By David Daley
Collectible Clothing: from “Name That Stain” to Monetary Gain
CALGARY – One hundred and twenty-one years ago, Solomon Warner of Arizona put a new pair of Levi’s blue jeans in a trunk and never wore them in his life. When the same pair of 1893 jeans came up at auction last month the bidding ended at over 130,000 Canadian dollars – sold to an anonymous buyer from Southeast Asia. This record-breaking sale is hardly surprising. Back in the ‘90s a pal of mine was thrifting good vintage denim and shipping it overseas where she’d get a premium for it.
And, you can bet your britches there’s more out there waiting to be discovered. Canada had its very own trailblazin’ denim-maker in GWG- the Great Western Garment Company out of Edmonton Alberta. I still see unworn GWG jackets and pants turning up ‘second hand.’ These rugged classics make the perfect duds for any rock-a-billy or bebop boy looking to hit the town in a truly Canadian tuxedo.
Certainly, there can be a gross-out factor when you’re rifling through castoffs from a stranger’s wardrobe. You may find yourself wondering if someone actually died while wearing the estate sale bargain you just nabbed. But overall (pun intended) sifting through those mountains of fabric will be worth it. I once scored a pristine, crushed-velvet smoking jacket from the 1950s. Rendered in Heff-worthy deep purple, it fits like a glove. A real keeper. Just add cigar and snifter of brandy. Another time I picked up a circa 1960 studded motorcycle jacket with the shadow of a bike gang patch on the back. This once maligned sort of garment is now celebrated as being a culturally significant symbol, as we saw with the popular exhibit at the Glenbow Museum called Worn to be Wild: The Black Leather Jacket.
Keep in mind the key elements of scarcity, condition and demand. All of these factors work together to kick-up the value of any collectible. In the case of Warner jeans there was a verifiable backstory that came with them: Warner himself was a well-known rootin’ tootin’ legend before the west was won. This object history, or provenance as it is also known, is a strong indicator that the wonders you’re collecting will prove to be a wise investment in the future. Never underestimate the value of a good story.
The provenance of celebrated Sioux chief Black Bird’s war shirt is even more interesting. Selling at auction in 2011 for 2.8 million US, it was worn in the Great Sioux War of 1876 and likely at the battle of Little Big Horn, too. The fringes on the arms and shoulders are made of the hair of those who died in battle. There’s a more-or-less traceable line of ownership from when Black Bird worked with a touring wild west show in the early 1900s. Four rare photos of the Chief wearing the shirt remain, so its authenticity is unquestionable. Despite the museum-calibre backstory, it remains debatable where the shirt really belongs. War shirts were considered to have the power to deflect bullets and many Oglala Sioux, from whom the shirt originated, believe it has its own spirit and should never be bought or sold. No matter what your opinions are on the ethics of ownership, nothing reflects the personal side of cultural and social trends quite like fashion. And, what better way to wear your love of collecting on your sleeve?