Vintage for Dummies: The Idiot’s Guide to Old Clothes


When we saw that price tag dangling unembarrassed from the sleeve of a raspberry and gold Alberta Feretti spring coat at Bergdorf’s last week, we knew we had to do something: Namely, put aside those dreams of designer labels and scurry back into the waiting arms of vintage.

With new clothes arriving at unimaginably high prices—it’s the euro, stupid—the lure of faintly worn, mildly odiferous, undeniably stylish old clothes is more powerful than ever. After all where do you think Feretti—and Miuccia Prada and Marc Jacobs and practically every other designer—get their ideas from? No doubt their busy scouts will be all over the racks during the next two weekends, at the Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show and the New York Vintage Fashion and Antique Textile Show and Sale.

Unfortunately for you, you aren’t buying this stuff merely for “inspiration”—you’ve actually got to wear it. Therefore, we urge you—before you load up on used garments:

1. Try to find silhouettes that at least somewhat echo the way you really dress. If you’re the poufy-skirt type (and we can’t be the only ones out there) look for ’50s crinolines; if you want to look like Cate Blanchett channeling Katharine Hepburn (badly, despite that nomination) consider gabardine shirts and pleated pants.

2. Never judge strictly by appearances—try everything on, even if this means disrobing in public. (Don’t worry, no one is looking at you—they’re busy pawing the racks themselves.) In general, something that is too big can be taken in; something too small is hopeless. (And no—as noted here on many previous occasions—you will not lose weight and fit into it someday soon. Put it back.)

3. Bear in mind that the older a garment is, the more fragile it tends to me. Great Gatsby flapper dresses and filmy 1930s chiffon tea gowns are lovely to behold but hell to care for. Far better to fall in love with a ’50s motorcycle jacket or even an ’80s Dynasty-esque dress. (Try it! Maybe you’ll look like Chloe Sevigny.)

4. Obvious damage can be good and bad news. Good, because you can use it as a battering ram to get the dealer to lower the price (and, though you won’t see many tags in the $2650 range, the days of super-cheap vintage are long gone). Before you buy, hold the clothes up to the light and look for moth holes, which, while disgusting, aren’t the worst thing in the world. (The tailor at your local dry cleaner can often sew them up.) Far more deleterious to your vintage wardrobe is rotting silk or rayon. Pull gently—if it’s papery, faded, and generally exhausted, forget it. (True story: We once wore a World War I-era beaded dress to a party. After almost a century, the fabric decided to give up the ghost just as we got up from the dinner table. The entire back of the dress was hanging in shreds and our undies were showing. They were not pretty undies.)

5. Despite this list of dire warnings (hey, we’re just trying to save you heartache, and money) remember: Vintage shopping is fun! You know how you start to feel like a moron wandering slackjawed around department stores, staring hollow-eyed at piles of depressing merchandise? This cannot happen with vintage, where the history of fashion is at your fingertips. Ask smart questions; make friends with dealers. They love talking about this stuff.

6. Lastly: If, despite your best efforts, the clothes seem smelly and weird, consider accessories. You might not want to slip your feet into somebody’s old stilettos, but who can resist a silk faille evening purse, used just a few time and then put to sleep 50 years ago, only to be awakened by your loving hands?