Vintage Clothing: To Buy or Not to Buy, That is the Question!

Royal blue beaded cardigan

Royal blue beaded cardigan.


This is a guide on how to choose vintage clothing, how to wear it, what to avoid and WHY to collect it.

First of all, what is vintage clothing? Some people differ on the definition, but generally, if you look it up, you will find this:

Vintage clothing is a term for garments originating from another era. Generally speaking, clothing older than 25 years is considered to be vintage, though opinions vary on this definition. Many sellers of vintage clothing consider even more modern pieces to be ‘vintage,’ provided that they are particularly representative of the era in which they were made.”

I tend to agree that 25-years-old and older constitutes “vintage”… until I do the math and realize that the clothes I wore in my “heyday” are now included within this timeframe. Personally, I classify clothing from 1970 and older to be vintage, until we go backward far enough to become “antique.” All too soon, those clothes I still have from the 1980’s will truly be vintage, and then I myself will have become “antique!”

There are several avenues one can explore in the search for vintage clothing, the most common being estate and garage sales, vintage clothing and thrift stores, and the ever-popular online auction sites, the latter being the largest and most convenient venue for buying and selling vintage items. No matter where you go, there are a few things you need to know in order to be able to discern the difference between trash and treasure.

First, unless you have the skill and time to spend refurbishing a vintage piece, avoid things with stains, holes, fraying of seams and linings, or missing parts (beads, sequins, buttons, etc.). Above all, if you get a whiff of mothballs, run the other way. No amount of washing or dry cleaning will remove that smell. The same goes with smoke, unless it’s very faint and you are not bothered by it. Fur, in particular, will never let go of unpleasant odors, so don’t buy something with the promise that “dry cleaning will take those stains and odors right out.” If a seller/shopkeeper tells you that, run, or click out of that site—nobody can truly know if a dry cleaning will remove a stain and old; “vintage” stains never come out, in my experience. Mild yellowing can be soaked out, but be prepared to change the water over and over many times, for about a week, using many scoops of Biz. All that work, and there is still no guarantee of success.

A leopard pattern coat and outfit

A leopard pattern coat and outfit

So, if you are set on wearing your vintage clothing as soon as you buy it, in addition to the aforementioned, look for the following things:

• Items with no wrinkles in the linings, indicating the item may never have been worn.
• Crisp labels, with no stitches out, again an indication that an item was very gently or never worn.
• All buttons and hooks/eyes sewn tightly, not hanging, yet another sign of an item being new/old.
• Linings not hanging below the outer garment fabric (eliminating the need to re-hem).

Fit is very important when debating whether or not to buy a vintage garment. If it’s too tight and you buy it just because it’s adorable, you may very well tear it under the arms or across the back shoulder seams due to the fabric being old and possibly not as strong as it was when it was new.

Many people look at vintage clothing and say they like it, but can’t imagine themselves wearing it. My answer to that is that there is no special time or occasion to wear vintage; these things are meant to be enjoyed, and one need not be wearing vintage from head to toe in order for it to make sense. My idea is to wear simple, well-fitting, understated clothing as the basis for the outfit, such as a black or neutral skirt or pair of slacks with a simple top or sweater. A fabulous vintage beaded cardigan, swing coat, fur jacket, collar or boa, along with a pert little vintage hat and special purse, can be plenty to identify you as a lover of vintage clothing and draw lots of attention and compliments. A vintage brooch and earrings and pair of glasses or lorgnette (for menu-reading), or using a vintage compact and lipstick can make one stand out at the dinner table as well.

You don’t have to be a size 2 to wear the above-mentioned items, but lucky you if you are! “Wiggle dresses” are all the rage now, but sadly, I have a bit too much “wiggle” to wear those vintage dresses. That is why I specifically concentrate on outerwear and accessories to satisfy my vintage appetite.

A lorgnette with chain.

A lorgnette with chain.

As far as knowing what to “collect,” do your homework and look, look, look BEFORE you buy. True collectibles will be clearly indicative of an era, such as the sharp shoulders and fitted silhouette of the 1940’s, the swing coat of the 1950’s, the ring collar of the 1960’s, all things that will make people recognize that what you have is truly vintage and prompt them to say, “they don’t make ’em like that anymore!” You may see an item you like, then discover that it’s everywhere and not really unique, so don’t make impulse buys unless your gut tells you it’s special. If you buy everything you see that you like, you will end up with a lot of very ordinary things and not have money for the big special one that is probably around the next corner.

Everybody wants a bargain, and sometimes you will hit the jackpot and pay next to nothing for something fabulous, but there are times when you will understand that a high price must be paid for the uniqueness of an item in mint condition. If it makes you feel like a star when you put it on, fits like it was made for you and makes the other people around you say “OMG,” you MUST buy it! There are times to bargain and times when you should just pay, grab it and run before somebody else does.

Lastly, people ask WHY we should wear/collect vintage clothing. I think that by acquiring and caring for a vintage item, we honor the person who carefully kept the beautiful treasure for so many years. For me, there is a sadness as well as happiness in collecting these things. I always silently apologize to the original owner for taking her precious things, but then I promise in my heart that I will guard and care for her treasures and show the world the beauty of the past by wearing and using them. Vintage clothing is history, and we must study it, collect it, and never forget it.

Sharon Maxwell-Yamamoto is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage clothing and accessories.

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