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  Get That Swing: THE LOOK

By Fritz Hahn Staff
Monday, November 9, 1998

    Chris 'Duke' Davis, Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg (from left to right) Chris "Duke" Davis, Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg (from left to right). (By Craig Cola/
Most beginning Lindy Hoppers turn up at dances looking like they belong in a certain Gap commercial: khakis and black T-shirts or unbuttoned club shirts with white t-shirts underneath. As they become more involved in the scene, however, they realize that dressing up is more fun than dressing down.

Dancers who want an authentic look will find a world of vintage shops in the area that specialize in clothes from the swing era. For women, the choices can be vast; for men, though, it's much more of a challenge – but not impossible. "Original zoot suits and pants don't exist," says Ellen Werther, the owner of Heart's Desire, a Springfield vintage shop. "It's not a conspiracy."
Feet First
You can always identify serious dancers by the black-and-white saddle shoes or spectators they wear. If you're new to the scene, shoes will be the most important item you'll buy (besides lessons), so do your homework first.

Bass Saddle Shoes and crepe-soled Hush Puppies seem to be the choice for general dancing shoes for both sexes – they're affordable, and the soles offer decent performances on most area floors. (Keep in mind that the floor at each ballroom or club is different.)

You may notice that many of the flashiest dancers seem to be wearing the same shoes. For competitors and other serious dancers, the best shoe is a German import made by Bleyers that has a special "swing" sole, which seems to combine the best properties of all the other soles. Bleyers are not currently available in area stores, but they can be ordered through the locally run Web site. The hitch: The cheapest Bleyers start at $75 per pair – without insoles or shipping charges, which can easily add $20 or more to the cost.

If that's too much, shop at the Designer Shoe Warehouse in Bethesda, the Nordstrom outlet in Potomac Mills and even Filene's Basement for cut-price black-and-white shoes. Nix boots, high heels, Nike Air Maxes or clunky shoes like Doc Martens because they can be heavy and more difficult to control. "With Doc Martens or an athletic shoe [like a cross-trainer], you can't feel the floor," which could impede control, says teacher Debra Sternberg.

Before you just grab a pair of dressy shoes, think about what the dance actually involves: picking up your feet and moving around rather quickly. If that doesn't instantaneously rule out heels, think again – many dance halls, including Glen Echo's Spanish Ballroom, specifically request that women refrain from wearing high heels on their floor. The pounding spikes act like pile-drivers and can damage the wooden floors, to say nothing of the risk of falling.

Wearing open-toed shoes can be a bit dicey – there'll be beginners on the floor at most dances, and they're sure to step on your feet. Wearing something that covers your toes can help lessen the pain.

For Guys
Those who want an authentic '40s look can always visit a tailor, although that can be pricey. Steve Cowles, the Open Jitterbug champion at the recent Virginia State Open, paid $135 for his custom-made zoot pants at El Pachuco, a zoot suit store in Fullerton, Ca. "You have to have them made," he says. "That's the only way to get them." Depending on the tailor and fabric, a wool suit can range from $480 to$600.

For those hesitant to spend hundreds of dollars on a custom suit, Werther recommends '40s suits with peak lapels, which she describes as "very similar to the late '20s Al Capone-style suits." Bowling shirts and Hawaiian shirts are also appropriate for the less-snazzy dancer. Below the waist, Werther suggests "baggy pants from the '50s, which are very similar to the ones from the '30s."

Cowles, who teaches the Lindy Hop at Zones nightclub, the University of Maryland and George Washington, says that looking vintage doesn't have to mean spending big bucks. "I put together one of my favorite outfits for less than $40," he says, combining a vest, peddler's cap and tie salvaged from thrift and vintage stores with a dress shirt, pants and socks from K mart.

Lindy Hop teacher and style guru Debra Sternberg suggests visiting what she calls "dude shops," upscale stores such as Cavalier Men's Shop or Oak Tree that cater to young urban men. "That's where you'll find real full-cut pants and things that are more unusually styled," she says.

To complete the vintage look, pick up a short, fat tie at Heart's Desire or any number of vintage stores in the area. Fedora hats and buttoned-on braces – not clip-on suspenders – are also popular with male dancers.

For Dolls
Women have a much easier time dressing up for dancing – old dresses can be found easily at a number of places in the area. Shopping at Takoma Underground, Meeps and Aunt Neensy's, and Mood Indigo can turn up the occasional gem, and Heart's Desire specializes in dresses from the '20s to the early '50s.

However, with swing growing more and more popular, new converts are hitting popular vintage spots and making it much more competitive to find the better items.

"It's getting kind of picked over," says Gretta Thorn, a Vienna Lindy Hopper with a passion for '40s rayon dresses. "Everyone is looking for the exact same thing." Thorn says she has more luck shopping in rural areas, like the stores on Route 29 between Washington and Charlottesville, where she attends the University of Virginia. Still, she has struck gold shopping at places like the Georgetown Flea Market, where she and a friend looked at vintage dresses offered for $70 before finding similar ones in a pile for $5.

Locating vintage dresses might not be hard, but finding one that fits probably will be. These days, explains Werther, women "tend to be broader in the shoulders – we've bulked up more. Not every dress is going to fit right; you might have to be willing to have things altered."

Another solution is to shift your focus by a few years. "Because styles changed over time, you might not look good in a dress from the '40s, per se, but you might look good in something from the early '50s," advises Werther. For example, hemlines plummeted and curves were accentuated after World War II, while the look of the early '30s emphasized a more boyish figure. Both are still within the boundaries of the swing era.

If vintage shopping doesn't turn up anything, Sternberg suggests a trip to the mall. "For a while, the Limited and the Gap were featuring really cute vintage-style dresses, the ones with buttons up the front and little flower prints," she says. "The other option is if they can make their own clothes – or get their mother to make their clothes – they can find patterns with a vintage look," which are available at sewing shops and occasionally at vintage and thrift shops.

Aside from being more economical, buying new versions of old dresses is more feasible than wearing out vintage clothing. Sternberg, a four-time Open Lindy Hop champion at the Virginia State Open, is known for dressing in vintage-style clothing at all times, but she says she often leaves her favorite outfits home for the evening. "I don't dance in vintage, and I don't recommend it because you're always pulling on [the dress] or ripping the armholes," Sternberg says. "And the sweat eats the fabric."

One solution is to find both a dress you like and a good tailor. After finding a pair of vintage zoot pants he liked, Sternberg's partner, Tom Koerner, went to a tailor and had copies made so he could have something to dance in without ruining the original.

    Steve Cowles and Carla Heiney Steve Cowles (left) dances with partner Carla Heiney at last month's Virginia State Open Swing Dance Championships. (By Craig Cola/
Oldies But Goodies
If you want to stick to vintage, Sternberg and Werther recommend testing clothing for danceability before purchasing it. Werther suggests you should "gently pull on it, and the fabric should hold up. If it doesn't give when you pull, it's not going to hold up dancing." Sternberg's advice goes a bit further: "You've got to make sure there's enough room across the back and that it's not tight in the arms – you have to jump up and down like a maniac to test it."

Accessories from the swing era, such as half-hats and purses, are easy to find at vintage stores, especially at Cannon Hill Antiques and Emporium Antiques in Frederick, and Takoma Underground in Takoma Park, and Mood Indigo on U Street downtown. While they may be perfect for finishing a vintage outfit, Sternberg urges caution when dancing. "I tend not to accessorize – my earrings get knocked off and I can't dance in a hat," she says. "Women have to be careful that their earrings don't fly off and knock somebody's eye out."

"You have to find a balance between looking good and being able to dance. That's the most important thing."

Where to Find the Threads
Find more in our guide to area thrift stores.
Frederick's Best
307 E. Second St.
Frederick, Md.
The Swing Shop, located off a back hallway, has everything for women, plus a few accessories for men.

Venus on the Half Shell
151 N. Market St.
Frederick, Md.
Women's dresses (mostly '50s, some '40s) and some accessories, men's shirts and ties

Heart's Desire
7518 E. Fullerton Rd.
Springfield, Va.
Women's dresses, '20s-'50s; women's and men's accessories.

Mood Indigo
1214 U St. NW
Women's clothes and accessories; men's accessories.

Takoma Underground
7030 Carroll Ave.
Takoma Park, Md.
Everything for women; now with a whole section of men's clothing and accessories.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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