Helen Uffner has been a go-to period clothing source for television, movies and the stage since she began her career 39 years ago. From her 5,000-square-foot warehouse and showroom in Long Island City, Queens, she rents out vintage clothing, with her oldest pieces dating back to 1860. Her first film job was outfitting Meryl Streep for “Out of Africa,” and more recently, she supplied Amy Schumer’s dress for a Mary Todd Lincoln skit on “Saturday Night Live” (a regular client) and Kate Winslet’s shoes — 1930s wedges, new in the box — for Ms. Winslet’s portrayal of Mildred Pierce in the recent HBO remake. Sundays find Ms. Uffner, 68, who lives on East 70th Street, visiting flea markets and tag or estate sales with friends. She’s always on the lookout for new inventory and for additions to her personal collection of toys from the ’50s and ’60s.
WAKE UP WITH WINDUP TOYS I eat breakfast on the run. I might order out for a bagel and cream cheese with whitefish. I’m addicted to all morning news shows, so I’ll eat and sit on my bed and watch TV. On either side of my bed, I have two huge 1950s red-and-white table lamps that I got at a junky yard sale for $25 apiece. My apartment is kind of a conglomerate of things I find at estate sales. I collect old pop-up and windup toys, like Popeye and Olive Oyl, and arrange them in dioramas in glass cases. There’s a phrenology head on my living room table. It’s all fun and reflects my personality.
MAPMAKING Then I track out where the estate sales, flea markets and tag sales are and make a map of where I’m going to go. I look online to find them. There are estate sale sites, and I also Google local papers and look on Craigslist. I go with friends because I don’t have a car now. I don’t know what to expect on Sundays, but I know we’re going to have fun. Before I leave, I might hand-wash cottons or linens and hang them up to dry during the day. I’m a multitasker.
CLOTHING QUEST I love the thrill of the hunt. I look for clothing and accessories for my business, but I find things for myself, too. I have a good eye. You never know when you’re going to get a call for clothing. Once, I went to an estate sale in Brooklyn and bought a lot of 1950s sweater sets, and a week later, I got a call and started work on “A Beautiful Mind.” They wanted all of them. I love Edwardian dresses and 1920s knits. When Amazon was doing “Z: The Beginning of Everything,” about Zelda Fitzgerald, they bought almost all my Edwardian dresses; I had 260 of them. Buying vintage clothing at a flea market or tag sale gives you the illusion of getting things that are one of a kind, even though you know they were manufactured. Sometimes I’m looking for something specific for a client. I had to find a circa-1940s dress for a Ragu commercial. I’ve been busy with two upcoming Broadway shows, “M. Butterfly” and “Roman Holiday.”
DROP BY THE OFFICE If I’m in Queens or Long Island and I’ve found some things, I’ll try to drop them off at my work space. Everything needs to be dry-cleaned or sent out for special cleaning. That’s usually the sturdiest clothing, like winter coats. Everything else I clean and restore by hand.
WHY SHE DOES IT My parents are Holocaust survivors. My family lost everything they had. I’m keeping alive everyone else’s history, which is what I love about working with all these old things. It’s nice to know that the items I buy will have another life, and will be used theatrically.
LUNCH AND FRESH AIR After we get tired, it’s usually time for lunch. We like to go to local ethnic restaurants: Korean, Central American or Greek, offbeat hole-in-the-wall places. We have some favorites. Afterward, we’ll go to a local park to get some fresh air and relax. I also look for open markets and come back with a lot of fruits and vegetables. I like to cook on Sunday nights and make soups or meals for the week. If it’s early enough, I’ll go to the gym.
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