If the clothes at Madhouse Vintage could talk, they might tell stories of love and loss, making an entrance or an exit, freezing a moment in time that was glamorous, exciting or a heartbreaking disappointment.
But dresses don't talk, so Caroline Noble, whose shop on the corner of Calhoun and Lawton streets in Bluffton opened Sept. 9, makes up stories for them on her store's Facebook page.
"Slipping the weapon into her garter, Natasha felt the heat of it against her thigh. Popping her collar up and donning her Ray-Bans, she stepped over the body of the agent who very nearly compromised her mission. Her intended target eliminated, she slipped out into the silent night."
That's the vignette Noble created for a 1970s era full-length silver Giorgini trenchcoat, never worn, size 6/8, $120.
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"I always felt a connection to the moment the clothes represent," said Noble, who grew up in Brighton on England's south coast, tagging along with her mother, an antiques dealer, to estate sales and auctions. "Who wore it, why did they choose it, and where were they going?"
Victoria Jackson of Hilton Head Island visited Madhouse Vintage for the first time on a recent Thursday.
"I found it on Facebook," said Jackson, who said she's intrigued by the fashion craze for all things "Mad Men," referring to the Emmy Award- winning TV show set on New York's Madison Avenue in the 1960s. "I'm happy to see the prices are reasonable, and she has cute, unique stuff."
Shoppers are drawn by the ever-changing mannequins displayed outside the shop, along with a basket full of sparkly beaded vintage evening bags and a not-for-sale pink Fantasy Flyer toy airplane.
Vintage dresses and accessories, including hats, gloves and handbags, range from $10 to $300, and Noble carries a mostly one-of-a-kind line of glittery costume jewelry bracelets and pins for around $30 each.
Noble, her husband Peter, and their children Eden, 11, and Maddy, 9, moved to Hilton Head five years ago from Spain for Peter's job with Marriott Vacation Club International.
After designing the costumes for Hilton Head Prep's production of the musical "Grease" last spring, Noble decided to return to her vintage collecting roots.
"It's easier now than when I began," said Noble, recalling waking up at 4 a.m. to travel to auctions and antiques fairs in the U.K. to snap up the best things first. Now, although she continues to visit some thrift and consignment stores, she does most of her buying on eBay and Etsy.
"I'm very fussy about what I buy," she said.
Shopper Loretta Schaller of Bluffton said she was impressed by the pristine condition of the clothes.
"Her things are different, but they look familiar, and everything's been so well-kept," Schaller said.
Madhouse Vintage is attractively merchandised by era ('50s, '60s and '70s), color and style. Many items carry both the label of the designer and the fine women's shop or boutique where they were purchased. Most are in mint condition and predominantly made in the U.S.A.
"In England it's called up-cycling," Noble said, "taking something old and making it new again."
Browsing the racks, women of all ages are quick to recognize the "I Love Lucy" shape of a full-skirted princess dress, the geometric lines of an empire minidress, and, thanks to "Mad Men," the nip-and-tuck cling of a wiggle dress, designed for curvy, bombshell types.
"The eBay listings use the words 'very Betty' or 'very Joan' in the description," said Noble, referring to the show's fictional characters Betty Draper and Joan Harris. "Now it's instantly recognizable," she said.
As a collector and fashion archivist, Noble is attuned to quality, fabric and detailing. Turning a chartreuse dupioni silk cocktail dress inside out, she points out the full lining and basted hem. A strapless ballgown with blue silk velvet bodice and multi-layered skirt of bi-colored silk tulle, $120, from the 1950s, is 21st century red-carpet ready.
"They're timeless classics," Noble said. "Each one is an enigma, and these dresses have already stood the test of time."