This past Sunday in Burbank, Calif., an enormous vintage fashion and textile show took over the Pickwick Gardens Conference Center. Two large ball rooms were transformed into show space where pop up displays of vintage clothing, accessories and housewares were covering every foot of space. It was a mesmerizing assortment of the best and worst from every decade in every color imaginable, and every bit of it was for sale.
Collectors and fashionistas scrutinized the racks carefully, and with plenty of reason to do so: Buying vintage is a challenge. Vintage clothing is always going to be a cool alternative to buying things off the rack in a department store, and doing so is a sustainable way to shop as well. However, finding quality vintage clothing at the right price is an up hill battle. That is why after years of sifting through racks and bins in various vintage shops, I have learned several important things to look out for when shopping looks from time gone past.
1. Have a plan and do your research.
When you first step into the moth ball-scented aroma of a vintage shop, it is easy to become overwhelmed. This is why you have to have an idea of what you are looking for and come prepared with research on vintage clothing. If you are looking for a women’s cocktail dress, know your measurements and what decade has the right shape dresses for what you have in mind. Many stores will have items organized by decade and by waist or hip measurements, and this can help you focus your shopping. If you are looking for a kind of costume jewelry – a speciality in vintage stores – make sure you know what kind of style you want and check that the gems and metal used are genuine. If you are looking for a specific vintage designer piece, absolutely make sure to research how to tell if something is a genuine product. A lot of retailers will claim they are selling you a genuine designer item, but often there are clues to prove that the item is a fake. This can be anything from stitching to a serial number inside the bag. Check anything and everything before buying to ensure you get the real deal.
2. Look at seams, hems and zippers.
By definition, a vintage item is old. It has likely been worn by someone else and you have no idea how they treated their clothes. Maybe they were extremely careful, and had their beaded dresses reinforced by a tailor after every wear but more likely, they wore their clothes, hung them up and didn’t think about the upkeep of the item. You may very well fall in love with something that has a hem that is three stitches away from falling apart and looking like a ragged mess. There could be a seam that has been stressed by wear that could burst open and leave you embarrassed. The zipper could be altogether broken. These are all wardrobe malfunctions in the making and not something you should be spending money on. Look for items that have clean, neat stitching along the hems and seams and for zippers that run smoothly without any snags.
3. Check for frays.
A gorgeous cashmere sweater that has grown only softer and more perfect with time can easily be found in a vintage store. But what else can be found? That teeny little fray that, if caught on something, could snag the entire sweater into rags. You wanted a sweater, not a ball of yarn, so check to make sure there aren’t any threads dangling or embellishments falling off an item. That fun little flapper dress you could be eyeing might be one bead away from losing a whole layer of tassels; or that one little thread you happen to pull one day could make an entire sleeve come off. Make absolutely certain that whatever you are buying doesn’t have a fray or missing bead to speak of – you wouldn’t spend money on something falling apart in a normal store, and in a vintage shop your standard should be no different.
4. Leave some trends behind for good.
It is in the natural cycle of fashion that some looks come back into style. Currently, the crop tops of the ’90s and floral patterns of the ’80s are majorly trendy, but clearly some other styles and fabrics will never return. The polyester and flannel used heavily throughout the ’70s are just as unflattering and smelly as it was then. Hoop skirts and other structured skirts are still as difficult to manage as they were in the height of their use, and absolutely more ridiculous looking. Those itchy wool dresses frequently seen on Mad Men have been re-engineered now to be soft and breathable. Power suits with enormous shoulder pads and boxy shapes that dominated the ’80s and ’90s wardrobe of industrious females are still uncomfortable and still give you inhumane shoulder-to-waist ratios. These are just a few looks from the past that unless worn for a costume should stay far away from your closet.
5. Never, ever buy undergarments or swim suits.
This means any sort of underwear, bikinis, one-pieces, lingerie and even some pajamas. If it has come that close to someone else’s body, it should not come that close to yours. In the same way that you don’t know how someone treated their clothes, you don’t know what the previous owner’s hygiene habits were like. Ick.
Noel Hemphill is a junior ECLS major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @WklyNHemphill.