Celebrity style icons like Chloe Sevigny, Nicole Kidman and Alexa Chung don’t get their inimitable style from mindlessly chasing every new trend—and neither should you plunk down serious change for the latest “it” bag when you could spend less money and sport an original piece.
Vintage is generally defined as anything that’s more than 25 years old, high-quality and illustrative of its era. In short, you’ll know it when you see it—and then you’ll fall in love with it.
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Why We Think Vintage Is Worth It
If a piece of clothing is more than 25 years old, it’s probably endured because of superior fabric and craftsmanship. Vintage clothing also tends to be easier to customize because it has wider seam allowances for tucking in or taking up. Little compares to the thrill of finding a statement piece that you know no one else will be wearing at the cocktail party. It’s even eco-friendly because you’re reusing fabric and saving energy on production of a new garment.
But best of all—you knew we had to bring this back to your bottom line—vintage wares provide better value for your money. Well-made pieces range from $10 for lingerie and shoes to $350 for boutique coats. Case in point: Bridgett Artise, designer, shop owner, and author of Born-Again Vintage ($25, amazon.com), cherishes the Alexander McQueen coat and Chanel jacket she nabbed for $7 and $15, respectively at a Salvation Army in New York City. (Her tip: Always be on the lookout for undiscovered stores and sources of vintage, before their secret is outed.)
Sizes have steadily drifted upward since the middle of the century (called “vanity sizing”), which often makes the numbers you see useless with older clothing. Make sure to always try things on, and get yourself measured (or do it yourself) so you can identify what will fit you when shopping online.
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Alter That Halter
According to vintage expert Melody Fortier, today’s clothing is designed to have “hanger appeal,” to make it look better on the hanger—and spur impulse purchases—than on your body. But with vintage, you never know how beautiful it is until you slip it on. Also, remember that most vintage pieces are easier to alter than anything you’d find at a big box retailer nowadays, so think creatively. Experienced seamstresses should be able to pull hems up or tuck waists in relatively inexpensively. Or, just add a belt, and voila—that frumpy muumuu transforms into a frock.
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Price It Out
Because vintage encompasses such a wide variety of styles, designers, and eras, judging a piece’s value is tough. Fortier offers some sage advice: “Think in terms of what you feel is a reasonable price for a contemporary equivalent. For example, if your average price point for a pretty cotton skirt is $80, then you’ll likely feel comfortable paying about the same for vintage.”
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Give It TLC
Study the fabric for fading, water damage, creasing, or dust marks, and know which problems can be addressed. Stains are often treatable (except for rust), but always start with a spot test in an inconspicuous area. If you buy something perfume-y or musty, don’t wash it—that will only set the smell. Instead, hang the garment outside for a few days, or put sturdier fabric in the dryer with Dryel. But if it’s got B.O., walk away.
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“Have patience,” says Artise. Many people “get turned off because it’s so much stuff. Start with an hour at a time.” If you do, you might just find a perfect sheer flowy dress like Alexa Chung’s. For more tips and tricks, our favorite book on the topic is Melody Fortier’s The Little Guide to Vintage Shopping ($19, amazon.com). You can also learn about different labels and more at the Vintage Fashion Guild’s website.
After all, as Fortier says, the standard used to be that “yarns and knitwear should not pill, silks should not wrinkle when crushed, and linens should drape nicely and not feel stiff and wiry.” Nowadays, that’s called couture.