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Home :: An Insider's Guide to Collecting and Wearing Vintage Clothing

An Insider's Guide to Collecting and Wearing Vintage Clothing

The demand for high quality, stylish vintage clothing is increasing and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. Whether it’s for the recycling aspect, an appreciation for the classic styles and distinctive textiles of a bygone era or the desire to wear something totally unique for a special occasion, more and more women are opting to wear fashions from the past.

After many years of collecting vintage clothing for myself and also purchasing inventory for my business, I’m very aware of how the supply is steadily dwindling. This has resulted in steadily rising prices, especially for designer vintage clothing or garments in the best wearable condition.

Gone are the days of picking up fabulous vintage dresses for a few dollars at your local thrift store. It rarely happens now as more and more collectors enter the collectible vintage clothing market.

So, if you’re a beginner collector, I’ve put together a vintage clothing buying guide with tips to help you spend your money wisely and become a more savvy vintage shopper.

KNOW YOUR MEASUREMENTS

If you intend on wearing your vintage clothing, the first thing you should do before your next buying expedition is to get yourself a tape measure (not the kind from Home Depot!) and take your own measurements.

There is a whole page on this site dedicated to measuring yourself for proper fit. This is very important because many online vintage clothing sellers do not allow returns or charge a restocking fee for taking back merchandise. Many brick and mortar stores allow try ons, but the sizes on the tags inside of mid-century era fashions are very different from the sizing of today. And a lot of older or antique clothing have no tags at all. So if you already know your own measurements, having a tape measure handy to actually measure the garment can save you lots of time. That way you won’t be taking lots of things into the dressing room that may not fit.

DETERMINE YOUR BODY TYPE

Different eras were known for specific styles and silhouettes. Some are more flattering on some body types than others. For example, if you have a pear or hourglass figure then the full skirted vintage dresses from the 50s and early 60s would be more flattering on you. Straight chemise styles of the 20s, A line mini dresses, empire waist dresses and maxi dresses of the 60s and 70s look better if you have a triangle shape (shoulders are wider than hips) or a rectangle shape (shoulder and hips are close to the same measurement, waist is only a few inches smaller).

So if you intend on wearing the vintage clothing you buy, it makes sense to collect what will look best on you. This is especially important when shopping for vintage dresses. Knowing your body type will help you to choose vintage fashions from an era that looks most flattering on your particular figure. After all, there’s no sense in investing your hard earned cash in outfits that will end up sitting in your closet because you aren’t happy with the way they look or fit. No matter how pretty you think a vintage dress is, if it doesn’t accentuate the positive and downplay the negative, then leave it on the rack!

This is just a general guideline and knowing what modern silhouettes look best on you will also help you narrow down which era you should concentrate on when shopping for vintage dresses.

EDUCATE YOURSELF

Learn all you can about dating vintage clothes and familiarize yourself with collectible designers, desirable labels and, of course, the styles that are distinctive to certain eras . It doesn’t happen often, but I have come across vintage dresses where someone had misrepresented the garment by sewing a designer label into it in order to trick an unsuspecting buyer into paying more for it. So it helps to be able to identify a designer’s particular style to ensure you’re getting what you’re paying for.

There are many great books on vintage fashion . One I highly recommend is “New York Fashion, The Evolution of American Style” by Caroline Rennolds Milbank. Vintage magazines, patterns and old clothing catalogs are another good way to study the styles of previous eras. You can very often pick them up at flea markets, yard sales and on the internet.

The Vintage Fashion Guild has a website that is full of valuable information about dating vintage clothing and accessories, with a Designer Label Resource and a public message board where you can post questions. .

Museums that have fashion, costume and textile exhibits are also an invaluable source for learning about vintage and antique clothing.

IDENTIFYING VINTAGE CLOTHING

There are basic design elements inherent to vintage clothes that can help you determine if you are actually purchasing an authentic vintage garment. Also, designers have been borrowing design details from previous eras for years. So a beginner collector can easily become confused about what time period a garment is actually from. Some things to look for that indicate a garment was manufactured before the mid 1960s are metal zippers, side snap closures, pinked seams, bias hem tape and union labels printed in all blue text. Later Union labels were usually printed in red and blue text.

Newer garments very often have invisible zippers and due to current FTC regulations must have a fabric care and content label. If the country of origin label says “Made in China ”, then it’s a newer garment. If vintage clothing does bear a country of origin label, it will most likely be from Italy , France or Hong Kong.

Once you become more familiar with vintage apparel, you’ll often be able to tell just by handling the fabric whether it is older, as vintage textiles often feel very different from anything they manufacture today. Also the colors in older textiles are often in shades you don’t see in current fashions.

INSPECT CAREFULLY

Mint condition vintage clothing, especially unworn stock, is very rare.. So most collectors expect vintage garments to show some evidence of previous wear. Obviously the more stylish and less wear or condition issues a garment has, the pricier it is. But people who appreciate the uniqueness of vintage clothing are more than happy to accept small imperfections if it means they get to wear a one of a kind, fashionable piece of history.

One of the good things about purchasing from a reputable vintage clothing dealer on the internet is they will divulge all the condition issues of their vintage clothes right in the description of the item. That way you know up front what you’re getting.

In brick and mortar stores the lighting is often inadequate for a thorough inspection of vintage apparel. Your best bet is bring the item over to a window where there is a good source of light. But take your time. You don’t want to pay good money for something and find out when you get it home that you missed a major condition issue.

What to look for-

Holes or tears It’s acceptable if they are on a seam or so small that they are an easy repair and won’t detract from the appearance of the garment. Otherwise pass it by

Old stains They are often unremoveable, especially underarm stains. So unless a spot on a vintage garment will be barely noticeable when wearing it, you’ll probably want to pass it up. One exception is if you love the piece so much and it is so inexpensive that you’re willing to risk trashing it when trying to get the stain out.. Otherwise, beginner collectors are advised not to attempt removing any noticeable set in stains and spots.

Odors Take a whiff of your vintage find. Like set in stains, perspiration, mold, and smoke odors are often there to stay.

Fabric Check for any fading and discoloration. This is most common in crepe dresses from the 40s as the dyes used back then were unstable. Also, acetate taffeta in the linings of 50s and 60s special occasion dresses are often discolored from storage, though this usually isn’t noticeable when wearing.

Check that stitching is tight on the seams of silk vintage dresses. Silk threads have a tendency to deteriorate over time if the garment wasn’t stored properly.

WEAR AND CARE

Older vintage special occasion dresses and evening gowns from the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s very often have ornate decoration and embellishments like beading, sequins and embroidery and many of the fabrics are delicate silks, satins and laces. So even if in excellent condition for their age, they should always be worn with care.

If you want vintage clothing for everyday wear, stick to sturdier cotton and rayon day dresses from the 40s, 50s and early 60s and dresses made in the late 1960s and 70s, when more synthetic fabrics were introduced. Vintage cashmere or angora sweaters, skirts, slips, purses, costume jewelry and vintage shoes are also good collectibles for everyday use.

Some dealers clean their vintage clothing before offering it for sale and some do not. It is best to ask to be sure. But even if you’ve purchased a pre-cleaned vintage garment, at some point it will need to be cleaned again. If the cleaning instructions for the vintage garment isn’t available in the online description, then email the seller or ask the owner, if in a store. It’s best to know before hand if the garment you’re buying is going to be too difficult or expensive to clean.

Most of the time you’re safe with regular dry cleaning methods or gently in the machine, if a washable fabric.

WHERE TO FIND

No guide to buying vintage clothing would be complete without some advice on where to locate it.

Of course the internet has made it much more convenient to shop for vintage fashions. Whether through individual ecommerce sites, auction sites, online antique malls or even Craigslist, it’s now easier than ever to find that vintage dress of your dreams. Ebay is the site most people are familiar with. There is a huge selection of vintage clothing available, with many sellers offering a “buy it now” option so you don’t have to wait until the auction ends if you are anxious to snag something. Another lesser known auction site, called Specialist Auctions, is also a great source for vintage clothing. Just be sure to deal with sellers who have lots of positive feedback and/or be sure to ask the seller specific questions before you bid, as most do not accept returns on their merchandise. Even items won that have been misrepresented in the description can sometimes be difficult to return.

Brick and mortar stores selling vintage clothing can usually be found in most major cities. Check the yellow pages under antique, vintage or used clothing.

Vintage clothing shows take place several times a year in various locations. Some of the larger ones are held in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Miami and Sturbridge, Massachusetts. If you do an online search you can find out if there is one taking place in your area. These shows are a vintage fashion collectors dream. The dealers at these shows are usually selling the cream of crop in vintage clothing. But even if much of what is offered is out of your price range, vintage clothing shows are a great learning experience, as most items are tagged with the era they’re from and you get to familiarize yourself with what authentic vintage fabrics feel and look like.

If you’re into the thrill of the hunt and not looking for anything specific, you can often find nice vintage clothing and accessories at antique malls, flea markets and estate sales. Thrift stores are another option, but it is unusual to find quality vintage at most of them these days. If you know of any in older, established upscale neighborhoods, then by all means check them out. Sometimes you do get lucky.

Happy shopping!