Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thrifting 101, Part 5: How to thrift for vintage

We're about to delve into my favorite topic in my Thrifting 101 series: shopping for vintage at a thrift store. In my opinion, there is nothing that can replicate the high of scoring a unique, vintage item when thrifting. I adore knowing that not only will I wear a piece that no one else owns but also has quite a bit of history behind it. Whether it's a pair of white gloves from the 1950's, a suede fringe hippie-era vest, a 80's prom dress (see mine here) or a drop-waist 1920's flapper dress, vintage clothing instantly transports you to the era of it's origin. It's a fascinating glimpse into the development of fashion trends.

Up to this point, Thrifting 101 has focused on tips for newbies and those dealing with the squick factor, advice regarding how to shop at a thrift store, thrifting for the clothing snob, and recommendations for finding the best thrift and consignment stores. Now, we'll examine all things vintage!

First things first: Before you go vintage clothing shopping, take a look at your existing wardrobe. One of the easiest ways to put together an amazing outfit is to pair a vintage piece with modern items you already own. This will cut down on the stress and time trying to put together an entire outfit each trip. It also helps to do a bit of research regarding vintage clothing. Find styles, or time periods, you really love, and try to focus on hunting down those types of items when you thrift.

Most vintage, though old, is of a better quality than our disposable clothes today. However, they most likely have had a lifetime of being worn, so it's important to make sure the items you buy are still wearable and don’t look old or worn. 
Here is a check list of problems you should look for before purchasing a vintage item.
  • General Wear and Tear - Check elbows, knees, backsides, cuffs, collars, hems, and armpits for excessive wear as they are the parts of clothing that endure the most stress.
  • Fading - You can check for fading by turning the item inside out and looking at the seams. The color on the seams will probably be a darker shade. If the fading is minimal or completely even on the outside of the garment, then the item should be okay to purchase.
  • Sagging, Drooping, and Stretching – Since Lycra is not part of the fiber content in vintage clothing like it seems to be today, well worn clothes might have possible sagging or stretching from wear and tear. Try the item on to determine if such wear is noticeable. In some cases the wear might improve the fit; in others, it may make the item look overused.
  • Stains - Some stains on vintage items are possible to get out, especially more recent ones. Stains that will not come out include mildew and some perspiration stains. Use your discretion depending on the size of the stain, its location, etc.
  • Odors – Vintage clothing may not have been washed for some time, especially those from thrift stores. As a result, there might be some sort of persisting odor on an item. Fortunately many of these smells could be removed at home. Just be sure to use the appropriate cleaning method for the garment’s age and fabric contact.
  • Tearing (other than in seams) – Tearing in any other area except on the seams of the item are irreversible and not always easily masked. Use your discretion when buying an item with known tears. 
  • Deterioration - Fiber deterioration is common in old pieces made from natural fibers like cotton, silk, wool, etc. Look for signs of pilling and treadbareness.
  • Moth Holes – Here's an interesting fact: Moths prefer dark colors, so be sure to double check items that are darker. Use your discretion depending on the extent of damage and location. If you chose to buy an item with moth damage, be sure to have it dry cleaned or wash in hot water immediately to prevent any moth larvae (ewww, I know) from infesting the rest of your wardrobe. 
  • Mildew - All signs of mildew are irreversible. Do not purchase a garment with any sign of mildew damage.
  • Hardware and Fastenings – Be sure that zippers zip properly, buttons are all attached and move smoothly in and out of the button hole, and that snaps have both pieces and fit together.
  • Decorative Details - Pay special attention to any garment with beading, sequins, applique, embroidery or lace. Make sure embellishments are attached securely and not missing an undesirable amount of pieces. Vintage sequins were usually hand-sewn in India, and while a piece may look great from afar, a critical eye can catch missing sequin sparkle and fraying thread. If thread is beginning to fray, chances are the sequins will eventually fall off the piece. 
Identifying Vintage Clothing

One trick to help identify vintage clothing is to look for a union card or tag attached to the inside seam. A union tag is proof that the piece was produced and supported by a clothing union, which existed in the U.S. before the overseas boom of clothing production beginning in the 1980s. They're usually square and about 1/2-inch-by-1/2-inch; red, white, and blue; and state the name of the union, like "The Ladies Garment Workers Union" and "Made in U.S.A." If you find a union tag, you're definitely scoring a vintage piece, which by definition is at least 20 years old. It's like having a time stamp on your clothing.

Here's an example of a union tag from a blazer I purchased at a local Goodwill: (See pics of me in the blazer here.)

Another tip to help identify vintage is to examine the zippers on the garment. Does it have a metal or vinyl zippper? Vinyl zippers were not widely used on dresses until mid-late 1960’s so the presence of a metal zip could indicate a pre-1970’s dress. You might also want to compare the zipper brand to the list of common brands from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. If the zipper maker is Scovill, Conmar, Crown, Gripper Zipper, Talon or Ideal then the garment is most likely authentically vintage. If the zipper is YKK it is most likely a new reproduction. Vintage denim and military clothing will normally have the non-YKK brands listed above.

The location of the zip is also a key indicator. Up to the 1950s the zips were often placed at the side of the dress, moving to the back during the 1950s and 1960s.

Finally, be sure to check the labels of each piece you're considering for purchase. There are three types of labels to look for: the makers label, the size label and care label. Before the 1960’s size labels typically indicated the hip size in inches. After this decade sizes such as 12, 14 etc. were more commonly used. These standard sizes have change over the years -  a size 14 in the 1960's is equivalent to a 1970’s size 12, and modern size 10. Care labels are also a good indicator. They were introduced in the mid 1960’s and became widely used in the 1970s. The Pure New Wool symbol was only introduced in the 1970s. Furthermore, the absence of any labels might indicate that the dress was home made, a common occurrence before the 1970’s.

Hopefully these tips will help you dig up a unique, verifiable vintage item. As your collection grows so will your experience and confidence!

Has my Thrifting 101 series been helpful to you? What part have you enjoyed the most? Are there any topics within thrifting you'd like more information on? Please let me know by leaving a comment! I truly appreciate your thoughts and ideas.

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