For sale: 1,300 vintage dresses in St. Louis

Monday, December 21, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — More than 1,300 vintage dresses abandoned in an empty building will be converted into scholarships for needy students in a mysterious case of hoarding that could yield $25,000.

When a local developer purchased a building earlier this year on Olive Street downtown, he went to clear out the remnants from previous tenants. He found some office furniture and a huge stack of boxes on heavy wooden pallets. Inside each box was a colorful assortment of cocktail, ballroom and other special-occasion dresses from decades past.

The previous owner wasn't interested in reclaiming the contents, so the developer, who insisted on anonymity, donated the lot to the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis in September.

The foundation operates a successful thrift store to benefit its need-based scholarship program.

"It was a great donation, but we were a little scared" of the volume, said Kim Abel, associate director of the foundation. She said that jaws dropped when they realized what they had. It took three days for 14 workers and volunteers from the shop to sort through the boxes. They spent six hours a day in an empty building with no air conditioning.

"The work conditions weren't great, but we were smiling the whole time because all the dresses were so pretty and so different," Abel said. "We kept saying, 'Look at this one.'"

In the end, they carted out more than 1,300 dresses and left hundreds more behind that were too damaged to sell. The dresses fill about 28 racks in a vacant 1,500-square-foot retail space that was donated to the shop in the Old Orchard section of Webster Groves. Although some of the dresses are in pristine condition, such as a soft, sleeveless floor-length silk gown that ties at the neck, others had visible signs of wear, such as a rip near the hem of a fluffy formal dress that was perhaps a summer wedding gown in a former life.

A floor-length baby blue jersey gown from the 1970s with a line of ruffles rimming the neck and then cascading down the front was also plucked from the pile along with a hip-hugging, knee-length cocktail dress swirled with cobalt blue and kelly green from the 1940s that is screaming for a pill box hat and day gloves.

The collection is a wild kaleidoscope of colors and styles from five decades beginning with the '40s.

No two are identical. Some have been worn. Some still have original tags.

The ScholarShop is selling them for $5 to $60, with the average price being $25.

Speculation about where the dresses came from is rampant but nearly impossible to unravel.

The only theory that seems plausible is that a local collector died without listing the treasure trove in his or her estate.

There is a rumor that the collection belonged to a local man with a "vintage dress fetish," and then there's the possibility that a local shop owner may be the unsuspecting dress benefactor.

"Alice was a pack rat in a good way," said Jennifer Stauber of her aunt, who founded Alice's Vintage Clothes, now located in the Delmar Loop, about 40 years ago. Alice Stauber died 15 years ago of breast cancer, and Jennifer took over the business. Because her aunt didn't leave a treasure map to all the warehouses full of her stock, Stauber had to play detective.

Alice left behind at least three houses filled to the brim with vintage clothing, and Stauber eventually hunted down a few more locations she had been using as storerooms.

"It was impossible to track down everything," Stauber said. A warehouse full of vintage dresses in South County was traced to Alice but only after the clothing was being sold by a third party at a flea market. Stauber, who is looking to sell her aunt's shop, said she was happy that the dresses were being appreciated.

"If it is from Alice, I think she'd be happy that the collection went to the (foundation). It's really a great organization," Stauber said. "I'm just glad they didn't throw them in a Dumpster."


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