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Clothes maven Virginia Bell tells parents why they shouldn't skimp on their teens' big night
Clothes maven Virginia Bell tells parents why they shouldn't skimp on their teens' big night

Clothes maven Virginia Bell tells parents why they shouldn't skimp on their teens' big night

Susan Corkum-Greek
Lighthouse staff

 Vintage clothes maven Virginia Bell can't tell you when she began collecting 1950's prom dresses. But she can tell you why.

 "There's just nothing that compares," she says of these ultra-feminine creations, cast in layers of tulle and chiffon.

 From the rainbow of softly-spun colours, including rose, aqua, lilac and a vivid slate blue, to details like a beaded bodice or rhinestone shoulder clasp, they exude a sense of youth and optimism, says Mrs. Bell, who last month carried a display of 18 gowns in her shop, Vintage Vogue of Mahone Bay.

 The inspiration? A tiny size-two prom dress recently acquired from Oakland resident Janet Ritcey.

 "She'd kept it all these years and was so thrilled it was going into a collection," Mrs. Bell says of the rose-hued gown skirted by layers of petal-shaped tulle overtop crinoline-padded taffeta. A gathered brocade bodice topped by a short-sleeved, Chinese-collared bolero jacket completes the look.

 Plus, it's this time of year that people start thinking about prom gowns, she says.

 For Mrs. Bell, the show, complete with an assortment of 1950's-style accessories, from elbow-length lilac gloves to plastic flower earrings, wraps, bags and of course, shoes, has brought back a lot of personal memories - among them her father's promise that she would have "the most beautiful dress on the Island of Montreal" for her own prom night.

 "The thing I never realized is that parents everywhere say that," she muses. But for the teenaged Mrs. Bell, captured in a black and white photograph with her tuxedo-clad date, that thought never entered the picture.

 Instead, the attractive teen spent the evening feeling every bit the storybook princess. And that's still important, she says, if not more so in a world where young women are often torn between their desire to pursue the same opportunities as men and the wish to retain their femininity.

 The thing is that on prom night "you're allowed to be a princess," says Mrs. Bell. You may go on to be a surgeon or a construction worker, but that night you're allowed to be 100 per cent girl.

 For that reason, Mrs. Bell's advice to parents when it comes to prom-time extravagances is to "go for it.

 "I hear people all the time saying they can't afford a particular dress" for their child "and I guess if I had any advice for them it would be don't scrimp," she says. "This is such an important milestone in a young person's life (and) so important to their self-esteem.

 "If a woman can feel beautiful on her prom night (or) a young man genuinely tell his date she looks beautiful, (that) is a service to humanity."

 Stories passed along by women who've viewed the exhibit back up Mrs. Bell's theory, though not all of them are happy tales.

 "I've had some women with tears in their eyes because their parents didn't attend their graduation and it still hurts," she says.

 Still the overall reaction to the show has been one of happy nostalgia.

 "You have to remember this was the '50s, a new age" of post-war optimism, says Mrs. Bell, who's also filled the exhibit with an assortment of memorabilia from swizzle sticks to a pole lamp complete with mottled red-glass shades. And although some visitors have expressed interest in the clothes, these gowns are not for sale.

 "They're part of my own collections," says the businesswoman, who's been dealing in vintage clothes for 15 years but collecting for much longer.

 In fact, Mrs. Bell says her ultimate dream would be to do such displays for charity.

 "I've done that a bit in the past," she says, the problem being financing. "You end up being prop poor."

 In the meantime, she's taken a small step in that direction by dedicating a small part of her shop to what she calls her mini-museum; a sampling of her private collections artistically displayed for public view. At present, this includes a display of vintage bridal and trousseau items.


Virginia Bell poses with a selection of 1950's prom dresses recently displayed in her store. Mahone Bay's vintage clothes maven advises parents not to scrimp when helping their child find that special dress. Inset: Like many people, Virginia Bell has fond memories of her prom night, captured in this photograph.

  May 16, 2001  
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