There are many approaches to take when buying vintage clothing, and many things to consider. What vintage clothing should you buy? Ask yourself what makes your heart sing…what appeals most to you. Select something to focus on, but be prepared to branch out when you are ready. Study what you are interested in. If you are going to invest, it is helpful to know your area of interest as well as any dealer, if not better. A focused strategy can help you make the difficult acquisition decisions, and a clearly realized vision makes a collection ever so much more interesting.
A vintage clothing collection often begins with a specific period or a specific type of clothing such as sportswear, hats, or maybe a specific designer. There are limitless possibilities, from 1840s country print dresses to Rudi Gernreich topless bathing suits.
If you plan to wear your vintage clothing, realize you are looking for clothes that are sturdy enough and won’t be damaged by average use. Avoid the irreplaceable and the frail, which shouldn’t be worn. Many limit themselves to only what can be safely cleaned, and even then it’s a good idea to wear a washable layer underneath.
Size matters if you want to wear an item. Buy what fits with a bit of ease…don’t strain these older textiles or you could find yourself in an embarrassing situation! If buying in person, you often have the luxury of trying the item on. If buying online, look at the measurements listed. You may wish to compare the garment’s measurements with something you have that is of similar cut and fits you well. Vintage clothing measurements rarely coincide exactly with modern sizing since clothing has always been cut according to standards that are dictated by the garment industry and fashion sensibilities.
If you are going to collect, not wear the clothing, then size makes little difference. If you want to display pre-1920s pieces, be sure to purchase extra-small mannequins or dress forms as they will work for far more. If you want to buy with an eye toward future value or resale, it’s best not to accumulate too many tiny sizes. Larger ones are easier to display and have more value if the item can be worn.
There are fabulous finds, dismal duds and everything in between from every period. How do you decide where your find fits in this spectrum? Details, details!
Good labels are a plus, and for many serious collectors, a requirement, but a great deal of vintage clothing will not be labeled. Store labels started in the 1880s when dressmaking departments were active and these are often quite wonderful. Big name labels are desirable and worthwhile. Look for construction clues as signs of quality: Boned bodices, hand sewing, flat lining, bound buttonholes, handset zippers, covered buttons, piped seams, bias-bound edges, bound seam allowances, silk linings—these are all telltale signs of quality construction in any era.
Black is the most commonly found color in vintage clothing, with cream/white a distant second. While these garments may be quite fine, few will want a collection of only black and cream. Make it a point to diversify with colors…the ones that most please you! Prints can add impact to your vintage wardrobe or collection. Some collect with specific prints (such as leopard, polka dots or 40s novelty prints) in mind. Interesting and beautiful fabrics have a way of standing the test of time. Look for silk, linen, wool and cotton in weights and textures that appeal to you, are in fine condition, and work beautifully with the cut of the garment. Rayon—which is sturdy and holds its color excellently—has its fans, as do nylon and other man-made fibers.
Condition is of supreme importance. Look for textiles that still have strength and integrity and garments that are in good repair, without any difficult or iffy mending to be done. Look for clean clothing that smells good and isn’t heavily worn. Mint condition is extremely rare for any antique; frankly it’s rare for any period of vintage clothing. If you are fortunate enough to find it, be prepared to pay for pay for its rarity…and then enjoy it!
Your search for vintage clothing could begin at home. Your family’s closets might just be your best source and a wonderful way to connect to your own family’s history. Next, seek out reputable dealers. Both online and brick and mortar shops are excellent resources for the beginning collector. In some cases you can study and handle the clothing, and should always be able to ask questions. Online auctions are a great resource, with a truly amazing variety of items available. Live auctions of vintage clothing are few and far between, so be prepared to travel to reach them. A word about thrifts and flea markets: Due to the popularity of vintage clothing, these have long been almost scoured clean of pre-1940s clothing, but you may find items from the 1950s and newer…even the occasional amazing find. Ranging in quality, price and condition, vintage clothes from estate and yard sales (along with car boot sales in the UK) are often very competitive. Each venue often has rules of its own in each area. Be aware that at these sales you probably can’t try anything on.
Expect to pay a fair price to the seller who has found an item, cleaned it, steamed it out for show, and has researched it. The thrifts, flea markets and estate sales may be cheaper, but you should consider your expense of time, energy, and gasoline getting to these and the fact that you may come away disappointed. Buying from reputable dealers often represents a greater value.
Whatever you choose to acquire, remember it is an investment. Proper care is crucial to maintaining the monetary, historical and aesthetic value. The value of vintage clothing has really gone up in the last twenty years, and expect it to continue to do so in the future. After all, it’s only becoming more vintage! Store and clean your items properly. Use unscented padded hangers for your hanging items and store heavy and older items in acid free paper and boxes, or line your regular boxes and drawers with washed cotton. Be careful to avoid light, animal hair, and smoke. If you wear an item, air or clean it before storing.
Enjoy developing your own taste, sense of history, and style with your vintage clothing finds!
Written by Hollis Jenkins-Evans/pastperfect2 & Maggie Wilds/denisebrain