Just the front area of Glenna’s Clothing in Tacoma’s Opera Alley would be enough to have any fashion lover twitterpated. The steep walk-up to the warehouse-turned-vintage mecca reveals dozens of shelves with stacks of woolen sweaters, blouses, folded slacks, and skirts on one side and circular racks of hanging clothes on the other. There’s enough inventory to keep you busy sorting through treasures for hours, but this is just the beginning.
If you’re lucky enough to wander into the back, that is where the magic lives.
Enormous racks held up by steel cables suspended from the ceiling are overwhelmed with hangers upon hangers of clothing through the decades.
A separate room in the back is packed with loose and boxed hats and boxes of jewelry, and other interior walls are lined with shelves of more hats, purses, shoes, and gloves.
To walk through the passageway between the racks that flank both sides of the space is to walk through history.
Owner Glenna Mathews’ inventory timeline starts with the early 1900s and goes onward to the ’80s. Most everything on the left side of the warehouse space is still wrapped in plastic. Everything on the right is hanging in order by garment type and color, so either Mathews or her assistant Charli Bellamy can deftly swoop through and grab something that sold on her Etsy page — an equally impressive shop with 160-plus pages of clothing and accessories, plus a separate Etsy account with 38 pages of jewelry.
But the online shop is just a fraction of what Mathews has. She and Bellamy do a quick mental estimating while looking around the room and figure she has roughly 15,000-plus pieces of clothing, thousands of jewelry pieces, and easily a thousand hats, all of which live snuggly in her 5,000-square-foot warehouse — an auto agency in its former life — waiting for a loving home.
Whether you’re an admirer of clothing or not, the sheer volume of Glenna’s Clothing is enough to take your breath away and has lured locals and celebrities alike.
Several years ago, American singer and actress Debbie Harry purchased an alligator purse and a cheongsam-style dress while in town for a concert at the nearby Emerald Queen Casino.
“She was ever so nice,” Mathews said with a reminiscent smile. “I mean really nice. She even put things back on the rack when she was finished with them, and I was impressed with that. … She’s since called me, and I’ve sent stuff to her home in New Jersey.”
Mathews’ inventory also has been scavenged by New York City theater groups and independent filmmakers looking for touches of authenticity that will bring their stories to life: Rachel Brosnahan’s character in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has been seen wearing a Robert lavender crystal jewelry set and white satin bedroom slippers purchased from Glenna’s by the show’s costume department. It’s likely that several other items will pop up on the show, Mathews said.
Most customers aren’t lucky enough to stumble into Mathew’s showroom; most find her on Etsy. After moving to the warehouse a year ago — which is tricky to find and rarely open, because it’s not zoned for retail — her business slowed. Mathews is hoping to get back into a traditional storefront, where she can share her love and formidable collection of vintage pieces with the masses — a passion and business that happened sort of by accident.
Mathews grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and she and her former husband moved in 1971 to Whidbey Island, where he was stationed in the Navy. A few years later, they moved to Tacoma.
It was during her time as a volunteer for the Junior League of Tacoma about a decade later that Matthews became enamored by vintage clothing. The League operated a secondhand clothing store that raised money for the community, and she worked there on Broadway Street, sorting through donations. She was always intrigued by the most unusual and beautiful things that would find their way into the store, and when it closed down, it left a void both for the community and for Mathews.
In 1997, she decided to open her own clothing store on Broadway — a postage stamp compared to her current space — that started out only selling new items but quickly added vintage inventory.
“I was inspired by a woman I met in California,” she said. “I was vacationing in Ventura, and I always remember going into her store and realizing she mixed vintage and new things together, and that was back in the ’90s, when everybody was still buying sets and things from Nordstrom. People didn’t mix flannels with silks, or plaids with polka dots, but I did that when I first started, and now everyone does it.”
Over the past 23 years, her storefront hopped around on Antique Row in downtown Tacoma, slowly expanding in size as she obtained more square footage.
And for the last 20 years, Mathews has exclusively sold vintage. Old ladies will bring a car full of their gently worn dresses and suits. Recently, Mathews said, a woman from Issaquah came in with heavy stacks of finery, including an Oscar de la Renta two-piece gold and chocolate brown striped set with a ravishing mink collar. Mathews broke her “no more buying” rule for her.
“I’m just a girl who can’t say no,” she sang, breaking out into the melody from Oklahoma!
Funnily enough, it seemed like every garment she held up in wonderment also broke her “no more buying” rule — but who could say no to vintage Oscar de la Renta?
Fashion can have a kind of polarizing effect on people. Some love it as a creative outlet and form of personal expression; others view it as frivolous and exclusive. But a beautiful and often overlooked aspect of the industry is the way in which fashion serves as a physical manifestation of history.
Clara Berg, the curator of collections at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, said style often represents how social norms shifted and movements of rebellion stirred, how wartimes impacted the fashion industry and seeped into everyday life, and the health of the economy.
“It’s such an interesting way to study history, because I do feel like fashion is so representative of what’s going on at the time and societal beliefs based on what the clothes look like,” Berg said. “I also feel like fashion is so interesting and relatable because it is both private and public. So, private in the sense that it is something you wear. Everyone has an experience wearing clothing. It’s something that you feel against the body. … But at the same time, it’s very public. Everyone sees what you’re wearing, and you’re telling a story about who you are based on what you’re wearing.”
The 1910s and the 1960s jump out to Berg as decades that defined the industry and are markers of tonal change in society. The 1910s, in particular, are often overlooked but are beloved by fashion historians because they were a very transformative period and paved the way for the boisterous flapper style of the ’20s.
“(It’s often thought that) Chanel freed women from the corset, as if women were wearing the Edwardian gowns and then, all of a sudden, were Flappers,” Berg said. “But there were a few designers working with the uncorseted body as early as 1907.”
The ’20s were a raucous time of social change, which is represented in the styles of that era. “Skirts were getting shorter; women had just gotten the right to vote. We’d just gone through the first World War, and everyone had a friend that died in the war; it was kind of like, ‘We might as well party,’” Berg said. “All of these factors are stewing together to create fashion that very much rejected what happened before that.”
The styles of the ’30s and ’40s are a mirror of World War II’s impact. Fashion went from glamour to utility, not only because women stepped into the workforce to fill the voids left by men, but also because materials were scarce. In fact, designers had to get creative when leather and steel were rationed, so some started using cork for the base and sole of shoes, giving way to the modern-day cork wedge.
Once World War II ended, society once again shuddered against previous expectations — thus the glamorous style of the ’50s. Designers, like Christian Dior, went wild with soufflé-like layers of luxurious fabrics to create “The New Look” — a celebration of life with the end of the war.
“You see tiny waists, big skirts, and hyper-feminine styles,” Berg said. “There were a lot of women who hated the look of the ’50s, because they’d had a lot of freedom and responsibility, and here’s fashion telling you to go back to being feminine and needing your husband to button you into your dress. On the other hand, there were a lot of people who loved it, because they’d lived through the Depression and the second World War and wanted to be pretty.”
And while some decades are more sharply defined, the ’60s were an all-out rebellion made up of a patchwork quilt of fashion: It was modern; it was defiant with the counter-culture movement; it was futuristic; it was filled with bright-hued, British mod looks with bold patterns and short silhouettes; and yet, at times, it was whimsical and prairie-like.
It was also the decade when people started wearing more vintage clothing. There’s no clear consensus on what “vintage clothing,” means, but today, many consider garments from the ’80s to be the cutoff point — anything newer is yet to fit the moniker.
Today, that trend of borrowing from the past to create something anew is more popular than ever, especially as conversations about environmental sustainability and the impact of the fashion industry on the planet have become increasingly prominent.
According to Vox, an online explainer journalism platform, “Eight to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to the fashion industry, which is more than the aviation and maritime shipping industries combined.”
The industry also produces 80 billion to 150 billion garments per year, and roughly three-fifths of all clothing is either incinerated or tossed into landfills the same year it was made, the article continued.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced that in fewer than 20 years, the amount of landfill-bound clothing doubled to 14 million tons, and estimated that if that clothing had been recycled, it would be the equivalent to taking 7.3 million cars off the road.
Production aside, the way some fabrics are made is problematic as well.
More than 60 percent of fabrics are now made from synthetic fibers, such as polyester, according to The New York Times, so when a piece of clothing arrives at a landfill, it won’t decompose. The microfibers from synthetic fabrics also are a major culprit of the micro-plastics that pollute our water when washed, thus contaminating the seafood we eat and water we drink.
Presented with the facts of the industry, some are opting to offset their individual impact by buying vintage or secondhand clothing. A widely reported 2019 study from online reseller thredUP revealed that secondhand apparel is a $24 billion market, making it a staunch rival to the $35 billion fast-fashion market. It’s predicted that by 2028, the secondhand fashion market will jump to $64 billion.
When asked about the sustainability aspect of vintage clothing, Mathews noted that Nordstrom also has gotten into the business of resale, joining big hitters Macy’s, JCPenney, and Madewell.
“It’s more mainstream now,” Mathews said. “Isn’t that something? When I started out, no one who shopped at Nordstrom would buy clothes from me. It just shows how the world has changed. People are given permission to wear vintage; it’s in vogue.”
And Mathews always goes back to the caliber of vintage clothing available.
“The quality of the pieces, the fabrics, and construction. You just don’t find that in throw-away clothes of today,” she said. “And you have such a vast assortment. You’re not tied into one style of whatever’s popular today. I think a woman who wears vintage makes a statement.”
A sign that was once outside Mathew’s storefront read, “Clothing for women who dare to be different.” The tagline was a nod to style but could now be interpreted as a social ethos, with men and women turning to resale fashion for environmental reasons.
Mathews and Bellamy bring vintage garments back to life with needles and thread that restore items back to their original glory.
Sometimes when women bring in their old clothes, Mathews will even write their names down so she can pass along their story to the next owner. A navy-blue wedding suit from the ’40s could make its way on to a film set or into the closet of someone who delights in its history.
The stories of the past live on. They tell a narrative of hardship and overcoming, of loss and love, of creativity and unruliness.
Fashion tells the story of humanity, in all its kaleidoscopic tapestry, and Mathews is just one piece of it — offering a space for it to survive and thrive.