Shopping for Vintage Clothes? What's a Bargain and What's Not

If you're a vintage clothing collector, you know that the thrill of the hunt is part of the excitement. Spotting what appears to be a Balenciaga coat at a junk store price might just make your heart skip, but wait: is it really a bargain? Even discount prices on certain designer vintage clothes can be as much as a new dress. Inexpensive costume jewelry items aren't worth the few dollars they cost if they fall apart when you get home.

Vintage Clothes

Vintage shopping requires a keen eye and a cool head. Here is what every treasure seeker must know before they open their 1960s Lucite purses: what's a bargain and what's not.

Not: Clothing purchased at chi-chi vintage shops. Stores that specialize in vintage clothing are dreamy and you can find much-needed items to complete a look, but be aware that the markup is huge. Vintage clothing dealers find their items at estate sales and in thrift stores. What may have cost them a few bucks now costs you fifty. Be especially wary in stores that populate tourist areas.

Bargain: Shopping where the vintage dealers find their clothes. The real bargains are ones you spot at Goodwill before the dealers make the markup. Know what you're looking for before you go in, study up on fabrics and labels, and be aware of the resale value. Even if an item isn't in your size, it could be worth enough to use as a trade-in at a better vintage store. Check the newspapers for estate sales and yard sales, especially in old neighborhoods. Ask around. You might be surprised what's in Aunt Harriet's attic.

Not: Exquisite but very delicate items that won't wear easily. Sure, that 1930s evening dress is beautiful, but feel how thin the fabric is. The beadwork is just asking to fall off at any second. Items that would cost more to clean than what's on the price tag are also a budget killer. Extremely old and delicately-crafted items make great museum pieces, but aren't a worthy investment for wearing unless you plan on it being for one event only: a wedding, a prom, or you happen to be winning an Oscar.

Bargain: A well-made piece that fits into your wardrobe with ease. Some vintage items are made better than the ones you can buy in the store today. A vintage Chanel suit will still be in good shape decades after the one you bought off the rack at mall has come apart at the seams. Choose wisely, and if a piece really is a wardrobe maker -one that pulls everything together- it's worth every dime.

Not: Fakes and reproductions. Some styles of clothing come in and out of fashion so frequently that it can be hard to tell what decade a piece is from, unless you educate yourself. How do you know if that jacket with the shoulder pads is from the 40s or the 80s? One big clue is the fabric. Synthetic blends are always going to be more modern. Rayon, for example, wasn't used in clothes until the '50s and not widely until the '90s. Study up on fabrics and history, and don't be fooled by reruns.

Bargain: Items sold by dealers you know. It absolutely pays to frequent the same stores and be nice to the sellers. If you're a repeat customer, they want to keep your business, and you'll have much less likelihood of being ripped off. Don't ask for deals or haggle, and before long they'll be offering discounts to you. Some dealers will even throw in some freebies. Once they know your taste, they'll even hold back items you might like. If you frequent thrift stores, where you're saving so much money it's crazy anyway, bring in a coffee or a pastry to the morning clerk. You will reap the benefits.

Not: Items with irreparable damage. If you can't wear it as is and you don't sew, don't buy it. The bottom line is, if the markdown looks to good to be true, there's probably a reason. Some problems are deal breakers: weak and disintegrating fabric, moth holes, seams that are starting to pull apart. Check to see if the item is wearable. Ask to try it on. Be bold and just ask why it's so cheap. If you know your dealer, as suggested in the last tip, they'll tell you.

Bargain: Damaged items that can be salvaged for parts. Before you pass on that damaged item, though, see if it has anything worth scavenging. If it's only a few dollars, the buttons could be cute on another item. Some vintage buttons sell for a hundred dollars a piece! Perhaps the fabric can be used to make something else, especially if it is an unusual vintage print. Also check to see if the damage is somewhere where it can be altered. If a hole is below the knee of a maxi skirt, perhaps you could hem it into a mini. If you sew and are creative, damaged goods can mean real savings.

When going vintage shopping, don't just take cash or a credit card. Go armed with knowledge beforehand and check carefully. Spend wisely, and you'll put together a vintage look on the cheap in no time.

Written by: Elizabeth Kelly


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