There is a lot of stigma that surrounds vintage shopping, but when done well it can be an incredibly rewarding challenge. It isn’t as easy as walking into a department store and going through multiple sized racks of clothing, but the amazing pieces you can find, generally at prices that are a major deal, make the extra work worthwhile. I’ve gotten a lot of emails about the vintage pieces I’ve featured, so I decided to compile a brief vintage shopping cheat sheet – a list of tips to help make shopping vintage as easy and successful as possible.
Vintage sizes are generally not the same as modern sizing for a variety of reasons. With the rapid popularity in recent years of vanity sizing, particularly in pants, you can no longer rely on the size listed as the actual size a piece measures. In contemporary clothing, the most common upsizing is about 2”, though this varies from brand to brand. This means that a 34” pair of pants generally actually measures 36” give or take. To complicate this even more, the inseam is not vanity sized, so the 32” inseam actually measures as such. With vintage sizes, pants will usually measure what they list on the size label, assuming that they haven’t already been altered. Other measurements, such as the rise, may be very different than modern cuts because the height that people wear their pants has changed dramatically over the years.
This also extends to more than just pants, so be sure to try everything on because fit and trends have changed repeatedly since the ‘30s. A modern medium can be very different from a vintage one, and unlike contemporary clothing, vintage fabrics rarely have the same stretch contents and are thus less forgiving than the ones you will find in stores now. Just like any time you buy clothes, but particularly when you are shopping vintage it is important to try things on before you purchase them, especially given that most vintage or thrift shops do not accept returns.
Whenever I speak to someone about vintage shopping, my biggest recommendation, other than trying something on, is to bring a tape measure. Any time I am considering buying something, I always double check that a garment’s measurements actually match its size label, if it even has one, before I take the time to try it on. Pants are the most common item to be altered, so you’ll want to double-check both the waist measurement and the inseam. I also will often also measure the outseam on pants before I consider trying them on, as the rise on vintage pants can vary wildly. I’ve seen some pants with a rise as long as 18” (think the SNL skits about Clint Eastwood). For shirts, alterations are less common, however shrinkage is not, so make sure the neck, chest, and sleeves measure properly.
As with all second hand clothing, it is also important to look over a garment carefully for any stains or discolorations, particularly under the arms of shirts or at the bottom cuffs of pants. Inside the necks of dress shirts also often see a lot of staining and the seat and crotch of pants can sometimes wear down, so check both these areas too.
The other condition issue to be aware of that people often overlook is dry rot. It sounds grosser than it is, but basically it means that a fiber is too old and poorly cared for, usually due to the way it has been stored, and has begun to degrade. This is most common with clothes that are pre-1960s and becomes more frequent the older you go back, so though you should always check the condition of the fabric and thread, I would be especially vigilant when looking at pieces from older eras. With both the fabric and threads, test their strength by giving a tug to them. With dry rotted fibers, the fabric will pull right out of the seams or the threads will tear easily. I’m not suggesting you try to rip them apart, just give a tug hard enough to ascertain that they still hold. In some especially bad cases, you can put a fingernail right through the fabric.
There are as many benefits to shopping vintage as there are drawbacks, but if you have the time to invest you can come away with some truly unique pieces. One thing you will quickly learn is that with vintage clothes, more so than anything else, a tailor will be your best friend (but I’ll cover that in a future post).