Travel Advice: Tips for Finding Good Quality Clothes When Vintage Shopping
I've made no secret of my love for vintage clothes shopping while travelling with my guides for finding good vintage shops in Edinburgh, Ljubljana, Bologna, and Rotterdam being among my most popular posts. I've also been a passionate shopper of vintage clothes for fifteen years (possibly longer but didn't want to write that because that would make me sound far too old) and over the years I've learned a thing or two about finding the best vintage pieces and getting the best value for money. This is what I want to share in this post.
Tips for Finding Good Quality Clothes when Vintage Clothes Shopping
I wanted to put together these tips for vintage clothes shopping which will hopefully help you find the best bargains and some unique pieces that you'll treasure forever, because that's the best part of vintage shopping; you're investing in pre-loved clothes that likely NOBODY else will have in their closets. For me, vintage shopping has grown from being something fun to do to an important part of my new commitment to reducing my fast-fashion footprint and buying only from sustainable and ethical sources. These tips are for vintage shopping in flea markets, boutiques and other stores rather than making online purchases so forgive me that I don't cover how and where to buy vintage clothes online... another day maybe!
Remember where you're buying from...
There will be a vast difference in price, quality and range of vintage clothing in a flea market compared with a designer boutique. Likewise, if you're in a big city in a wealthy country with a young vintage-loving hipster population rather than a smaller town in a lesser known country, or in a smaller place with just charity shops to rummage through (my favourite!). Remember this when you're shopping for vintage. It can work both ways. In some places (i.e. charity shops) vintage clothes will be priced cheaply and will be sold "as is". However, in other shops, just because something is "old" doesn't mean it doesn't have value and should be cheap. In fact, some vintage clothes are worth more now than when they were first made. When you stumble upon a vintage clothes shop or a market stall take a look at where you are, what kind of place you are buying from and then judge the quality and price accordingly!
Is it really vintage?
When I first started vintage shopping in charity shops in the UK (where I'm from) it was easy to tell the vintage from the clothes made in the last five years or so. It's now a lot more difficult because current trends are so heavily influenced by vintage styles. It depends on what you really want from your vintage shopping experience - a definite vintage treasure or bargain, or maybe just a certain style or look - but be mindful that not all vintage stores stock only vintage clothes - some will have a mix of recently made items and vintage clothes. Personally, I define vintage as clothes made 20 or more years ago (give or take!) but you may have a different definition. What I'm really trying to say here is that I don't want you to pay a "vintage premium" for an item that was made a year ago or is on sale in H&M right now!
There are a few ways you can tell if an item is vintage or not. Firstly try checking for a label (both at the neck or waist of an item AND along the inner seams) and see how "modern" that looks - you may recognise it instantly! Secondly, check the size. As explained below, sizing has changed a lot in the last sixty years with sizes now being bigger than previously so if you try on something in your current size and it fits perfectly, it may be newer than you think. Thirdly, Google the name (if there's a label) to see if there's information about the brand name, or you could even Google a description of the item to see if something comes up in a modern online listing. Finally, check to see if it's handmade. It was much more common for people to make their own clothes 30, 40, 50 and more years ago so this could give you an indication that it's real vintage. Of course, you can also ask a sales person, but don't expect them to have an in-depth knowledge of each item unless you're in a specialist shop or boutique.
Try it on!
Ideally, you should never buy anything without trying it on to not only to check the fitting but to also ensure it's easy to get on and off. When you try something on be sure to move around in it - crouching down and standing up, walk around a bit, stretch out your arms if it's a top - as vintage materials don't always 'give" as much as modern day fabrics so you will want to make sure it's comfortable as well as flattering, of course.
Know your materials
Speaking of materials, I've learned the hard way about good and "bad" materials in vintage clothes. Personally, I try to avoid man-made vintage materials (e.g. polyester or acrylic) as they can be hot and sweaty to wear, and won't wash as well. I love finding anything vintage in cotton, because it wears well, is cool in the summer, and washes well. I'm not adverse to buying wool items because wool is a great natural material for keeping you warm in winter and doesn't hold smells, I just know they need to be washed on the special delicate or wool setting and that can be a bit of a faff. I'm nervous about buying silk but I have in the past when I've found something really special, I just find it a bit of a pain in the bum to wash anything by hand! Satin is one of those materials I judge in the moment as it washes better than silk but can be a bit clingy (and smelly!) on a hot day. But if the item is really special and a good price, and passes all the other tests below, I'll get it!
If in doubt about what a material is, ask a member of staff. If they don't know or you can't confirm the material, and you think it's a high maintenance fabric, my advice is to leave the item.
Find out how (well) it's made
When you're trying your clothes on, take a little time to really inspect it. Check the seams for gaps or loose threads. Ensure the length is even, and again check for labels. Determining if your clothes have been made by hand or a machine, as a one-off or in a production line, will help you not only decide its quality but its uniqueness. I love finding hand-sewn items because I know they're a one-off and I feel like the garment has more of a story. The last three dresses I bought for weddings were all handmade and I not only didn't have to worry about someone else wearing my dress but I also felt like I was wearing something really special (and when two of them were priced under 30 Euros I also felt I was wearing a bargain!). When you do find something handmade be sure to check the quality of the piece a little closer because I do find there can be more uneven edges or wonky seams not that this ruins an item of clothing, you just want to discover it now before buying it. Ironically, with clothes made today I would trust handmade over machine-made nearly all the time!
Don't be swayed by the price
I first fell in love with vintage clothes as much for the price tag as for the style. I would rummage through charity (Goodwill) shops and rejoice at a bargain that I felt great wearing, but speaking honestly, for every piece of treasure I would find, there were two or three "meh" items also in my shopping bag and sadly these pieces, more often than not, ended up going back where they came from. I had only bought them because they were cheap rather than because I was actually going to wear them. I share my "rules" for buying clothes with you below, but over the years I've learned to actually ignore the price tag of an item until I'm already planning outfits with it (providing it fits well!). I also like to ask myself "how much would I be willing to pay for that?" before I find out and this helps me know what it's worth to me.
Remember sizes have changed in the last sixty years
The chart in this article shows how drastically clothes sizes have changed in the last sixty years and so this should always be taken into consideration when looking at vintage clothes. I can normally tell roughly what modern day size a dress or pair of trousers are by their vintage size (I normally have to add on a few sizes) but even then it's only trying something on that I can really tell if it fits or not. This often means a lot of trying clothes on and a lot of huffing and puffing when things don't fit (or get stuck!) and unfortunately this is just part and parcel of vintage shopping. However, you can quite confidently (if sadly when you see something you fall in love with) say that any clothes that are marked as smaller than your current size and they're over 30 or 40 years old, they're going to be too small.
You should also be aware that clothes can travel across borders and different countries have different sizing systems too (and don't even get me started on the generic and wildly variable S, M and L etc). Needless to say there's also a lot of research to say that sizes also vary shop to shop. What I'm trying to say here is TRY THE DRESS ON!!
Check all "pressure points"
Once an item of clothing is fitting well, my next task is checking all the pressure points on the garment. This is usually the seams but in trousers it is also on the knees, butt and between the thighs. On dresses I check the bottom seam thoroughly (for tears) and along the neck and arm openings. For tops I look at these also, as well as the front centre of the fabric as here is where holes or thinning of the material can appear if the top has been tucked into trousers or a belt a lot. Make it easy on yourself and just give the garment a good going over looking for holes and any wear and tear that either isn't easy to repair or you don't have the skills to repair (more about this later).
Check openings and fastenings
In the same way that you just checked for wear and tear on the item, now you need to check that zips go up and down, buttons open easily and no hooks or other fastenings are missing or hanging by a thread. It's also pretty important that you can get in and out of your clothes easily because nobody wants to spend all their life in the same vintage dress no matter how beautiful it is.
Check for stains or discoloration
While checking your garment, give a thought to stains or discoloration. I recommend moving towards a window for some natural light to check this (which can be easier said than done in many vintage shops!). It's my experience that if a stain or item of clothing is discoloured it's highly unlikely you'll be able to change that no matter what cleaning products or dye you use. Sadly I've had to let many a beautiful item go because of this.
Remember your own sewing ability!
So I've got a sewing machine, a whole box of different threads and a couple of tins of buttons and spare zips... and I have never, ever, ever done more than go over a loose bottom seam on my sewing machine, and even that was under the close supervision of my mother. What I'm trying to say is don't buy anything based on your FUTURE or UNREALISTIC sewing ability. If you're not confident or regularly altering clothes the chances are you're not going to start just because you've got a beautiful dress that needs a new zip. Truly, it's quite a big commitment to start altering clothes so don't buy anything based on your need to start learning, unless you are already actively doing this regularly.
This is a test that I've only recently started doing after I bought a beautiful vintage shirt that fitted perfectly, was in immaculate condition and was a price that I liked. However, I never wore it because as soon as I put it on I smelt like I'd just ran a marathon. Sadly the smell of sweat was so engraved in the armpits it was almost making the other clothes in my wardrobe inch away from it on their hangers. Despite washing it on high and trying a number of different products I just couldn't shift the smell. The moral of this story is SNIFF THE ARMPITS (and other delicate areas perhaps!) of your vintage clothes before you buy them.
Timeless over trends
As I briefly mentioned above in an effort to be more responsible about what I buy, I try to only buy investment pieces now, and that means something I'll wear again and again and again, now and in the future. For me vintage is easier to buy with this in mind because the style is already timeless. It's also easier to find clothes that suit your body shape when trends try to dictate we all wear crop tops or bodycon dresses (NEVER!). While it's great to look at vintage clothes to find retro interpretations of modern trends, my honest advice is to go for what is comfortable and makes you feel good over what people are wearing on Instagram. Fifteen years ago I started wearing mid-length skirts that accentuated my waist and I still am because they still suit my body shape. To have clothes I wore fifteen years ago (or more) still in my wardrobe feels really special and something of an achievement.
The Three Rules of 5s
So if your garment is ticking all the above boxes, it's time to dig out the cash or plastic and make that purchase! Yes? Well, almost. Go ahead and buy your beautiful vintage clothes if you want, but I'd like to share this final test I like to do when buying any clothes. Again it goes along with my intention to be more mindful about what I'm buying and wearing, but I also ask myself these questions to confirm if the garment is a real investment.
Firstly, I ask myself if I can think of five different occasions I would wear the item of clothing. This could be an event (wedding, party, on holiday etc) or it could be something I do regularly in my day-to-day life (going to work, going out with my partner, looking after my son etc). If I can think of five or more events or situations where the garment would be comfortable and practical and suitable to wear, it's a winner.
Secondly, if it's not a dress I'm looking to buy, I then challenge myself to think of at least five other items in my wardrobe that this piece will go with. This way I know I really will wear it often and get my money's worth.
The third and final "rule of five" I like to apply, is asking myself, "Will I wear this in five years time?". Of course, this is hard to predict and our bodies and tastes change but ultimately this forces me to think about if I'm buying something to be trendy or to be timeless. Sometimes to answer this it helps to think about whether I would have worn it five years ago. If it's a yes then it's a good sign. Thinking about the future, however, also helps me really feel confident in the item's durability just in case I've subconsciously glossed over a bit of wear and tear!
And that's it. These are my tips for finding the best clothes when vintage shopping. I know so many of these tips (and rules, yes I know I used the word rule a lot) may seem a bit OTT and like it may take the fun out of vintage clothes shopping, but I think it helps reinforce sensible and more sustainable shopping behaviour. We hear too much about fast fashion causing terrible working conditions and horrific amounts of waste, by shopping vintage responsibly we are actively helping a very big problem. The good news is that the more you go vintage shopping and think about these tips, the more naturally they'll come to you and they won't feel so overwhelming or over the top.
Either way, happy vintage shopping!
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Frances M. Thompson
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