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Time travelling in style at The Front Parlour

Our fashion blogger discovers the secrets behind Sheffield’s original vintage treasure trove, The Front Parlour.

Until recently, I’d always had some vague idea that my generation was the first to get excited about vintage clothes. As a millennial, I grew up in what was arguably rather a style vacuum. I think I actually went out in a shiny silver catsuit once with no trace of irony because apparently, approaching the mythical year 2000 it was absolutely normal to dress like a satellite. It was either that kind of thing or variations on a tracksuit. In view of this, recycling the charming aesthetics of years gone by seemed the perfect solution (until I got teased mercilessly for wearing a lovely 1970s crocheted top on out-of-uniform day). Anyway, one day it dawned on me that actually, today’s twenty or thirty-something did not personally discover vintage, and that our parents were just as fascinated by what their own fashionable ancestors wore.

One particular vintage shop in Sheffield is proof of this. The Front Parlour on Sharrow Vale road pre-dates the most recent craze for retro by decades and it has supplied Sheffield with gorgeous vintage clothes and collectables since flares and platforms were a brand new look.

The Front Parlour opened in 1979 as an antiques shop before its stylish owner Betty started to stock the shop with the clothes she’d worn in the 1940s and 1950s. They proved so popular that she never looked back and vintage fashion has been a big part of the shop ever since.

Betty’s daughter Jane now manages and curates their collection of vintage and retro ephemera. She sources items from people who pass things on to her to be enjoyed again by a new generation; incredible collectables, often kept in families for decades range from clothes and accessories to fabulous retro furniture. This gives The Front Parlour a sincerity and warmth so it really feels like it’s part shop and part fascinating social history.

Jane’s keen eye for the interesting and the quirky, along with her skill for sensitively restoring items, brings these treasures into the hands of new owners.

I caught up with Jane to talk fashion, family and that time she styled The Human League.

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Stylish beginnings

“My mum Betty was always beautifully dressed; she’s very elegant. She had some amazing suits and she would collect me from primary school in the classic 1950s skirt, stilettos, or button-down-the-back blouses. She always looked immaculate. Style was more conscious then; people were always really aware of what they wore. Dad actually told me mum took 14 pairs of shoes on  their honeymoon — she would say, ‘you can’t wear the wrong shoes with a nice dress!’

“One day after she’d had the shop open for a while, mum actually brought in some of her old shoes and clothes from the 1940s and 1950s; she’d got fit-and-flare dresses, gorgeous stiletto heels, pencil skirts. She wanted to branch out from just selling antiques. And that was it really. It just took off from there.

“The fashion was very popular. Members of the local bands like The Human League and ABC would come in the shop and try things on, then start dancing round in the outfits, seeing what they fancied wearing in their music videos! I don’t think we realised at the time that they were in bands!

“The clothes are still probably my favourite things to sell. I love coming across unusual things and bringing them back to life; washing them, doing the ironing and repairs. The clothes we get tend to be from the 1920s onwards, and there’s generally more from the 1950s and 1960s — sometimes the 1940s but I don’t find a great deal of that now. To have been an adult during the war you’d have to be well over 90 years old now.”

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Creative customers

“In the 1980s a lot of our customers were students from what used to be the Psalter Lane Arts college and they wanted to buy all sorts of quirky stuff. They always wanted 1950s stiletto heels, and we had to advertise in the Sheffield Star for them as they were so in demand. But there was only one strange problem — most people only wanted to buy black ones! I don’t know why, perhaps it was just fashionable. So I had to dye them all. It was heartbreaking, dying all these beautiful stiletto shoes in so many lovely shades of pastel. I think my record for dying shoes was 36 pairs in one night, it was quite mad.”

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Decades of style

“I had some customers wanting 1920s dresses for a party, but the people who wore those dresses would have been young adults in the 1920s, so they’d now be over 100 years old.

“Someone brought us three Victorian blouses that had been in their family and customers tried them on but nobody could do them up because they were so tiny; nobody would believe they’d belonged to adults! Adults tended to have smaller proportions then.

“I love 1960s fashion. Button-down-the-back blouses were a really popular style in that era, so at one time there were a lot of them in people’s families and we could get hold of loads. As soon as people knew we were selling them, they were bringing them in for us. But of course, you’ve only a limited supply and you can’t ring people up and ask for four more. We don’t get as many now.

“In the post-war era, families kept everything. It was only in the years that followed that their kids thought, ‘Oh we don’t want this’, so it is special when people bring us things that were able to keep hold of.”

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A piece of someone’s history

“I love finding something and thinking, ‘You’re going to be off having a new life now.’ People bring me things to sell because they might be moving house and they can’t take all the boxes with them. They say they’ve completely forgotten they had certain things in the family. So it’s amazing, we’re really getting a piece of someone’s history. Sometimes they are sad to part with things but if you explain that somebody younger will be buying it to enjoy, then it makes it much easier for them.”

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“Last year a lady brought some clothes in and she said she used to wear them to go dancing all the time when she was younger. It was lovely because she said she thought it was time for her to part with them and let them go to someone young who would take them out dancing again!

“Once, mum and I were invited to take a look at some stuff at a house and there was a big pile of stuff in the corner of the kitchen intended for the skip. The owner thought because the stuff in the bags was all dirty I wouldn’t be interested, but that doesn’t matter to me as I can clean and repair it all.

I sorted out a whole load of gorgeous things from the bags that would have been on the skip half an hour later!”

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Quirks and curiosities

“I had a dress ages ago that looked so English but said made in Honolulu. It was a polyester black and white pleated skirt, so unlike what you’d expect from Honolulu.

“I once got some lobster sticks in but I had no idea what they were so I think I put a question mark on the ticket; it’s good that people will make suggestions if they know what it is. Someone came into say these sticks were for picking meat out of lobster claws; the upper classes would use them at dinner parties.”

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Job satisfaction

“I do all the repairs and because of how old things are, they often need a lot of alterations or work. I do love doing it though, I love repairing things and sending them on their way.

“It’s lovely because you get to know customers over the years. Mum and I have watched people grow up, we’ve seen kids grow up, go to university, come back, start a family. In 36 years you do; it’s a long time.

“I just want people to come in, enjoy looking round, picking things up, trying things on. I don’t want people to think they’re touching something they shouldn’t be touching or moving something they shouldn’t be moving. I hate going in a shop and thinking I daren’t touch anything. That’s why I write on my labels, ‘please have a look’, and, ‘please try it on’. I want people to enjoy browsing. And people are really careful, I am the one who breaks things actually!”

The Front Parlour, 300 Sharrow Vale Rd, Sheffield

Open Wednesday and Friday 11-5, Saturday 10-5

Find The Front Parlour on Instagram @front_parlour  and on Facebook.

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