Buying Vintage

Finding a Fashion Treasure


By Sharon Mosley

The classic wrap dress—a vintage favorite—was introduced by Diane Von Furstenberg in 1972.

The designer is still reinterpreting this classic If you are fascinated by owning a piece of the past—whether it’s a ‘70s wrap dress, a ‘60s shift dress or a ‘50s swing coat—then you’re in luck as a new fashion season rolls around. Fashion always doubles “back to the future” for inspiration. This spring you’ll find all kinds of ways to celebrate those unique classics that you find at consignment stores, estate sales, thrift shops and specialty boutiques.

“Most people who collect and wear designer fashions do so simply because of the sheer pleasure involved,” says Emma Baxter-Wright, who co-authored the book, Vintage Fashion. “The hunt for a good piece, the knowledge you gain in the process, and the personal stories you hear along the way can be as compelling as finding and purchasing a highly desired, sought-after piece.”

If you’re ready to go on a treasure hunt, here are a few buying tips from Baxter-Wright.
>> It’s best to see the item you are buying up close and personal to verify the condition of the garment. Check out vintage clothing fairs and viewings at major auction houses. Beware of online auctions, and if you do find an item you want, email the seller and ask about stains, repairs, alterations, etc., and ask to see a photo of the label.

>> Never buy a stained garment with hopes of removing the stain just with washing or dry-cleaning. “If the mark has been there for a long time, it probably isn’t going to shift,” says Baxter-Wright.

>> And of course, the condition of the garment is of utmost importance. Hold it up to the light to reveal any moth holes. Check both sides of the fabric for scorches, tears, mended areas, missing beadwork or embellishment and for disintegration of any type. “Any professional seller will automatically point out tears or other signs of damage, but always ask,” encourages Baxter-Wright.

>> If you focus on a specific time period or designer, you will have better luck since you will gain a deeper knowledge of a specialized subject and also meet like-minded sellers and collectors.

>> Always buy the best pieces you can afford, especially if you are buying for a collection or investment.

>> Try on before you buy if you can. If you are buying vintage clothing or accessories to wear, be sure to pay attention to sizing and your own body shape. Many pre-Second World War garments were made by dressmakers so they may conform to a particular person’s body measurements. Mass production of clothing did make some difference, but remember a 1960s or 1970s size would normally be two or more sizes smaller than a contemporary item. A ‘50s dress would more than likely be curvier to fit the hourglass silhouette that was popular at the time; a ‘60s pantsuit or shift dress would be more “Twiggy”-inspired—longer and leaner.

>> Know your terms, says Baxter-Wright. Many sellers use standard language to describe the condition of a vintage garment: “mint” is rare and perfect; “near mint” indicates light wear, as in evening dresses; “excellent” means it is sound with some wear but no flaws; “very good” indicates minor flaws or stains but otherwise high quality; “good” means it is wearable but shows some deterioration.

>> Always consider the fabric of a piece. Garment care labels only came into popularity after 1971, so make sure you consult a costume dealer or professional conservator if your vintage piece is rare or has extensive beading or trim. Dry cleaning may be too harsh for these vintage finds. If the garment has a label that says it can be washed, hand-washing with a mild detergent is preferable only after pre-testing a small, inconspicuous spot first. Don’t store vintage garments in plastic, but wrap in acid-free paper and keep in a cardboard box. And never wash a 1920s sequin dress, says Baxter-Wright. “The sequins are made of gelatin, and will dissolve in the water!”with a modern twist and bold patterns.

Sharon Mosley is a former fashion editor of the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock
and executive director of the Fashion Editors and Reporters Association.
Photo courtesy of Nordstrom.

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