Art Deco Decadence

Vintage vacationing on a shoestring budget.

Photos courtesy of the author.

Every May, the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles hosts their opulent Avalon Ball—which is held in the historic 1920s Catalina Casino on a small island off the coast of California. Hundreds of Decofiles descend upon Catalina Island for a weekend of vintage gaiety, frolicking on the beaches in finger-waved hair and wool swimsuits, miniature golfing in lawn party whites, enjoying waffle cones and saltwater taffy while strolling along the boardwalk. It all coalesces in one evening of grandeur, dancing to the sounds of Dean Mora’s orchestra in a gilded ballroom shaped like the underside of a seashell.

Each year a large group of us close friends rent a historical Wrigley bungalow in “The Flats” in Avalon and then spend the next ten months budgeting and planning for a weekend of immersive historical vacationing, picking out straw cloche hats and parsing out meal planning.

We’re all working within various budgets. One has a nice, dependable job in tech and one is an actress who earns a lawyer’s salary as a freelance celebrity psychic. Two are museum professionals and another a struggling grad student. Until recently, I worked in the arts, having served as a curator, registrar and auction house director while my husband is getting his own brick-and-mortar business off the ground. In other words, he and I are breaking even. We remain in debt but we side hustle, selling on Etsy and eBay when things get tenuous. We could opt to pay down debt faster and live frugally for what would be the next decade at our current income rate or we could get clever with our vacationing while working tirelessly to increase our income. Sixteen-hour days machining for six days a week deserves a vacation!

Our vacation budget is a set of carefully calculated Excel formulas that I obsess over, not out of fear of lack but because I love the cool feel of precision and planning. $227.74 for our share of the five-bedroom bungalow for the weekend. $72 each for the boat ride “26 miles across the sea,” as The Four Preps say. $55 for the early-bird ticket to the ball (tax-deductible and, of course, filed away with my 2017 tax information). If I carefully manage the money when I’m bored, I won’t sink the ship when I get excited and impulsive.

Even the period-correct wardrobe gets built into the budget. How much does a 1930s ballgown cost, one might ask? Given a year to hunt and search— talking to dealers, setting dozens of eBay alerts and occasionally paging through the Augusta auction catalog—anywhere from $10 to $500. Early mornings spent at estate sales, elbowing into closets of the recently deceased, hurriedly ripping open dust-covered garment bags and dry cleaning plastic in search of gold. An 80s jumpsuit? A 1940s girl scout uniform? A mint-condition 1930s silk ballgown with matching crush velvet cape? In many instances items in our wardrobe carry the names of their previous owner. “Is that Dorothy’s sweater?” or “Henry’s watch?” Families now excitedly gift us vintage clothes from deceased loved ones’ closets, knowing they would be happy to see us bring their memory to life.

As a group we create a budget for the menu, bringing a rolling cooler of perishables with us to the island where a single banana can run you $2. Crepes and mimosas for breakfast, picnics on the beach, barbecued shish kabobs my husband cooks for dinner while us girls all spend hours stuffing our giblets into girdles and fussing with vintage curling irons. We don’t always have extra cash, but we live like kings for a weekend.

All of us in the gang are in very different places financially, but we make a point to travel together regularly. Sure, we aren’t jet-setting to Bali but our weekend trips to Palm Springs and Catalina feel pretty baller, and there’s nothing like jumping on the bed with your best friends, hair in pincurls, screaming the lyrics to “Cherry Bomb” at the top of your lungs. Or doing the foxtrot in silk and tails across a 90 year old Art Deco ballroom to a live orchestra. Or trying not to puke on the world’s most hungover ghost tour of Avalon.

Everyone is included; no one’s relegated to the couch or left out of a steak dinner because they’re broke. We make it work for everyone and, in the end, the stories are legendary.

Sara Tellez is a pediatric speech therapist, living historian and vintage aficionado based out of Los Angeles, Ca.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Vacation Series.

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