When we have thousands of stores selling clothes that smell new, have never been worn, and definitely fit in with today’s trends, why go through all the trouble of buying clothes that are old and used? The practical perks of buying vintage are numerous. Depending on what you are looking for and where you currently shop, vintage is usually cheaper than new clothing, and of course the act of re-using is a green practice that any Seattleite could respect. In addition, buying vintage doesn’t support the sweatshops in third world countries where most of our clothing comes from.
But practical reasons aside, vintage fashion is an invaluable addition to your wardrobe simply because it is unique. We wear clothing to express ourselves, but we all shop at the same places–your “unique” piece that you purchased last week could easily be seen on your coworker who also shops at Nordstrom. When you score a vintage piece, you have claimed the only one–there’s almost no chance someone else has the same piece. We can also recognize that the trends of today echo past decades, so instead of spending a fortune to get that new designer 50s-inspired coat, a trip to the vintage store down the street will deliver the real deal–an actual 1950s coat–and for a small fraction of the price. Vintage is cheap, it’s uniquely you, and by all means it holds a relevant place in today’s fashions.
What exactly is–and isn’t–vintage?
While the definitions vary, most enthusiasts and collectors agree that clothing from the 1920′s until the early 1990′s is considered vintage. Anything before 1920 is antique and probably shouldn’t be worn due to its fragile condition, though if you come across an Edwardian blouse and fall in love, only you can make that call! Also, and most importantly, just because something is old doesn’t mean it is vintage. Melody Fortier, proprietor of the Tangerine Boutique and author of The Little Guide to Vintage Shopping, writes “vintage is not just about age…It is about essence and style. I think we can all agree that not every piece of twenty-year-old double-knit polyester deserves to be resurrected. It may meet the age requirement, but that’s about all” (9). Something is vintage when it taps into timelessness–the design is so pleasing and so right that it transcends both time and trends.
Another term to be aware of is “retro.” Though also used in reference to past fashions, “retro” does not mean “vintage,” though they are often confused. Something is retro when it is strongly inspired by the past but is actually brand new. When designers and department stores release clothing that feels 1970′s, it is retro, but if you pick up a pair of flared corduroy trousers from 1975, that’s vintage. Finally, though vintage clothing is often used, it doesn’t have to be in order to be vintage. Occasionally while shopping you may come across abbreviations on tags such as “NWT” (new with tags), “NBW” (never been worn), “MIB” (mint in box), or “NOS” (new old stock, or old store inventory that was never sold), and all of these abbreviations indicate an unused piece of clothing.
Where can I find vintage?
Technically, vintage clothing can be found anywhere. Where you go depends on how much patience, time and energy you have. If you are just beginning, go to a vintage shop–there are many around Seattle. They save you the trouble of locating vintage clothing, but because the price of vintage rises every time it’s sold, you are going to spend a little more. Until you’re comfortable with identifying quality and are familiar with your own vintage style, stick with the specialty shops–more than likely, the shop’s owner will be glad to help you acquaint yourself with their store, the clothes, and help you find what you’re looking for. Once you have become a connoisseur and are willing to put in the time, the world is your vintage shop! Estate sales and even garage sales can sometimes deliver the most unique pieces, and you’re almost guaranteed an amazing deal. If you are really feeling confident, secondhand stores such as Goodwill and Value Village can yield amazing steals, if you’re willing to sift through racks and racks of rejects. Once you are used to identifying the fabrics, buttons and cuts of vintage clothing (sometimes just running your fingers down the racks of clothing can point out great pieces), you will find yourself getting better and better.
There are also a number of online opportunities for vintage, perhaps none better than our own local vintage specialist Dana Guyton of Sustalux, or Sustainable Luxury. Her website explains that Sustalux “focus[es] on vintage because there is a quality and authenticity to each piece that you can’t often find these days. Many of our garments come from an era when each piece was envisioned and constructed by the designers themselves along with a team of patternmakers and seamstresses–not like the machine-made designer apparel of today.” Sustalux prides themselves on their fair prices, quality pieces (“pristine or barely worn designer and New Old Stock pieces that are full of life and just begging to be worn!”) and honest passion for vintage clothing. Keep your eye out for Guyton’s new brick-and-mortar shop! In the meantime, check out sustalux.etsy.com and sustaluxeyewear.etsy.com.
How do I…
…Identify a quality piece of vintage clothing?
Overall, vintage clothing has a greater standard of quality than almost everything made today, except the high-end labels that most of us can’t afford. Fortier writes in The Little Guide to Vintage Shopping: “Most women were taught the basics about purchasing quality clothing, and as educated consumers they demanded that manufacturers uphold certain standards if they wanted to stay in business” (24). Luckily, as a vintage shopper, you too will come across these excellently crafted clothes of the past. As long as something isn’t torn, faded, or showing obvious signs of wear, it can be considered a quality piece for all basic wardrobe needs; however, if you wish to explore the high-end side of vintage, keep your eyes open for the words “haute couture,” “pret-a-porter,” and “better designer” in order to locate the absolute best of the best. Until you get serious, remember: the most important factors of choosing quality vintage clothing boil down to “is it in good shape?” and “will I wear this?”
When checking clothing for wear, make sure you look at the stress points: high collars, shoulders, underarms, sleeve cuffs, the waistband, the hem and the seat are the most likely places to find damage. Another serious factor to be on the lookout for is perspiration damage: not only is it a permanent stain, but eventually the salt content will eat away the fabric.
…Know whether something that is damaged is worth the purchase?
Fur: bald spots and falling hairs signal irreparable moth damage, as these pests attack fur at the root–avoid at all costs. Feel around for lumpy areas–lumps give away the places where splits have been mended. If there are just a couple lumps, it’s a go–if you can’t count them all, there are so many, it means the fur won’t last long. Generally, the newer the fur, the better it is for wear.
Leather: If it is brittle, flaking or cracked, your leather won’t be around for much longer. Flexible leather is durable leather. When considering a leather purse, check the seams, bottom and lining–if it is a clean split at the seam, your purse can be mended, but if the leather is cracking in numerous places, leave it. If you’re lucky enough to locate some great looking leather shoes, remember that soles and heels can be replaced, but a damaged upper is damaged for life.
Beading: Be careful! Beading is beautiful and can make for a one-of-a-kind find, but if the beads fall and are lost, remember that finding replacements for decades-old beads could and probably would prove difficult. GENTLY run your fingers over the beads–check for broken strands. Once the beading thread weakens, your beads could explode off the piece at any moment! If you can’t find much evidence of weakness or previous breakage, it’s yours to try and enjoy! Another word of caution: beading on silk is often a dangerous combination, as the silk is more likely to deteriorate under the heavy beading with time (Grimble 192).
It smells like used clothing: a brisk brushing off followed by a thorough airing-out should work wonders on smells, and washing usually does the trick: however, if the garment has seen heavy perspiration (usually evidenced by telltale stains and smell), you’re not guaranteed a full smell-recovery.
Stains: If you’re willing to attempt it, the stain can probably be removed. The key here is care. Don’t rush or overdo it–doing so may ruin the piece you’re trying to salvage. First, try a little warm water and gently try to work out the stain with a cloth. No luck? Try (one at a time, rinsing gently in between each attempt) Biz laundry soap, dish soap, or even windex. Testing a corner of your garment first is probably a good idea (Fortier 127).
…Care for my vintage clothing?
Cleaning: A lot of vintage clothing can go right into the washing machine, like nylon and polyester–anything synthetic made during or after the 1960s. As for cotton, linen, or basic knits, hand washing is your best answer. If it’s your favorite piece and you’re not sure, go ahead and dry clean it. Anything with a fancy lining, detailing, beading, or anything older than the 1950s should probably be dry cleaned. By all means, avoid the dryer!
Care: Wear your anti-perspirant, because sweat destroys old fabrics. Wash sparingly, but make sure you wash after getting a piece of vintage clothing sweaty or wet with any liquid besides water. Avoid metal hangers, and by all means do not hang anything beaded, for this will speed up the wear process. Steam rather than iron.
There you have it! Vintage basics, helping you get a handle on what vintage is, where to find it, how to discern good from bad, and how to care for it. Watch out next week for Vintage pt II: Shopping guide, featuring each decade in fashion, finding your vintage identity, knowing about fit, tips on how to wear vintage, and a listing of Seattle’s best vintage destinations