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Fashion A beginner’s guide to shopping for vintage clothing

Aug. 3, 2020
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If art is anything, it’s an artifact. Whether consumers choose to wear vintage clothing or preserve it to appreciate in value over time, they capture cycles of past lives and identities, ghosts of cultural history, rapid changes and phases in both the world and the wearer. 

The value of collecting vintage clothing lies with the consumer, but there are obvious upsides. It’s a curated form of shopping sustainably—by buying secondhand, consumers can remove themselves from the rapid turnover of fast fashion. In that same vein, older clothing is often more durable than is contemporary counterparts, so there’s a lesser need to regularly replace cheap Zara blouses that don’t survive a Sunday dinner. Vintage garments are also unique additions to a wardrobe—the piece might not be one of a kind, but what are the odds that you’ll run into someone wearing the same sweater? 

I’ve bought and worn vintage clothing for at least half a decade, though I only began consciously collecting individual garments within the past two years. Growing my vintage closet has changed my consumer attitude entirely; though I’ve always been a secondhand shopper, I stopped frivolously thrifting cheaper garments at a dizzying speed and started saving money for pieces that I could invest in.

I’m a collector, though not a purist; I’m drawn more toward wearable clothing at affordable price points as opposed to sartorial art pieces. My sweet spot is forties-sixties era sweaters with dated construction—the dagger collars, the bell sleeves. Though it’s taken a few years to develop an eye for true vintage, shopping for vintage garments isn’t a difficult practice to get into. 

How to identify

Life is easier when you’re shopping in antique shops or filtering through Etsy tags, but half the enjoyment of hunting for vintage garments is pulling out an item in a big box thrift outlet. When I’m looking for clothing in larger thrift stores, I rely on label typography to roughly identify the decade in which the item was manufactured—for my interests specifically, seeing manufacturer names printed in loopy cursive is a key indicator. From there, I’ll pay closer attention to its composition and construction. 

Composition: Tags and labels convey a wealth of information about the garment. Various iterations of union labels can date the garment, as can the fabric composition tag—acrylic fibers, for example, weren’t introduced to the public until the ‘50s, while Kevlar, a less popular synthetic fiber, wasn’t used until 1971. The absence of fabric composition and care labels indicates the garment was produced before the ‘60s and ‘70s, respectively. 

Construction: Some decade-specific style markers are more obvious than others—shoulder pads, bell bottoms, dagger collars. But there are smaller details that can more precisely date items, including zipper composition and placement, the size and shape of seams, and the absence of linings. You can also use these markers to identify vintage-inspired or imitation pieces from original garments. 

The Vintage Fashion Guild's website provides extensive resources for researching garments. 

Understand the differences between vintage and modern sizes.

If you’re buying vintage clothing online, pay attention to the sizes and make sure that the seller has provided measurements in the listing (hint, hint, Depop sellers). The midcentury sizing system is different from its modern equivalent due to constant adjustments to manufacturing guidelines (only to fluctuate wildly from decade to decade), so size standards are much larger and broader than they were in the past. True bust, waist, and hip measurements are much more accurate size indicators than vanity sizes that fluctuate across manufacturers. 

I have a boyish figure, so most women’s clothing sizes are ill-fitting. The best-fitting vintage garment that I own is an acrylic 1960s-era collared sweater that’s tagged as a women’s large. Before I bought the sweater, I compared the provided measurements to a Cat & Jack boys’ large and found that it was a dead match. 

You can find it anywhere.

I now live in Atlanta, so I’m spoiled with wonderful antique shops, resale chains, and a Goodwill in every corner of the perimeter, but I grew up in an area where the nearest true vintage shop was a quarter of a tank of gas away. You don’t have to patrol vintage stores to find nice garments—you just have to train your eye. 

Antique store booths are my favorite place to find garments, but Goodwill, Salvation Army, and smaller thrift stores are as good as any other place. My most-worn piece is a 1940s-era 100% cashmere cardigan I found in a Goodwill for $6. I often don’t have the patience to work my way through every hanger on the rack in larger thrift chains, so I’ve learned to scan for materials—wool, cotton, linen—before pulling an individual piece out. From there, I’ll look at tags, composition, and so on.

Though the former is less navigable, both eBay and Etsy are great platforms for finding vintage garments. I’ve found that Depop is oversaturated with miscategorized clothing and very difficult to navigate if you’re looking for true vintage from a specific decade, though you might luck out with finding individual sellers. In fact, finding sellers that you like is another pillar on which you should shape your vintage eye. For higher-end vintage clothing, The RealReal, Grailed and Farfetch are navigable options. 

Don’t be afraid if it needs TLC, but know your limits.

Finding vintage clothing without moth holes, stains, pilling, or tears is a miracle. Consumers should approach the investment in garments with obvious stains or blemishes tentatively and rationally for two reasons: mending an item without care can damage its integrity, and the commitment needed to fix the item might cause it to sit and gather dust in your closet for another decade. There are vintage collectors who purchase items with the intent to professionally repair them, but they typically have a wealth of experience of working with a needle and thread and older textiles. 

If you know how to use a needle and thread, there’s nothing wrong with feeling empowered to repair an unraveled seam, and the same goes for treating textiles with stains. But the older the item is, the deeper its blemishes have embedded themselves into the fibers and the lesser your chances are to easily remove them. 

If you buy an oversized sweater with the intention to hem it, really question whether you’re going to hem it. If you’re considering paying a decent amount of money for a pair of forties-era trousers with rust discoloration in the knee area, ask yourself if the stain removal process is worth the price you’re paying. 

Know when you’re being ripped off.

Buying vintage garments at cheap prices and upselling them for a profit isn’t new (in fact, it’s half of the reason why the resale market exists), but Depop has positioned itself as an online marketplace for the worst of it. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but stop buying ‘80s windbreakers for upwards of $40 on Depop. You’re getting ripped off. 

Informed vintage resellers will appropriately price items based on their condition, designer or manufacturer, rarity, demand value, and other criteria. The price also may be dependent on mending, cleaning, or repair work done to the item. Much like art, vintage clothing should appreciate in value over time, but approach collecting the latter like you would the former—would you pay $50 for paint-by-numbers artwork even if it was completed in 1972?

Use common sense when looking through antique booth racks or scrolling through an online resale shop—why is an athletic department crewneck from 1994 priced over $35? Can you find a modern equivalent to that $80 lambswool cardigan in a department store right now? Don’t be afraid to ask sellers why they’ve marked items at that price. In some cases, you might get them to knock it down a few dollars. 

An upside to vintage shopping is that price ranges are often much lower than modern prices (a $40 lace stitch cardigan as opposed to a one-wear-and-tear $59 cropped V-neck cardigan from Urban Outfitters). At the end of the day, however, the value of an item lies with the consumer. I love this quote from Fernando Rangel of Silver League: "People prescribe whatever monetary value they choose to clothes that interest them."