Veterans will rush the racks at the opening bell of the Metropolitan Pavilion’s vintage fashion show next weekend (110 West 19th Street, 463-0200 ext. 236), ripping flapper frocks off hangers, pulling poodle skirts over their heads, hard-bargaining with world-weary dealers, filling shopping bags with glorious stuff. And where does that leave you? Trailing in their wake, overpaying for something you don’t even like, or, even more pathetically, going home completely empty-handed?
Don’t let this happen to you! The last few months of the 20th century are the perfect time to deck yourself out in the fashions of the last hundred years, provided you know what you’re doing. As a public service, we present our . . . Ten Indispensable Tips for Successful Vintage Clothes Shopping!
1. Employ psychology. When you enter a booth full of old clothes, whether it’s at an indoor show, or outdoors at 26th Street, or at a country flea in the middle of nowhere, and you see exactly what you want, don’t get too enthusiastic. It will only (a) make bargaining more difficult later and (b) provoke other customers to snatch it off the rack and buy it right out from under you the second you turn your head. So feign indifference, busy yourself at the $1 scarf basket, then casually sidle over to the object of your affection and proceed to . . .
2. Try it on! Since you’ll be wearing leggings and a leotard under your clothes (right?), you can easily peel off outer layers and try everything on, even if you’re shopping in a cow pasture. (If the dealer says you can’t try it, keep walking.) Once you’ve got the thing over your head . . .
3. Insist on a full-length mirror! You’ve just got to take a long hard look at yourself in that Gay ’90s corset or Annie Oakley jacket or Pucci pajama set before forking over the big bucks! If the dealer doesn’t have his or her own mirror, wander over to the next booth and use theirs (they’ll be thrilled, but too bad . . . ), or go to the rest room, or, worst-case scenario, check out your reflection in the nearest car window. (Note: these don’t make people look thinner.) If you have any doubts at all . . .
4. Listen to that little voice inside you— you know, the one that tells you if something is a flattering color, if it’s itchy, if it makes you look like a Tootsie Roll. But let’s say the little voice is crowing “You look marvelous!” Then it’s time to . . .
5. Check the condition! Hold the fabric up to the sun and look for moth holes and weak spots. (If you’re in a windowless space, at least hold it up to the electric light.) No vintage garment is perfect, but after a few shopping excursions and a little scholarly research you should be able to . . .
6. Know what can be fixed. Sometimes it’s actually easier to tailor vintage fashions than modern clothes. Lots of old things were made to be handed down through the generations, and they have extra wide seams and hems that can be adjusted. If something kind of fits and you love it, look for the best-dressed shopper you can find (you know, the one who looks like she stepped out of The Women) and ask for her opinion. Do not ask the dealer, who may be perfectly nice, but who has a vested interest in convincing you that the garment is salvageable. But bear in mind: even if something can be altered, the vintage shopper has got to be ready to bow to the inevitable and . . .
7. Make friends with stains. And little tears. And embroidered flowers that have lost a few beaded petals. And skirts whose belts were last seen sometime during the Kennedy administration. If you’re going to worry that a garment isn’t completely pristine, you’re going to have a tough time in the vintage world. Maybe it will help you get over squeamishness if you . . .
8. Pretend to be a fashion designer! Donna Karan, Anna Sui, Jill Stuart, Cynthia Rowley, and a passel of other leading designers shop for this stuff all the time— solely for inspiration, they say, or to do line-for-line rip-offs, as their critics allege. But even when couturiers find something they want, do you think they pay ticket price? Au contraire! They . . .
9. Bargain, bargain, bargain! Here’s how it’s done. You say something like, “Can you do any better on this?” When the dealer makes a counter-offer, you can accept it or reject it. Caution: do not say, “Will you take $20?” or $10 or another specific amount, unless you are absolutely sure you want to buy. Flea market etiquette obliges you to purchase something once you’ve made an offer. Other tested bargaining tricks include paying in cash— and you’d be surprised how taking out a twenty when you say “Will you take $20?” can melt a dealer’s stony heart.
But let’s say that at any price, wearing a dead person’s outfit kind of grosses you out (and it shouldn’t! Really!), or you’re afraid you’ll look like you just crawled out of Miss Havisham’s attic. Do you have to limp home with nothing? Absolutely not! You can always . . .
10. Go the accessories route! Take baby steps— maybe just integrate a Bakelite handbag, or a cowboy hat, or a pair of Joan Crawford shoes, or cat’s-eye spectacles, into your otherwise sober wardrobe. A few compliments on those bibelots, and the next thing you know you’ll be bargaining for Sonny Bono bell-bottoms, Marcia Brady minis, Superfly suits, Don Ho shirts and plenty of other frisky stuff right along with Donna and Ralph and Jean-Paul and Miuccia.