An auction sensation from the backmost corner of the wardrobe

As a veteran clothing & textile appraiser for the popular public television series “Antiques Roadshow” and owner of America’s top auction house for vintage fashion and textiles, I am requested by many institutions and private parties to appraise costume collections or to review items for inclusion in my specialty auctions. One such request came to me in June 2011 from a man living near Newark, New Jersey.

The man described a few 18th Century men’s garments and some early American textiles he wished to consign to our upcoming auction. While on a consignment pickup at a nearby museum, I arranged to go to his home to view his collection. From past experience, I had little hope I would uncover any truly amazing pieces.

Karen Augusta

  • Antique Lace & Textiles
  • Antique Costumes

Our November 2, 2011 fashion sale in New York City was filled with surprises but none quieted the crowd in attendance more than the bidding for the featured zoot suit lot.

The man was very pleasant and had all his “treasures” piled high on the dining room table. One by one I went through them and told him what he actually had. Of all the objects just a few were selected for my sale. As I packed these he remembered an item stored in the back of his closet that he felt confident I might really like. I was sceptical as he ran up the stairs.

A few minutes later he returned with a man’s suit made of two contrasting striped woolens, one a red & grey stripe on cream and the other a blue stripe on oatmeal. The trousers boasted an extremely high waistline, a 17" zippered fly, and balloon legs tightly pegged at the cuffs. The knee length jacket had exaggerated padded shoulders, wide notched revers fashioned from the two different striped fabrics, and oversized floppy external pockets. He had purchased the suit many years earlier at a Newark area house sale for “about $100”.

The homeowner had described it to him as a clown costume but our consigner knew immediately what it really was. He had a photograph of his jazz musician father, taken just before World War II, in a similar outfit. What he had unearthed from storage in his closet was a very rare “zoot” suit.

During a brief time in history, 1938-1942, zoot suits were worn by “hep cats” of the early jazz age. The extreme design appealed to urban minorities, primarily Hispanics and African Americans. As America entered the war, restrictions on excess use of fabric were instituted and those who wore zoot suits were seen as unpatriotic. I had never seen a zoot suit outside of movies, cartoons and newsreel clips and knew of only one other in an American museum collection - at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Our November 2, 2011 fashion sale in New York City was filled with surprises but none quieted the crowd in attendance more than the bidding for the featured zoot suit lot. The bidding moved rapidly back and forth between floor bidders and those on multiple phone lines before settling in on two serious phone bidders. Auctioneer Leila Dunbar, a colleague from Antiques Roadshow, kept the crowd entranced as the rare striped wool man’s suit rose from its $500 opening bid to settle at US $65,000.00 ($78,000.00 including the buyer's premium). The spectacular sale price set a new world auction record for a 20th Century working class man's garment. It was also an Augusta Auctions sale record. And the consignor was ecstatic!

Karen Augusta is a fashion, lace & textile expert, museum consultant, and appraiser. Her New England childhood was immersed in fine art and couture clothing. She learned to appreciate construction details and style from her mother, a fashion illustrator, and composition and costume history from her father, a prominent Boston portrait artist. Ms. Augusta began collecting antique clothing in the 1960's.

She opened vintage shops in the 1970’s & 1980’s, exhibited costume and lace throughout the US, curated museum costume exhibitions, and in the mid-1990’s, created one of the first websites dedicated to historic/vintage clothing and laces. Since 2001, Karen has devoted her time to appraising costume and textiles for museums and private clients. She also assists museums and other institutions in the sale of their couture and vintage clothing collections.