The idea for the Attic Angel Classic Clothing Sale is to raise money for Dane County charities.

And that idea has turned into quite a reality.

In its first year, in 2003, a few racks of clothes netted $600.

Over the years the annual sale has continued to grow and last year raised $23,000 for reading programs for young children. This year, proceeds from the two-day sale that begins Friday will be used to support nonprofits that provide mental health services for middle school and high school students.

But the highly anticipated sale also serves as a trip to Madison’s retail past and is a chance for shoppers to buy high-ticket items for just pennies on the dollar.

Need a pure silk blouse that originally sold for $640? How about a pair of Escada pants that new were $825 or a La Perla dress from Neiman Marcus that was $519?

Those items could sell for as low as $100 each (prices will be set Monday) but the majority of the new and gently used clothes will be priced from between $10 and $50. Some of it, including a wide assortment of hats, will come with labels from stores no longer on Madison’s landscape: Woldenberg’s, Baron’s, Simpson’s, W.J. Rendall and Sybil’s.

The former retailers made for quite the conversation recently as about a dozen members of the Attic Angel Association gathered in the association’s basement to sort, hang and press hundreds of items for the sale.

“It gets us a little tingly,” Jean Mortenson, co-chair of the sale, said when asked about stores from the past. “We have fun doing this. We like to play store.”

That fun, though, is also a lot of work.

The sale, in the association building at the corner of Old Sauk and Junction roads, is one of three held each year by the more than 500 volunteers.

The spring sale, founded in 1961, is held each June but does not include clothing. Instead, more than 2,000 shoppers perused the KEVA Sports Center in Middleton for furniture, jewelry, toys, art, household goods and antiques and helped the association raise $100,000.

The Holidays Galore & More Sale is Nov. 3-4 and features holiday items. Last year the sale netted $20,000.

“All three of our sales have a real good reputation,” said Joyce Colletti, co-chair of the Classic Clothing Sale.

The Classic Clothing Sale features not only gently used items but also new items, including shoes, from local boutiques like Chauette, Mainstream and Terese Zache Designs.

But the vast majority of clothes are used and require significant time to organize. During a recent work session the primary basement storage room was jammed with racks of clothes and shoes while a large table held piles of pants that waited to be ironed and priced.

The inventory numbers more than 3,000 items and includes designer-label jackets, sports and cruise wear, work wear, cocktail dresses, gowns and coats. One room off to the side held new clothes and shoes while another small room was dedicated to hats, fur coats and scarves.

That’s where Carol Reneau sorted hats while Marlys Bauman used her smartphone to Google brand names in an attempt to come up with an appropriate price.

“What’s a Peter Bettley of London?” Reneau asked.

“That’s a lovely hat,” Bauman said.

“It’s gorgeous,” Reneau said. “It could be a Kentucky Derby hat.”

Attic Angel was founded in 1889 as a mission to aid poor children and seniors in Dane County and opened a hospital in 1903, a visiting nurses program in 1908 and a nursing home in 1953. It now offers a wide range of living options, rehabilitation and nursing services and enrichment programs.

The Classic Clothing sale began when Attic Angel volunteers, who enjoyed trading clothes among themselves, had an idea to raise money by selling gently used clothing and accessories. At first, it was just an internal event called Angel Wear, but over the years, it gained in popularity, both in donations and in shoppers wanting to purchase the donated items.

The sale will be held Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., when most merchandise will be reduced to half price. Donations are accepted year-round.

“We don’t let it overwhelm us,” Mortenson said. “We have such loyal customers.”

Send retail-related tips and story ideas to badams@madison.com or call Barry Adams at 608-252-6148.

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Barry Adams covers regional and business news for the Wisconsin State Journal.