The Ins and Outs of Buying Vintage Clothing

February 18th, 2008

Miss April is a lifelong vintage enthusiast who turns her love for all things vintage into websites, including two in our Hall of Fame, Miss-Vintage.com and That60sGirl.com.

The benefits of wearing vintage clothing are numerous and rewarding. It’s truly a delight to realize that no one else will be wearing your outfit. I’ve always strived to be unique, especially in my personal style, so it should come as no surprise that I am a huge fan of vintage clothing.

Advantages

missapril2There are so many reasons why I love vintage clothing. You can wear something totally unique, which is so refreshing and inspirational; it’s a perfect way to truly reflect your personal style. Another advantage is if the clothing belonged to a family member and there is an emotional element that comes into play. I received an email from Angie, who is from Italy and currently residing in the U.K., and she said, “I’ve become a fan of vintage clothing thanks to my mum’s ‘60s and ‘70s dresses that I’m proud to wear. I like to think that a dress that someone else has worn (even more if that person is dear to you) has its own history and wearing it it’s a bit like bringing it back to life.” This sums up this advantage perfectly.

Other benefits include finding your perfect style, celebrating your favorite decades, saving money, making money (by reselling) and being more responsible (by recycling!). Yet another reason is that classic fashion is very “in” right now. Never before has vintage style been so chic.

Where to Look

If you’re lucky, you can find vintage clothing in a number of places.

First, check with your family members. Who knows what’s lurking in their closets, trunks or attics? They might even have some of their older relatives’ items, which can date back quite a few years.

Next, check around your local thrift stores, including church ones and Goodwill and Salvation Army-type stores. At places like these, you’ll find clothing that is mostly from the ’80s and ’90s, but there’s always the possibility of a true treasure.

Then try antique places for vintage pieces. Antique stores come in many varieties. There are antique shops (which usually include one seller’s goods), antique malls (which feature booths containing many different peoples’ items) and flea markets (usually tables set up including a variety of antiques, and sometimes “dollar-store” items). For more information on how to shop for vintage treasures, check out my sister Lala’s site Thriftland.

What to Look For

When you do find a piece of vintage clothing that catches your eye, there are several things to consider, including its age, condition, usefulness and size.

Age

The item’s age and time period are important if you’re interested in clothing from a certain era. In this case, become as informed as possible about the era you are interested in. For instance, realize that in the 1950s, women’s skirts and dresses went below the knee, not above. If you find a skirt that isn’t that long, it’s probably from a later decade.

Condition

The condition of vintage clothing is very important. Inspect the garment from every angle. Hold it up to the light and examine all sides of it. Once, I was stepping into one of my vintage pencil skirts at home when I noticed a bit of daylight showing through. There was a tiny hole in the back by the kick pleat, which I certainly didn’t notice when I purchased it. Another time I bought a cute 1940s gingham dress from a flea market. I purchased it from an indoor booth that was quite dark, and it wasn’t until I got home that I realized it had “ring around the collar.” Thank goodness I only spent $6 on it!

Usefulness

The garment’s usefulness is the next important facet. If you are thinking of wearing the item quite often, as you would any of your new pieces, make sure its condition is excellent and its size is correct. If it’s not going to be worn, but displayed more often, then you can be more lenient with the condition of your purchase.

Size

The garment’s size is the next important aspect. I don’t really recommend trying vintage clothing on because firstly, there simply aren’t a lot of opportunities to do so. If you find items at a flea market or antique store or mall, there won’t be any fitting rooms to use. Conversely, if you find items at a vintage clothing store, there will be fitting rooms, but you must be extra cautious when trying things on, since most vintage garments are so delicate.

To solve this dilemma, know your measurements and take a tape measure with you. Find your dimensions by measuring a garment that fits you well. I know mine from a dress that fits me like a glove. It’s tight on me, so I know that I shouldn’t buy garments that are any smaller than it. On the other hand, I have a dress that’s slightly too big on me, so I know to avoid buying clothing with its measurements or larger.

When you find clothing, you can use your tape measure and not have to guess or hold it up to you if you can’t try it on. Measure the garment from armpit to armpit, and then double the total. That’s the easiest way to know if it will fit. If the bust measurement on your good-fitting garment is 36 inches, then an 18-inch armpit-to-armpit measurement will fit you fine. The waist measurement can be done in a similar way. Length-wise, most garments are okay (considering you’re not super tall) since most hems can easily be taken up or down.

Special Instances

Sometimes things are just too good to pass up. If you find a vintage piece that is “to die for,” as I always say, and it doesn’t fit, you can always get it altered, if it is too large. Also, you can buy it to keep and not wear it. If something is much too small or too big and you would rather keep it original, you can still purchase it and enjoy looking at it. Sometimes, you’ll find top designer labels that are just too good to pass up. Consider getting a dress form to display and present it nicely.

Shopping Online

As for online shopping, there are dozens and dozens of vintage clothing stores on the internet, which are easy to find. When you look around one and are interested in an item, it’s a good idea to email the merchant first. They may not have updated their site since the garment was sold. Ask them if the article is still in stock and any other questions you may have before you purchase the item.

If you’re looking to buy vintage clothing off of eBay, have patience. You will probably spend hours wading through mostly non-vintage items (there are typically over 25,000 “Women’s Vintage Clothing” items alone). When you do find that occasional quality item, beware that it may be a reproduction. For instance, remember that real 1940s clothing is almost seventy years old, and after seven decades of wear and tear, there simply isn’t an ample amount of fabulous pieces left anymore. Another example is the 1950s which were trendy in the ’80s and styles dictated this. Today these twenty year-old garments can sometimes pass as “authentic” ’50s. Some sellers will inform you when they are selling a “repro,” but others aren’t aware. The most helpful way to distinguish a reproduction from an authentic item is the tag, or label. It’s easy to identify an older piece by the brand name, or font or logo on the label.

Because online sellers should explain anything wrong with the item, you won’t have to look so closely at an item like you would in person. A good eBay seller should explain every flaw, take several photos, and give accurate measurements. This is sometimes more handy than shopping in person, if you can’t try on the garment or didn’t bring your tape measure with you. Make sure the seller gives good measurements because you can’t rely on vintage sizes or a “current” size the seller states the garment is. Also be aware that dozens of other bidders may be interested in the treasure as well– expect bidders from all over the world, especially on vintage clothing.

Keep With It

Regularly check back at your favorite antique places. Let dealers know what you are looking for, and leave your name and number with them. Don’t forget to check out your local yard sales and estate sales. Most of all, remember to have fun! Keep in mind my motto on the subject: “You never know what you’ll find unless you look!”

Do you have an article you’d like us to publish as a guest column in The Collectors Weekly? Let us know.

3 comments so far

  1. scott Says:

    Thank you for all your great info. I have a pair of womens shoes made by a company called Curt’s, do you have any info on this company? Thank you for your time, Scott

  2. kathleen ragan Says:

    I have a great selection of vintage. 1920’s to 1980’s clothing, shoes, handbags, gloves and divine hats. I am 67 and started buying when i was 12 years old. of course that is when it was everywhere. I have had vintiage clothing stores from 1970’s to 2006. This collection is what I have left and was actually my personal collection pretty much that I would never sell.However, I am selling these wonders and thought to see if you would be interested. I live in las vegas and have these things at my home.My shops were in the L.A. area from new port to santa monica and long beach through the years. give me a call if you have interest in them or no someone that would. divinefoxy@yahoo.com 702 256-9338

  3. Kristie Carlini Says:

    I have a set of 4 Snack Time Hostess Mats printed by Brown & Bigelow of Standard Packaging Corp. They are laminated with fruit designs on the front and four examples of how to set a table on the back including Good Morning, Good Afternoon, Good Evening and Good Day. They are in excellent condition and have probably never been used. I’d like to know the history of them…Looks like maybe printed in the early 50’s?


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