Pamela Des Barres shares the origin story of her love of the thrift store treasure hunt, the goldmine of vintage fashions that changed her life, and the encounter with Frank Zappa’s entourage that led to the start of her all-girl group the GTOs
Although I had no idea I’d been born into a lower middle class family (what awful terminology), that is exactly where I sprang forth — weighing a mere four pounds, four ounces –to a seemingly contented housewife and her adventurous Budweiser beer-bottling man. Actually, OC Miller from Pinsonfork, Kentucky had worked several jobs after bringing his lovely wife, Margaret, to the wilds of the San Fernando Valley in 1954, winding up in Reseda, close to the mammoth Anheuser-Busch plant where he finally started working the night shift. (This would come in very handy for me a few years later, creeping in at 3 AM!) OC brought home a case of Bud every weekend, and it was empty by Monday morning. My early childhood drawings were created on the backs of beer labels. I still have a few. I don’t drink beer myself, but I’ve always been attracted to a beer-swigging man.
My mom lost two babies in childbirth before me and two after and, as a doted-on only child, I had more toys than I deserved. All the kids with annoying siblings wanted to play at my house. Oh, how I loved dressing up my Barbie in all her charming little outfits! I mixed and matched and even hand-stitched a few, saving up my forty cent weekly allowance to ensure she was the best-dressed doll on Jamieson Avenue. (A portion also went to Elvis records, of course).
And when I arrived at Cantara Street School each day, I outshone the other little girls, never showing up in a dress from JC Penney’s or shoes from Sears that might be an exact replica of one of my classmate’s. Yes, I got my underwear and socks in those behemoth stores, but my unique and original outfits came directly from thrift stores. At age seven or eight, I didn’t understand the stigma of wearing someone else’s used clothes and by the time I figured it out, it didn’t matter a whit, as I was already well into the HUNT.
My mom and I would get on a bus and hit the stores a few miles away from our neighborhood (just in case), and since the clothes were so darn cheap I could choose a plethora of perfectly delightful one-of-a-kind outfits – 8 or 10 for the price of one! Hand-embroidered sweaters! Perky little hats! It became a secret treasure hunt, a joyful outing with my dear mama. I had plenty of “dress up” beauties for special occasions too, and always looked swell in my Easter bonnets and Christmas crinolines. I thoroughly enjoyed dolling myself up from an early age.
On weekends, the hunt continued well into my early teens with my big handsome daddy as we traipsed around yard sales and flea markets. My favorite was a desert swap meet way out in dusty Saugus where we’d spend an entire day digging through bags and boxes, oohing and ahhing over a pile of old tools, or in my case, an antique cameo or lacy hanky. In fact, I found my first life-changing Elvis record, Treat Me Nice, at a garage sale with my dad. A day that looms large in my own personal legend!
During my extreme Beatlemania, I started making my own mod mini skirts and a pair of wide, low-cut Cher bellbottoms that I flaunted with skittish aplomb. The only pair in all of Reseda, I was certain. I’d also happened upon some old-timey flowered dresses in thrift shops, which fit nicely, and discovered a pair of red 1950s pedal-pushers in the back of my mom’s closet, which I teamed with a handmade crop-top — but I soon became most entranced by the dreamy feminine clothes gracing the pages of old-fashioned magazines. I’d buy stacks of faded Vogues and Marie Claires, gazing rapturously at the swirly, sheer, fairy-like frocks that seemed to light the models from within, bringing out their alluring femme mystique.
One day after school, I was swoonily showing my Beatle John-friend, Linda, a chiffon number in a 1930s movie mag, when her granny told us we should get her old trunk out of the attic. “Gammie,” a feisty outspoken dame, was well into her 70s, and I was mightily intrigued as we lifted the lid of her creaky ancient trunk. When the sweet stale waft of silk, satin and velvet filled the air around us, I had never even heard the term vintage. It was 1966.
As we pulled frock after magnificent frock out of the past, as the feathers flew, and rhinestones glimmered, the yellowed pages of Vogue came vividly, deliciously to life in front of my startled eyes. Turned out Gammie and I were the exact same size (Linda was the zaftig type) and she graciously offered these most precious garments to me, saying she’d never be wearing them to her bingo games anyway. Lace gloves, feather boas, bias-cut satin peignoir sets, floor-length-cut velvet dresses, clingy silk gowns, each piece more luscious than the next. It still remains one of the most profoundly life-altering days of my life.
A few weeks after this mind-boggling event, the great Lenny Bruce was found dead of a heroin overdose in his Hollywood bathroom. I was sixteen, had just graduated high school, and had recently been christened “a gas” by Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart, after meeting him at the Hollywood Palladium’s 2nd Annual Teen Fair. (His cousin, Victor Hayden aka the Mascara Snake, was in my class at Cleveland High, a spectacular stroke of luck). In retrospect I believe part of the Captain’s complimentary remark was because I was wearing a baggy, olive green, wide wale corduroy jacket that my dad brought back from Mexico. (I loved Mick Jagger’s wide wale cords and felt pretty groovy emulating him). I wasn’t, however, enough of a gas to know how great Lenny Bruce actually was, but I’d heard about his upcoming eulogy in nearby Chatsworth, and planned to join the hipsters in acknowledging his contribution to hipness.
I had recently started driving my ’59 Chevy Impala convertible over the hill to Hollywood, meeting musicians and like-minded hippie-types, and was happy to see many faces I recognized on our colorful march to Lenny’s resting place in Eden Park Cemetery. For the ultra-hip, solemn occasion, I chose one of Gammie’s long black velvet skirts, slit provocatively up one side, and a red ‘30s silk velvet wrap blouse, festooned with matching floppy flowers. I carried balloons, attempting to remain respectful while hoping to fit in with the people who obviously knew how great Lenny actually was.
After the cemetery march, the mourners met at a local DJ’s backyard where I sat cross-legged in the grass while Phil Spector hosted several speakers who praised the mastery and martyrdom of the late Mr. Bruce. But I couldn’t help flicking my eyes toward the back of the yard, where Frank Zappa and his wife, Gail, goofed around on a kiddie’s swing set. I remember his neon flowered bellbottoms and the way Gail gazed at him unabashedly, as if he lit up the entire universe.
Among the groovers at Lenny’s eulogy was a ragtag trippy group of freaks led by a fellow in his fifties, dressed in a loincloth, his fit torso painted various colors, and I was mesmerized by their sense of freedom and ragged fashion. The girls were wearing see-through vintage pieces (before I knew the word, remember) mixed with lace, ribbons, feathers and silk flowers. They were accompanied by a tiny blonde toddler, swaddled in doilies, who danced joyously around their legs.
A few days later, I saw this eccentric group again, flailing around on stage with the Doors at a love-in at Griffith Park. I had daisies in my hair and was wearing one of the dresses from Gammie’s trunk, a blue velvet bias gown with cap sleeves which I turned into a mini (ouch!) and added an antique hand-crocheted Irish lace collar. As I meandered among the peaceniks, I was approached by a young photographer who asked if he could shoot me. Sure. He later asked if I’d like to dance in a “short film” with a new band from England, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. He added, “Be sure to wear that dress.” Needless to say, I heeded his request.
Soon after Lenny’s eulogy, a new Sunset Strip pal, Rodney Bingenheimer, invited me to this trippy freak’s 54th birthday party, another unforgettable mind-blowing experience for many reasons. Vito, his wife Szou, and their baby, Godot, lived above a small shop filled with Szou’s unbelievable wares, created out of all sorts of antique fabrics, buttons and bows– purses, cloaks, headdresses, shawls. I was literally jaw-dropped as I climbed the rickety stairs and entered a scene that still hums in my head like a Hendrix guitar solo. The outrageously bedecked living room was jammed with flamboyant humanity, laughing, dancing, smooching, weaving and bobbing. The baby was pirouetting on a tabletop as a frizzy-haired goofball with a huge ‘F’ on his cape stuck his long tongue out at me in welcome, introducing himself proudly as “Captain Fuck.” Well, hello there.
I quickly joined a gaggle of dazzling girls, one of whom turned out to be Miss Christine, nanny for six-month-old Moon Zappa. After a little chit-chat — this lanky beauty, dressed to the tens in a long, tailored jacket made from a turn-of-the-century satin quilt — invited me to come up to the “log cabin” in Laurel Canyon to meet her boss. Wow.
Thus began the saga of my all-girl group, the GTOs – Girls Together Outrageously. After meeting each other at Vito’s, the seven of us danced with his zany troupe, but soon set off on our own, becoming The Laurel Canyon Ballet Company, cavorting with local bands on stage, including the Mothers of Invention. When Mr. Zappa started his own record label, he asked us to write songs based on our madcap experiences, and suddenly we were a group!
“I’m In Love with the Ooh-Ooh Man” by the GTO’s, off the Permanent Damage album produced by Frank Zappa:
A very well-dressed group, I might add. Although all of us came from lower middle class families—except for Cynderella, who pretended she did—we all wore vintage and hand-created clothes that expressed our emerging individuality: gypsy, earth mama, Dr. Seuss, baby doll, ‘40s moll, bombshell, flower child, mystery maven. Sometimes we’d all dress alike on purpose, like the night we got thrown off the stage dancing with the Mothers, wearing diapers and itty bitty bibs, barely covering our nips. (Except for Mercy who was always gypsified).
My beloved Gram Parsons turned me on to Nudie, the rodeo tailor, and I started merging cowpoke spangle along with my antique garb. When I fell in love with a cowboy in his band, I added a fringe jacket to my clown make-up and sheer tablecloth dress. I am posing in that very handmade creation with Miss Sparky on a popular head shop poster. (I was thrilled to find that very poster on eBay recently, in pristine condition!) On the gatefold picture in our album, Permanent Damage, I’m wearing a turn of the century wedding dress, a long strip of 20s beads as a belt, and a pink lace shawl around my hips. The whole ensemble cost about 7 dollars. Very few people were interested in these exquisite delights, and you could find ‘40s fitted suits, rayon gowns and silk nighties for a pittance.
We also helped dress up our rock and roll boyfriends, often dragging the British lads to the only vintage store in Hollywood, The Glass Farmhouse on the wrong end of Sunset Blvd. I vividly remember wrapping Rod Stewart up in a feather boa and silk vest. Miss Christine was in love with a guy named Vince from Arizona, who changed his name to Alice, and all of us had a ball helping transform those adorable boys into androgynous skirt-wearing rock gods. During my Led Zeppelin phase, when I dreamed of becoming Mrs. Jimmy Page, I took the entire band to Nudie’s where they got outfitted in George Jones embroidered rhinestone madness. I often showed my appreciation for the music by making clothes for my true loves. Ala Nudie, I created a humdinger for Mr. Page, a pink and white velvet cowboy shirt with three-foot fringe. My heart palpitated when I saw him wearing it on the pages of the New Musical Express.
We were just being our wild-girl selves, but the GTOs were pretty influential fashion plates. Years later, Gene Simmons told me that Paul Stanley got his starry painted eyes from Miss Sandra’s look on our album, and he took his topknot from Miss Christine’s. (Hers was an ostrich feather, his was hair).
One of my favorite get-ups through the years has been to pair a ‘40s bathing suit, or romper, with net or lace tights and sky-high platforms or sexy ‘50s spike heels. I got married in ’77 wearing a little girl’s net communion dress from the 20s, purchased at The Aardvark on Melrose for 6 dollars. I added a whole lot of peach ribbons and emblazoned my headpiece with tiny cloth flowers and matching ribbons.
Last week at a reading in London, I wore an insane Asian-flavored early ‘50s gown I found in Las Vegas at an antique mall, its pointed sleeves almost touching the ground. I’ve never dressed age appropriately, and it’s too late to start now. Actually, I wouldn’t even consider it. Playing dress up is too much fun! Reflecting who I am with what I wear has been a lifelong quest.
Because of Gram’s eternal influence, I still adore country-flavored outfits, harder and harder to find these days. In fact, so many of the glorious fashion finds of yesteryear are dwindling as the years go by. And, oh so expensive! But my passion for the V-word has never waned. I am always on the lookout, treasure hunting here in LA, and everywhere I travel, haunting estate sales, Goodwill and Salvation Army, my keen eye easily spotting the edge of a lace sleeve, the sheen of peach silk peeking out amid the dross. Just last week in London, I grabbed a “dead stock” (unworn) Indian peasant blouse from about 1970, which is now considered to be vintage. Sigh.
Today, ‘80s and even ‘90s clothes are considered vintage (nooooooo!), but to me True Vintage is like the feminine finery that spilled from Gammie’s creaky trunk, smelling of yesteryear, satiny and luxurious, sheer and mysterious, velvety under my fingertips, slipping over my shoulders like silken skin.
Pamela has her own clothing line, www.groupieu.com loaded with trippy tees, groupie jewelry, hippie accoutrements, and plans to recreate her favorite vintage frocks very soon. She also has a killer idea for a TV competition series, Thrift Store Chic, sending 6 girls out to their fave local thrift stores with 50 bucks to create a stellar ensemble, head-to-toe, and Miss P will choose the best-dressed winner! Haha! So if you want to take a pitch meeting with me, let me know!