There’s perhaps never been a better time to be a vintage fashion enthusiast in the Inland Northwest, with an explosion in recent years of local shops and vendors offering styles from every decade of the past century.
At the same time, if you’re new to the vast world of vintage, knowing where to start can be incredibly daunting. As I personally began getting back into vintage fashion three years ago after nearly two decades off (my first go-around was in high school), I felt the same way. In the time since, however, I’ve gleaned tons of insight on how to shop, style, care for, and even track down must-have pieces. Now, I hope the following tips help others on their vintage clothing journey.
KNOW YOUR SIZE
As with modern clothing, vintage sizes are hardly consistent. Both numeric and letter sizes have diverged drastically over the decades. During most of the 20th century, for example, women’s clothing followed a totally different system — a size 14 from the ’50s is more like today’s size 6.
Besides trying something on, which isn’t always possible, how do you determine your size? Measure yourself! Or, even better, measure a couple pieces of clothing you already have that fit well.
Get a flexible measuring tape, the kind a tailor uses (you can also use a piece of string and a yard stick) and measure the following while standing relaxed, and not holding your breath. These measurements are the same for any gender or body type; same goes for what to measure with a piece of clothing, laid flat and then doubled as needed.
- Shoulders (from the midpoint of each shoulder)
- Bust / chest (at the fullest point)
- Natural / high waist (roughly around your belly button)
- Low waist (around your hip bone, or where you like your pants to hit if not at the natural waist)
- Low hips (at the fullest point)
- Rise (center crotch up to where you want your jeans to hit at the waist)
- Inseam (crotch to where you want your pant hem to fall)
- Upper thigh (around your leg, just below your crotch)
I recommend saving all these measurements in your phone’s notes app for easy access.
While important, your body measurements won’t always determine a perfect fit, as you still need to consider ease of movement, plus factors such as the cut or style of a piece, which may require a garment to be a little (or a lot) bigger than your body. This is why I also keep track of the actual garment measurements for my favorite-fitting vintage pieces: pants, dresses, shirts, etc. Most online sellers list item measurements, and you can compare those to your own garments’ stats.
SHOPPING IN PERSON
While most vintage boutiques have fitting rooms, there’s nothing worse than seeing an amazing item on the rack and thinking it looks right, only to find there’s no way in hell you’ll ever zip it. To avoid such heartbreak, I always carry a pocket-sized, retractable measuring tape. I’ll whip it out to double check a garment’s size, and even shop for my partner. (I keep his measurements in my phone, too, for when I find cool menswear pieces.)
When you’re trying on vintage — especially pieces that are 50-plus years old — try to be gentle, and never force a tight fit because old fabrics and seams can be more delicate. This is true even for pieces that fit properly. Once, I got home and realized I’d been walking around all day with a popped seam in the seat of some vintage pants. It was easily fixed, but who knows how many people saw more than they bargained for!
It’s also important to note that nearly all vintage vendors do not accept returns, and everything is sold as-is. So if you get home and suddenly notice a stain or split seam, you’re stuck fixing it or living with it. For this reason, inspect each piece carefully and know your limitations when it comes to cleaning and repairs. If a piece is beyond your skills to fix, don’t toss it! Find a tailor, a friend who sews, or consider reselling it yourself, because even damaged vintage is still valuable to many. I have a fondness for repairing flawed pieces, but understand that not everyone has time or know-how.
While I’ve had some of my best vintage scores at local shops, if you’re looking for something super specific, you may need to broaden your search. Etsy and eBay are obvious places to start, but you can also find vintage on resale sites like Poshmark, Depop, Mercari and others. Use saved search features to track certain keywords.
Buying online can be riskier due to the no-returns element and not being able to try anything on. As such, always ask questions before clicking “buy,” especially regarding size or condition. Sometimes a piece still won’t work, and that’s a chance you have to be willing to take. Fortunately, you can resell or consider donating to a local thrift shop like Global Neighborhood Thrift & Vintage, which organizes sought-after vintage in a separate area. While reselling is more involved, I’ve had success passing on pieces that either didn’t fit, I ended up not loving, or want to rotate out of my collection.
WEARING & CARING FOR VINTAGE
Wearing head-to-toe vintage isn’t for everyone, but pairing, say, a vintage sweater with modern trousers is very easy to do, while also looking stylish and unique. Vintage outfit inspiration can be found everywhere: on social media, period movies/TV, historical ads and photos, and even from modern brands once again recycling the silhouettes of the past century.
Another major plus with vintage is that much of the clothing from decades ago was made to last. Up to about the midcentury, for example, people on average spent more per piece, but had smaller wardrobes overall. Many also made their own clothes. Non-synthetic fabrics (wool, silk, cotton, rayon) and the construction of vintage clothing — even everyday pieces — also tend to be of a much higher quality than today’s clothes (especially fast-fashion!). Plus, shopping secondhand is always better for the environment.
Some fabrics, however, often need special care. You can’t put anything wool in the washer or dryer and expect it to come out looking (or fitting) the same. Dry cleaning or hand washing and air drying your vintage duds are the safest bets, but there are caveats (and this gets long and complicated). If you’re ever unsure, there are plenty of online resources on how to clean vintage clothing. Dye bleeds, shrinkage and other washing mistakes still happen (and can be salvaged), but one of the best things about the vintage fashion community is the many kind and helpful people who are willing to share what they’ve learned.
While much of what I’ve learned about vintage fashion is based on personal experience (and lots of research), there are tons of helpful online resources. Here’s a few places to start:
Vintage Fashion Guild
This nonprofit’s members are a global collective of vetted vintage sellers who offer a wealth of information, including how to date vintage fashion and more. vintagefashionguild.org
Wear Vintage Now!
This book by Spokane vintage expert Margaret Wilds collects decades of her experience as a collector and seller, with loads of great detail on finding, styling and caring for vintage. denisebrain.com (Disclosure: I recently was asked to model some of Wilds’ vintage clothing for her Etsy shop.)
This rec is simple: Follow vintage fashion accounts on social media for outfit inspiration, to learn more about fashion history, and so much more. On Facebook, you can find helpful public groups where members offer advice on cleaning, repairing, and restoring vintage, as well as groups to buy/sell pieces that need extra TLC, plus genre-specific resale groups.
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