Three centuries ago, Parisian aristocrats paraded horse-drawn carriages through the city’s parks and promenades as a show of prestige on warm summer weekends and holidays. As carriages evolved into motorized cars, the exercise of showmanship became a forerunner to The Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, an automotive competition celebrating its 20th anniversary this year at The Ritz-Carlton. What is fashionable never takes a backseat no matter what time period you live in, and each year at the Concours, the Vintage Fashion Show event is a highlight. Whether sporty, classic, elegant or racy, the outfits and their colors, textures, and accessories are painstakingly researched for historical accuracy.
The right clothing, makeup, hair and accessories, that’s what defines it as an era,” says Sandra Alford, the fashion show’s coordinator, and a member of Fashion Group International of North Florida, which produces the Vintage Fashion Show.
One of the premier automotive events in the world, the Concours d’Elegance only accepts 250 cars a year. Founder Bill Warner travels around the world to examine exquisite, rare cars that are worthy of invitation. The automobiles are judged on the beauty of their design.
“Some of these cars are really priceless,” Alford says.
Early each year, Alford meets with Warner to discuss roughly 10 cars he’s chosen to pair with the fashion show. A fashion designer and artist, Alford researches and designs the outfits, hats, and other accessories for the fashion show. She’s assisted by professional hair and make-up artists.
Traditionally, spectators see fashions like Edwardian style clothes (think Downton Abbey, circa 1912) or elegant backless halter neck evening gowns from 1932. But sometimes they spice it up. It all depends on the car. Its biggest hit came in 2011 with the Playboy Bunny Suit. The racy, strapless corset, with bunny ears, black pantyhose, a collar, and a fluffy cottontail was worn by a model paired with Hugh Heffner’s “Big Benz.”
“I decided as a fun, crazy thing to dress the model as a Playboy Bunny,” Alford says. “That was the biggest reaction I’ve ever gotten. They loved that. When Ashley (the model) got out of the car everyone gasped and there was loud, wild applause.”
From 1960 to 1988, the skin-tight body suit was worn by waitresses at Playboy Clubs, an international chain of Heffner-owned nightclubs and resorts.
“The internal structure of the Playboy bunny was an engineering feat in itself,” Alford says. “On the inside it was heavily boned. The suit takes a normal figure and moves it around and enhances it, giving it an hourglass shape.”
On the outside, the costume looks like a black strapless swimsuit with high cut legs. But there were dozens of details to consider in its construction, Alford says. That includes the foam rubber half falsies in the top, stiffener to keep the ears upright and a tail that had to be the right size and shape so that when the waitresses leaned down gracefully to serve patrons the tail wouldn’t get in the way.
In 1972, when Heffner’s car was made, Playboy Bunnies wore a double layer of stockings, light-colored tights with sheer black stockings over them. To complete the outfit, Alford bought a child’s tuxedo shirt to form the collar, cuffs and bow tie, put a name tag on a satin rosette and pinned it on the suit’s right hip bone, and bought a pair of 3-inch high heels.
“The whole thing was pretty fascinating,” Alford says.
The Concours could hardly have found a better designer for the task. Alford’s roommate at the University of Cincinnati, where Alford majored in fashion design, worked at a Playboy Club. The first work uniform registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, strict company rules prohibited the waitresses from bringing home their bunny suits.
But one day her roommate took the risk so Alford and other friends could try it on.
Being a fashion designer was something Alford had wanted since high school. In fact, she quit playing with the high school band to gain experience working at a fabric store in the small town of Minerva, Ohio, where she grew up. By then she had taught herself how to sew and had created outfits that were “somewhat out there,” she said.
During her last year in college, after her parents had moved to Jacksonville, she came here and applied for internships at three downtown department stores: Ivey’s, Furchgott’s and Purcells. All three offered her a position, so upon her college advisor’s recommendation, she accepted the Furchgott’s job. After that, she worked in merchandising at May Cohen, then moved to Jacksonville to become the fashion director at Ivey’s. Years later she opened her own retail fashion store in San Marco. She has since closed that space and is designing clothes for wholesale clients.
When this story was written, Alford and Warner hadn’t met to select the costumes for this year’s Vintage Fashion Show.
While she couldn’t tell us what to expect, we can guess at some of the influences. This year, for the first time ever, the Concours d’Elegance will host a collection of eccentric Cowboy Cars that were used to promote America’s movie and TV cowboys in the 1950s and 60s. The “Cars of the Cowboys” class will include Roy Rogers’ white Pontiac Bonneville convertible customized by Nudie Cohn, which comes with a huge set of longhorns trimmed in engraved silver on the car’s grille.
The Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance Fashion Show takes place at 10:30 am on March 15.
For more information about the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, visit ameliaconcours.org.
For more information about Sandra Alford, see her website at sandraalford.com.