For the past eighteen years, I have loved and collected vintage. My mother, sister, and I used to drive up to larger cities, hit thrift stores and estate sales, and even some antique/vintage stores in the middle-of-nowhere. It started with a love for seventies furniture and mid-century (the tackier the better), which lead into wearing go-go boots and 60’s mini-dresses during my formative junior high years (much to the chagrin of my fellow classmates.) What I didn’t find, my talented mother would make us, usually off of vintage patterns. I remember going to our local Goodwill and finding Fifties patterns for vintage aprons, or finding amazing space age lamps for mere dollars at Amvets. If you are anything like me, you like the challenge and adventure of hitting a round of thrift stores and rummage sales with your girlfriends, trying on a variety of really tacky clothes (that your ladies graciously talk you out of purchasing, thank god), and maybe finding those one or two unusual items that really brighten up your day. After selling vintage for the past ten years, I can testify that the hardest thing about it is parting with items you “discovered” and then realizing years later that you wish you would have kept them!
Although times have changed and due to sites such as etsy and Ebay, vintage is somewhat scarce in some places. Here are some tips to make the most out of your thrifting experience:
ONE: Definitely hit up church rummage sales or little hole-in-the-wall thrift stores. Often they could care less about older clothes so when they get donated they get placed on the costume rack or relatively cheaply priced. Rummage sales at churches or community centers are great because usually they are estate items and of better quality than many of the things you will find in thrift stores (plus people tend to price rummage stuff dirt cheap because they don’t want to have to move it or store it.) Estate sales can be gold mines for vintage, but you have to get there EARLY usually because people tend to snatch up anything of value within the first fifteen minutes of a sale. A key rule is that the older the neighborhood, the more likely that you will find fine vintage floating around
TWO: If you are of smaller frame, check the thrift store’s section for girls because sometimes they will place mod mini-dresses there thinking they are a child’s dress! One of our local thrift stores here prices their children’s clothing at 79 cents a piece and I have found so many cute dresses that way!
THREE: If it has stains or holes, make sure it is a fabric that can be laundered. Not all vintage fabrics can be laundered, and there is nothing more disheartening than realizing that the oriental silk twenties dress you got for a steal with the gash in it is falling apart and cannot be repaired, even by the most experienced seamstress. Also, keep in mind that if it is discolored, it is very difficult to re-dye the material unless it was made of cotton. There are polyester dyes out now, but often they can deteriorate the vintage fabric because the chemical compounds don’t mesh well with older fabrics. And keep in mind that not everything that says “dry clean only” can be dry cleaned if it is vintage. If you can’t live with its current condition, and can’t make a pattern off of it or use parts of it for your own design, DON’T BUY IT. But don't give up hope yet! Familiarize yourself with Fashion-Era's guide to cleaning vintage textiles. A professor of mine when I was in fashion school swore by this site-- I could spend days perusing all the information on there and you probably will, too.
FOUR: Learn to identify the sensual aspects of vintage fabrics. Up until the 1980’s, the majority of fabrics had specific textures or scents that dated them very easily. As synthetic materials became all the rage, very intricate or textured materials became less common. Acrylic (used primarily in knits) is an excellent example of that. There are also some fabrics to shy away from. For example, many coats were made of a synthetic polyester knit blend during the 50’s and 60’s that likes to shed pieces of polymer all over everything (almost like dust—yuck!)
FIVE: If you’re on the shorter side, 1970’s maxi dresses CAN be shortened and make really cute additions to your wardrobe. You can shorten the hem, sleeves, and add some really cute accents (like bows, collars, or buttons.) Never hemmed a dress before? I’ll show you how this week with a really easy tutorial!
SIX:Network, people!! Get to know your local people that work the stores or sales. They usually tend to be very interesting, nice people and very informative about things you might be looking for. I have made several lasting friendships with merchants over the years and every once in a while some may even save some stuff for you or call you up if something comes in that you might be interested in. If it is very obvious that you love vintage and are a generally nice person, people WILL help you out.
SEVEN: If you are going to resell an item, don’t announce it loudly to the point that other folks can hear you. It’s not illegal, but it IS in poor taste to say things in a store to the effect of, “Wow! I could buy this for $1 and make $50 off of it!” If you do that enough, folks WON’T help you out, but they WILL mark up their stuff that they thought was just an “old hat.” Likewise, a personal rule of mine is that unless it is way overpriced to begin with, don’t try to negotiate prices with people unless they specifically have a sign saying that they will take offers. After running businesses for a number of years, I can tell you that it is extremely rude to do this unless it is absolutely necessary. Especially when people run a boutique or antique store, they don’t like feeling like they are an auction site or craigslist. It always leaves a bad taste in my mouth when someone asks me for a discount on an item that I have already priced very reasonably or way below its value. I have had people try to negotiate buying decent-quality costume jewelry for a nickel when I had it posted at 50 cents at yard sales before. And there is no end to the people on etsy that will literally want to get something for nothing. There’s nothing wrong with trying to get a bargain, but make sure to be fair with your resellers, too.
EIGHT: Keep in mind that vintage sizes are often WAAAAY different than modern sizes, and many pieces of vintage clothing were not marked with sizes at all. My suggestion for this is to grab a flexible tape measure at your local fabric store and have a friend write down your measurements for you. Then make sure to keep the tape measure and your measurements handy on your next adventure and if there is no dressing room, refer to the old trusty measuring tape method.
NINE: If the shoes don’t fit, DON’T wear them! Save yourself a lot of grief (and cash) by not buying things that cannot be altered. Leather can be stretched sometimes, but you will generally get no more than half a size up at the most, if you're lucky. Another cardinal rule is that if it can’t fit over your head comfortably or has so many parts that it would take Houdini to get in or out of it, don’t BUY it. Beyond the obvious fashion faux pas, if you buy these items they will likely sit in your closet for a couple years before you donate them again or try in vain to sell them.
TEN: Bring a camera (or a phone with photo-documenting capabilities) along for the ride. When I am out, I almost always see things that remind me of friends or family members and shoot them photos and prices in case they are interested. It also may be fun to blog these in your spare time. One of my favorite blogs is Yard Sale Bloodbath, for instance. I have found some of the weirdest stuff at thrift stores before that I wish I would have gotten a snapshot of!
ELEVEN: Don’t be afraid to cover new territory. If you have the money, search outside your city or take a day trip somewhere new. Make a list of places you want to visit and their store hours, MapQuest them, and hit the road. The Salvation Army uptown may have the most boring 80’s power suits ever, but hit the small one on Midtown and it might be a vintage Mecca! And don’t be afraid to ask around for what you are looking for. People might go, “Oh, my mom has one of those! Let me call her real fast. She just has it sitting in her den collecting dust!”
TWELVE: Although you may usually be a lone wolf, don’t shy away from inviting your friends to come along for your adventures. There can be nothing more fun than getting up early, picking up some friends, grabbing coffee, and hitting the road for a day full of adventures and surprises.
THIRTEEN: If you are looking to resell or for something specific, post a want ad on Craigslist or Freecycle. People are always looking to get rid of stuff or trade out. Just make sure to bring a friend and meet in a public place to do the trade to ward off the potential crazies (they ARE out there, sadly.) Often, most folks are really nice and you may even make new friends that have similar interests!
FOURTEEN: Thrifting is so beneficial to your wallet! And if you DON’T follow the trends too much and make your own way, you will not be limited to being disappointed if you can’t find certain items. Many thrift stores put stuff out in groups (such as a bunch of 70’s platform shoes or a bunch of vintage floral dresses) and it isn’t always based on what is popular. If you are looking to combine vintage with other items in your wardrobe, photo pools like Wardrobe Remix or sites like Lookbook are great sources for inspiration and can show you a variety of ways to combine colors or textures to produce a signature look.
FIFTEEN: Lastly, although no one wants to have Buyer’s Remorse, likewise don’t skimp on a vintage purchase if it is something you REALLY REALLY want. Impulse buying is one thing and should be avoided at all cost, but also don’t look a gift horse (or as my friend Janice says, “The Vintage Gods”) in the mouth, either. If it is a couple dollars more than you want to pay, but it is imperative that you have it, don’t wait. I can’t count how many times I have seen something I loved and said, “If it is here next time or on sale, I will purchase it” only for it to be gone within minutes. Months later, I usually still wanted it really bad, and ended up paying top dollar for it in a store or online. If you like it, it is generally certain that at least five or six other people locally do, too, so try to be the first to snatch it up! Thrifting is competitive, and that is part of the fun. Hope everyone has a great start to the week and finds this post useful! I have school starting again in a couple days, and I am actually semi-excited about that!