By ALLISON COPENBARGER VANCE
About 2 miles west of St. Joseph along U.S. 150 stands a narrow opening between two vast cornfields. To anyone else, the separation would be viewed as a drainage ditch or perhaps a division of property ownership. But to Polly Bland, designer and Internet blogger, the space seems like the perfect setting for her fall 2012 photo shoot.
After parking on the side of the road, Polly begins lugging her props — vintage blankets, boxes full of antique dinnerware, old suitcases and a small wicker stool — across the busy highway. Then she begins styling the set. She lays out two vintage afghans on the grass.
The models, four of her friends, are already wearing their outfits, and they begin to prep themselves for the shoot. Jessie Whitman, an advertising major, pulls on a pair of nude platform pumps. Clara Byczkowski, an actress, fluffs her thick brown hair. Hannah Gottlieb-Graham, a senior at Urbana High School, carefully puts on a pair of lace gloves. Nora McCarthy, an art major, tries not to burst the seams in her delicate petal pink dress: It's a fitted style with no stretch that's probably worth a pretty penny.
Polly puts the finishing touches on her set. She sits a teacup on an orange velvet pillow. She stacks suitcases around the edges of the blankets. Then she tells the girls to gingerly sit down and arrange themselves as she begins to direct the two photographers.
"The fruit!" Polly suddenly says, remembering the blueberries nestled in a box.
She sets them out.
"I want to eat one," she says in a whiny tone.
"Why don't you?" Hannah asks.
"I'm busy!" Polly yells in a fake dramatic tone. She then looks at Hannah and smiles.
Saying she's busy is putting it mildly. These days, Polly wears many hats (vintage, of course.) She has more than 1,000 followers on her blog, runs a successful Etsy store called Paulie Antiques, works for Impulse, a student-run magazine, styles for films and writes for Teen Vogue. She's also a costume design student at the University of Illinois.
With Pinterest reigning as a social media powerhouse, the Internet world is full of bloggers looking to make a name for themselves by expounding on fashion, DIY projects and thrifting. Polly has landed at just the right moment in cyberspace time, and her online brand has taken off.
But she has created more than just a successful blog site. She has successfully branded herself as the newest vintage "it girl." She's part Patricia Field, part vintage Betsey Johnson and part Marilyn Monroe (she draws a fake beauty mark on her face with eyeliner every day). And at 23 years old, she's just getting started.
Polly adjusts the props and positions the girls until she's happy with the look. She carefully takes out four ornate teacups with matching saucers.
"Everyone gets a teacup!" she says. "But please be careful with them."
The teacups are special to Polly. They were gifts from her Grandma Kutch, Polly's role model and the woman who first introduced her to the wonderful world of vintage.
Polly grew up in Taylorville. When she was young, her grandmother would often watch her after school until her parents got off work. That meant Polly spent hours on Poplar Street at Plain Jane's Antiques, her grandma's shop.
Though she didn't know it then, the days she spent perusing around the shop trying to stay entertained would build the foundation for her fascination with antiques. Even today, her eye for vintage detail and style can be traced back to her grandma's influence.
As she got older, she began to appreciate vintage more and more. When her grandma's shop closed, she gave her some of the merchandise as a present. With a newly acquired wardrobe, Polly began incorporating the pieces of history into her everyday wardrobe. Soon, most everything she wore was vintage or, at least, vintage-inspired.
After graduating from high school, Polly, like many of her classmates, decided to go to Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. She declared a major in anthropology and was excited about what the future would hold. But after a few months, Polly found herself dreading class. She felt uninspired and at a loss.
One day, she was watching "Sex and the City" in her dorm room, thinking about her future.
"Then I just realized, 'Oh my god. This is what I want,'" she says. "I want to do fashion design — styling for films."
Polly had a new dream but virtually no skills to back it up. In high school, she had taken a textiles class, but she had only made a pillow and a stuffed cat. Polly decided to transfer to the community college back home and set to work learning the most basic of skills for a fashion designer — drawing and sewing.
Polly enrolled in rudimentary art classes and set to work. She stayed with teachers after class. She sought out the best student in her art class and asked him for his help. She practiced her sewing by crafting beginner projects. She also decided to set up a little blog she called "The Littlest Polly."
Her first posts were constructed like a personal journal. In the beginning, it was just for her. But as she became more confident she slowly revealed herself to the online world. She smiled every time a new person followed her blog. In spring 2010, Polly applied to the UI to major in costume design. After all her hard work, she was accepted.
At the photo shoot, Polly is both designer and director, adjusting outfits and giving instructions.
"Just talk. Laugh. Sip tea. Act natural," she says to the girls.
The models do as they are told. Jessie picks up a book and pretends to drink tea. Clara holds up a book, but looks at the camera. Nora adjusts her fur collar and looks through binoculars. Hannah picks up the orange plate of berries. Nathan Adhikari and Anna Longworth, the photographers, look on and snap pictures.
Polly carefully takes out a bag of dried hydrangeas and begins to place individual clusters in each model's hair. Polly found the flowers near her old apartment in Urbana. She noticed her neighbor's hydrangea would wilt on the stem and make beautiful individual dried flowers. She began picking hydrangeas wherever she saw them. As Nathan snaps a close-up picture, Hannah reaches for a cookie — but is interrupted.
"Don't eat with the gloves on!" Polly yells. "Take the gloves off, please!"
After all, Polly might sell the gloves, along with the rest of the clothing and props in the scene. Etsy, eBay's hip, younger sister, is an online marketplace where Polly showcases many of her vintage finds.
Some of the items on Paulie Antiques have been given to her. But most of what she sells comes from local thrift stores or estate sales. Polly is somewhat of a vintage picker. She scours the stores, sometimes going multiple times per week, to find underpriced antiques. Then she prices them what they are worth and posts them on her Etsy store.
Once, she bought a pair of green suede 1940s pumps at the local Salvation Army for $4. Within three days, she sold them online for $180. Another time she put up a perfume bottle for $80 and it sold within 24 hours. At a yard sale last year, she picked up a whole set of Depression era glass for 25 cents each, items that are worth about $40 per piece. And one of her greatest accomplishments was buying four 1950s prom dresses for $8 each at the Salvation Army last year. They are worth about $300 apiece.
She envisions opening her own physical store someday. But having a real store requires renting a space, hiring help and more time. So for now Polly practices with her online shop. Polly says it's important not only to be able to spot worth and value, but also appeal.
"Not everything that's vintage is cute," she says.
Nathan and Anna have been snapping pictures of the models for a little more than an hour. Polly has had them sit down, stand up, link arms and walk through corn. She checks Nathan's photos to make sure he is capturing her vision.
"OK, now let's sit on the blankets again," she says. "Hold up your dresses when you walk, please!"
Polly primps the girls one by one for the last shots. She smooths their delicate dresses, puts more flowers in their hair and hides a broken strap on Nora's dress. In some ways she's a grown-up little girl playing dress-up with her dolls. But there is nothing childish about the success she has had thus far. She has made more than $1,000 off her blog, and while she won't disclose how much she has earned from her Etsy shop, it has been enough to buy her a new camera and an impressive, ever-expanding wardrobe.
As the models sit on the blanket, Polly walks over to a box and peers inside. She takes out a pair of black leather shoes with bows and puts them on. They match the black lace bra that is peaking out of her 1930s handmade lace dress. She then looks into a mirror and touches up her faux beauty mark with liquid eyeliner.
After smoothing her dress and fluffing her hair, she turns around to look at the scene she has created. It's a vintage wonderland where anyone else would see a ditch between two cornfields.
With a hopeful tone, she asks a question. In the moment, she is merely wondering if the girls will make room for her on the blanket. But her question is also an open inquiry to the online world of elite bloggers. Every day, another girl creates another fashion blog, but Polly wants to be grouped with the greats.
"Is there room for me?"