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  • Writer's pictureAmy Stein-Milford

Visit With a Master Thrifter

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

Purple overcoat and scarf inspired by Kamala Harris's Inauguration outfit

I knew that my first All Dressed Up foray had to be to my friend Kathleen. She sets the gold standard for thrifting.

Kathleen and I met in ballet class in college. She was hard to miss, the one in a leopard-print leotard with red hennaed hair down to her waist. Mikhail Baryshnikov had once stopped her at a concert at St. John the Divine to compliment her on her beautiful hair. Who gets stopped by Baryshnikov?

Kamala Harris in purple coat and suit on Inauguration Day
Drawing inspiration from VP Kamala Harris

Our visit took place just three days after the Presidential Inauguration, and Kathleen was wearing pearls and a brilliant purple coat and scarf – an homage to our new Vice President Kamala Harris.

Kathleen is a firm believer in wearing clothing that tells a story: each piece she wore had significance. The coat and pearls belonged to her mother from whom she inherited her thrifting skills. Underneath, she sported a leopard-print palazzo jumpsuit, a gift from a high-school friend, along with a mesh scarf that looked like it was hand-sewn by mermaids.

Kathleen taught me most everything I know about thrifting. Growing up I would never enter a vintage store or forage on the street for a castaway treasure. I’d shop department stores and designer boutiques, mistakenly equating a price tag with value.

I spent my first Christmas with Kathleen’s family. I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home and I had never celebrated the holiday. We sat in the living room with her mother and father in front of the Christmas tree which was decorated with lights and balls and baubles, including delicate pre-war glass orbs that her mother had collected over the years at garage sales. Growing up I had always wanted a Christmas tree. During Chanukah, as I lit the menorah, I would stare across Madison Avenue at a tall apartment building with many windows searching for another Jewish household, when all I could find were Christmas trees.

Kathleen told me I could choose one dress from her closet as a Christmas present. She slid open the door and I stood dumfounded – I had never seen such a magical closet: vintage ball gowns in all colors, mid-century hats in their original boxes, tailored men’s jackets. To my nineteen-year-old eyes, it was a dazzling array signaling endless possibility. I picked out a blush-pink baby-doll dress.

Amy Stein-Milford and Kathleen Madden, All Dressed Blog

Kathleen had prepared lemon zinger tea in thermoses to keep us warm. (Kathleen's a Celia Birtwall vacuum flask from the time she lived in London, mine with a Barack Obama sticker.) She laid out a striped sheet and we sat on her stoop wrapped in fleece blankets, every so often lowering our masks to sip the tea or pop a grape. Passersby would wave hello, salute or smile.

Later, we took a walk to Morningside Park from which we could see the statue of the archangel Gabriel from the top of St. John the Divine. Though we kept our six feet of distance, it was good to be together, and to reflect on the experiences that a cherished item or piece of clothing can convey.

"What ha helped me get through Covid? Booze. It’s the only thing I can think of even though we’re doing a dry January. And yoga – not just during Covid but for life.”

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