In 2009, Dawn Bell, owner of the Houston boutique Evergirl Vintage and lifelong collector of retro couture, received an unexpected call as she was about to pump gas at a filling station. The caller introduced herself as Janie Bryant.
“You mean, Janie Bryant, the wardrobe stylist for Mad Men?” Bell asked the woman on the other end of the line. Yes, it was that Janie Bryant, the Emmy-winning Hollywood costume designer made famous for her work on the hit AMC series. Bell put down the gas pump. That surprise call led to a collaboration with Bryant; Bell sent her several pieces to be used on the drama set in the 1960s that captivated its audience with authentic period wardrobe and sets.
“I had sent her a message back when the series was just coming out about how great it was that, on the episode when the Drapers had just returned from Italy, she had Betty wearing a Pucci dress,” Bell says. “I’d told her how perfect that was, and obviously that spoke to her.”
It’s no surprise that Bell could identify Pucci at a glance. Influenced by her mom’s style and thriftiness, the New Orleans native started collecting vintage clothes in the 1980s, when she was just 15. She says that the ’80s, being separated from the ’60s by a mere decade, were fertile times for finding authentic ’60s handmade gems.
Her teenage passion for vintage clothes stuck with her and over time she amassed enough pieces, an estimated 30,000 of them, to fill a warehouse in Houston’s Heights neighborhood. From 2010 until just before the pandemic, she hosted the Houston Vintage Market Festival at the art deco 1940 Air Terminal Museum. The festival was a celebration of everything retro, and she brought in vendors and collectors from all over Texas and Louisiana, thereby consolidating a like-minded community of vintage lovers.
Throughout the years, Bell hosted fashion shows, fashion camps for kids, and co-taught a course at Rice University on costume design–but she never had her own shop until now. Located in the evolving East End neighborhood in a historic ’50s-era repurposed office building, Evergirl now makes it possible for vintage lovers to purchase pieces from the collection that Bell curated over 40-plus years.
Walking into Evergirl feels like stepping onto a Hollywood set. An antique rose jacquard velvet couch is flanked by mannequins decked out in feather-trimmed gowns and beaded dresses. Racks of one-of-a-kind frocks from the ’50s through the ’80s line the walls in bright shades of yellow, orange, and pink. The abundance of textures and materials—silks, sequins, tulle—dazzle the senses. Just a few minutes in this cozy space, and you can imagine long-lashed, bouffant-teased beauties sipping martinis in these clothes. They make you want to dress up, flirt, go to a party.
Address: 201 Roberts St.
Hours: Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.;
Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.
The Second Shop
Address: 3401 Harrisburg Blvd., Suite F
Hours: Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.;
Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.;
Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
About 90% of Bell’s collection was found “in the wild,” a vintage collector’s term for when you find gold via thrift store hunting. Because she knows vintage so well, she has an eye for the authentic gems hidden amid the thrift store loot. The vintage hunt is her happy place; it’s a cathartic process for Bell that absorbs her into the present moment.
“My philosophy about clothing and how I pick certain things is that I want it to sing,” she says. “I want it to sing to somebody. I want whoever wears it to be transformed by their clothes because we all need a little help and we all need to be uplifted, and clothes have that power.”
Bell witnessed the power of clothes when she was a young girl, one of 10 children in “a big fat Catholic family” in New Orleans; she saw how her mother, with little financial resources and 10 children to care for, was able to transform herself through creatively dressing in thrift store bargains.
“My mom was always able to see the wonder of life, even if my parents were struggling,” says Bell. “I saw her use clothes as a vehicle to transform from being a stressed out mother into another person. She could put on a kaftan or a beaded dress or a long gorgeous necklace, and you just knew she was in a great mood and you wanted to be around her.”
Bell, in vintage collector parlance, has discovered her share of “holy grails,” those precious items you’ve long been searching for, the peak finds. One was a Gene Shelly 1950s sequin and hand-beaded long green gown she unearthed at Value Village in the Heights. She paid the most for it that she had ever paid at the time for a piece—about $80. Bell estimates that the dress was worth $4,000. Other holy grails for Bell include pieces by Pauline Trigere, the midcentury couture designer who dressed icons such as Elizabeth Taylor and whose pieces were worn in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
“I absolutely adore anything from the ’60s,” says Bell. “They were such an amazing decade for women’s rights and the clothing reflected that: The ’50s were very cinched in the waist, but in the ’60s you started getting these little shift dresses and women were just freer, you know?”
Located minutes from downtown, Evergirl is one of many East End businesses that showcase the originality of local creatives. Another vintage store, The Second Shop, is a short walk away at the funky mixed-used development, The Plant. The Second Shop is a down-to-earth, friendly boutique with affordable finds like retro denim dresses, second hand ’80s tee shirts, and leather belts. As Bell says, if you find something that sings to you, get it.