Vintage shopping can seem overwhelming and confusing when you’re first trying to dive into finding great pieces for yourself to wear. Here are my tips on what to look for when shopping vintage online or in-person…
Colors and Patterns You Love
Use your intuition as your guide and let your eyes lead the way, especially when you’re in-person at a vintage shop or flea market. From far away, you won’t know what pieces are what, so let yourself be drawn in by colors or patterns you love. That particular piece may or may not be your size or a type you need, but it’s a good way to start the search and those may guide you to others in that same rack that will work.
Types of Pieces You Want or Need
Are you looking for a statement pair of pants, a jumpsuit, or a dress to wear to a wedding? This is especially important for when shopping online. You need to get very specific with your searches to really help narrow down from the plethora of options out there. Typing in “vintage dress” is going to yield a ton of (and probably too many) results vs. “lace vintage dress” or “floral vintage dress”. If you’re shopping in person, vintage sometimes is organized by type of item (tees, pants, etc.) but isn’t always. However, the shop employees can likely point you in the right direction for the types of pieces you are looking for. Because everything is one-of-a-kind, don’t be afraid to ask for help or if they have a certain something. They will likely have a good sense of what’s in the store at any given time.
Fabric Type and Quality
There are some fabrics that scream vintage that most people hate (ie. polyester). I’ll often find an amazing piece I love, but the fabric is polyester (which for me isn’t very breathable and can sometimes be see through). So that’s one fabric I avoid getting unless the piece has other qualities that make up for the fabric choice. Some fabrics can be too thin, too itchy, or missing linings which makes them less functional to wear. Just as you would pay attention to the feeling of a fabric on new clothes, it’s especially important here since you likely can’t return it. It’s very easy to get sucked into the unique design or pattern on the piece and feel like you can get over it’s itchy texture (I’ve done that before, and I couldn’t get over it! 🙂 ).
Size and Fit
If you’re visiting a vintage store, trying on will be like any other clothing store. If you’re at a flea market, some vendors have mirrors but don’t always have a changing area. You could plan ahead and wear an outfit where you could easily slip on clothes to try on over (or under) your existing clothing (think: cami and leggings). I’m at the point now where I am able to look at a piece and have a good sense if it will fit or not, but that took a long time to do. So try on whenever possible!
If you’re shopping online, it’s important to know your general measurements (hip, bust, inseam, etc). (For a how-to, try this video!) Although a tag size will be listed, the tag size might be 30 years old and will NOT match up with today’s sizing chart. So always double-check the measurements to make sure it’s your size. If it’s a tad big, you can always get it taken in. But you don’t want it to be too small or too big. For example, this dress was listed as a Medium online, but it actually fits more like a small. Because I checked the measurements, I was confident about the sizing for me.
Does it Need Alterations?
There are some who believe that vintage pieces should never be altered or changed. I can see that point if it’s a collector’s piece that would be akin to collecting high-end artwork. But if you’re buying vintage to wear and enjoy like I am, I think simple alterations to make them fit you best is the way to help extend the life of the piece. To me, simple alterations include shortening the length or bringing it in or out a little as needed and based on what’s possible on the piece. If something has very delicate beading or sequins, most tailors will not touch it or will charge a lot for the work. So I would avoid altering anything too dramatically or anything that seems too complex or delicate. Those pieces (should you choose to buy them) should fit right. Otherwise, it might be best to pass on it. Any other pieces that seem easily washable and can be worn for daily wear are much better equipped for simple changes that will make it fit you just right. Also, keep in mind the cost to repair vs. the cost of the item. A simple hem might be something you can do yourself at home or for a low cost at a local tailor, but a more dramatic alteration could cost more than you paid for the item.
Overall Quality and Areas to Repair
How’s the quality of the piece? Ideally, you’re only buying things in excellent quality and condition. In many cases, the price point of the item will go up as the quality does. This is especially true with curated sellers – the more time and care a vintage seller takes to inspect and resell these items, the higher the likelihood that those pieces won’t simply be $5 or $10. Regardless, you should always check for damages that cannot be fixed especially areas like near the neck or arm holes or any major seams. A small opening at a seam, a missing button, or a broken zipper should be easier where as a ripped area in the middle of a garment or a large stain is harder to fix. When shopping online, most sellers will show photos of the areas that are considered damaged or imperfect.
Washability and That Vintage Smell
I now have a rule that I don’t buy vintage that can’t be washed in my washing machine at home (with the rare exception of a beaded piece for a special occasion). Dry cleaning does not get out that vintage smell. It never has to me, and I had much better luck once I simply washed them at home (gentle and cold works in many cases if the piece seems more delicate). Now, I have no issue getting those old scents out!
Managing Your Expectations
When it comes to vintage, there are times you will need to be flexible on your exact needs (you went in looking for a floral dress but came out with an amazing striped one instead) or you’ll need to decide if you’re flexible on your budget if you come across a one-of-a-kind piece that fits just right.
Part 1: How to Style Vintage Clothing to Look Modern
Part 2: Vintage Clothing and Sustainability
Part 3: Where to Buy Vintage