If you’ve ever been to Porteño, you’ve probably spotted Sarah Doyle. She’s the captivating blonde in the various vintage frocks, captaining the front of house. Doyle describes her style as “mid-to-late 50s, early 60s, with a mix of 40s pieces”.
But she isn’t a purist by any means. “My [hem] lengths aren’t exactly 1950s and if I want to wear cowboy boots, I'll wear cowboy boots,” she smiles, gesturing to a pair by her wardrobe.
"Every night I’m asked, ‘Oh, do you have to dress this way? How do you dress normally?’” Doyle laughs. “No, this is it. You'd never go to this much effort for a job!”
Doyle’s wardrobe brims with prints and colour, from blue checks to abstract prints; teals, reds and audacious florals; frothy fabrics and light-hearted cottons. In a life before hospitality, Doyle worked in an office and reserved her 50s regalia for special occasions. But when she came on board to work front of house at the two restaurants her husband Elvis Abrahanowicz co-owns (Bodega and Porteño), she found that she could wear whatever she liked, all the time. And while she cites her mother, four sisters and close friends (including those with more modern sensibilities) as huge inspirations for her style, becoming friends with a retro-centric community spurred her on. It’s a community in which aesthetic appreciation for the era becomes serious commitment.
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This unwavering sentimentality for the period reaches far beyond the sartorial. “When I hear the music, I just know that my heart belongs in that era,” says Doyle. She lists cars, the dancing, interiors and architecture as the other foundations of her fascination. It’s a sense of style that has gained unprecedented attention in the last few years, but for Doyle the difference between those who dabble and those who commit is fairly negligible.
“The more people in our scene the better – the more people who keep it alive… It is harder to source things though!” she observes wryly. “That’s my biggest bugbear with it.”
Doyle employs the services of several dressmakers who alter pieces or fashion vintage fabrics into frocks. She’s particular about the way a piece is altered though. For one, she likes to keep as much seam allowance as possible so that she might drop a hem or let out a seam. For true vintage pieces, she tries to maintain as much integrity as possible, preserving the original details, metal zippers and tags of the lives her pieces have already lived. “I think fabric and print makes them stand out initially,” she says. “But some of my favourite pieces have simple colours but great shape. I always say that a dress with its belt, original metal zipper and label is worth its price.”
She’s serious about where she sources her stuff too. Every year, Doyle and Abrahanowicz travel to LA where Doyle “spends all [her] money” at a vintage boutique called Golyester. One of her favourite finds from the store was a full tulle skirt appliquéd with red and black velvet – the kind of piece that could veer into overt girlishness but transforms Doyle into an old-world Hollywood heroine.
While she acknowledges her addiction, there are some dresses that are so full of memory that they could never be cast to the donation pile. One such dress is a blue silk cocktail frock patterned with fine waves, ending in a small mermaid tail detail. Her husband bought it as a gift one Christmas and she found the frock so perfect that she saves it for special occasions, like the opening of Porteño.
Another never-getting-rid-of number is her wedding dress, or weddings dresses to be more correct. She had one frock for the ceremony, another for the reception and another ‘going away’ dress. “This was pretty common in the 50s and a great excuse to buy three dresses,” she smiles. Her reception dress is a structured, strapless cocktail number, interrupted by a vivid red fold-over at the bust, and she recently reprised it for a friend’s Christmas party that happened to fall on her wedding anniversary.
Central to all distinctive clothing is a sense of occasion and a story that can stem from them, something that Doyle quite clearly relishes: “I love the stories of these things, the history and learning from people. You learn so much from the clothes and the people who tell you stories when you buy from them,” she says, returning pieces to her wardrobe. “I don't read history books or things like that, but this is how I collect history and stories.”