, estate sales, vintage boutiques, church bazaars, online and on rare occasions garage sales. Much was discovered during travels around the U.S. and Europe. A recent trip to Las Vegas took her and her husband to the popular Pawn Star shop, heaven on earth for Levey.

The average price of an antique gown is between $85 and $100, she said. The most she has ever paid was $1,000. “It was a bias cut, black silk evening gown from the early 1930s, art deco style.”

With a fashion background, she easily discerns a true vintage gown by inspecting its fabric, label, seaming and closures. Prior to 1935, only buttons, snaps and hook and eyes were used for closures. Metal zippers also indicate age. She has made only a few mistakes in her purchases, she said.

Who dusts the frippery adorning her abode? “That’s what everyone always asks,” she said. “They probably need some dusting.”

Someday, Levey said, she shall come to a point where she will say, “No more.”

But not yet.

“I’m always collecting,” she proclaimed. “I like the hunt.”

Her local haunt? Emma Marie’s Antique Shoppe in Georgetown where she is currently employed. She may also be one of their best customers.

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