A Crash Course in Vintage Shopping

By Catherine Owsianiecki

Legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel once haughtily declared, "I detest what is new." And judging from the proliferation of successful vintage fashion shops and Web sites, many of today's shoppers wholeheartedly agree. And who could blame them? The fringed, frivolous confections of the flapper era, the lavish bias-cut gowns of the 1930s and the circle-skirted chiffon visions of the 1950s are far more interesting than the see-it-on-every-corner and increasingly less glamorous garments of today.

But before you jump with abandon on the vintage style bandwagon, it is essential that you become a smart and savvy shopper. And if you are familiar with the following basic pointers about vintage, you will be well on your way.

Vintage vs. Antique

Contrary to popular belief, the terms "vintage" and "antique" are not interchangeable. Garments created before the 1920s are referred to as antique. Victorian (pre-1900) and Edwardian (1900-1919) fashions are the most readily available representations of this category. Meanwhile, clothing and accessories dating from the 1920s through the 1970s are considered vintage.

Where to Shop

If you live for the thrill of the hunt, visit your local flea markets, thrift stores, consignment shops and vintage and antique boutiques. And be sure to check newspapers and shopping guides for listings of antique shows and estate sales in your area. But remember to always check for any wear and tear on your fashion find before you purchase it.

Confirmed online shoppers should visit sites, such as eBay.com and Sothebys.com, that offer ongoing auctions of vintage clothing and accessories. Before bidding, always read the seller's feedback and carefully scrutinize the site's policies and help pages.

If you prefer to buy your vintage items on the spot, use Internet search engines to find online boutiques. As with online auctions, shoppers should be familiar with the site's payment and return policies before submitting an order. And if you have any questions about the condition of a vintage item, do not hesitate to contact the seller. A reputable Internet dealer will be more than happy to answer any questions you may have.

Authentic Vintage vs. Contemporary Reproductions

Closures are the most telling indicator. Plastic zippers were not introduced in the garment industry until the 1960s. Prior to the 1940s, snaps were most often used. And before the 1900s, hooks and eyes were the closures of choice.

Also, look at the seam finishes. Overlock finishes did not appear until the 1970s. Before that, seams were either pressed open or finished with French or Hong Kong seams.

Meanwhile, sewing machines were not introduced until the 1860s. If you find a garment that is completely hand sewn, you may have a very valuable antique on your hands.

The Cost of Vintage

Prices will depend on the age and condition of the item, current trends, and the individual seller. Designer clothing will necessarily command higher prices, as will items that are currently in high demand. But in general, if you purchase a durable, finely crafted vintage piece that you absolutely love, the price will be well worth it.

Caring for your Vintage Clothing

To help your vintage treasures live long enough to become antiques, try the following tried-and-true cleaning and storage methods:

  • Never store any garment in or under plastic, which gives off fumes that cause color change and fiber breakdown.

  • Never hang or store clothing in or near direct sunlight, as ultraviolet rays are harmful to the fabric.

  • Use sachets of cedar lavender and cloves to prevent moth chews.

  • To keep dust from settling in, periodically vacuum drawers andclosets.

  • With the exception of coats, suits, and items made before the 1940s, avoid taking vintage clothing to a dry cleaner. Hand wash garments or take them to a "wet" cleaner if convenient.

  • Never put vintage clothing in a dryer. Instead, hang newly washed garments on a line, a drying rack or the curtain rod over the bathtub.

Congratulations! You have successfully completed this crash course in vintage shopping. Finding a dress, suit, or hat that is uniquely you should now be a perfect breeze. So, newly inducted vintage fashion mavens, what are you waiting for? Hit those stores!

Catherine Owsianiecki is a freelance writer and vintage fashion fanatic with articles published in Collectors News, Collector Magazine and Price Guide, Animal Wellness, Delta Epsilon Sigma Journal, Simple Joy and LifeToolsforWomen.com. She has a Bachelor of Arts from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts at the same institution.

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