I remember the first vintage dress I ever owned. I was in high school, eBay was a relatively new phenomenon, and I loved trading hours of sleep for hours of looking through endless auctions listed as “boho,” vintage dress,” or “Sienna Miller dress-” because, of course, those were also the days of me reading celebrity gossip magazines. Well, in the heat of the moment, heart racing as the auction neared its end, I overpaid for an ill-fitting, barely-vintage-dress that ended up falling apart after only a few times out on the town. Since that fateful auction, though, I’ve become quite the vintage clothing connoisseur and a master at shopping for vintage clothing in stores and online. To save you the same heartaches I experienced when I fell for the wrong dress, I thought I’d share 10 vintage shopping mistakes to avoid so you don’t have to learn the hard way.
Look out for worn out materials. 1 of 10
In a poorly lit vintage shop crammed full of clothing, it can be difficult to examine the item you're interested in. Take your time and don't let yourself feel rushed! Examine the fabric of the entire garment and pay special attention to the seams.
Sometimes vintage dresses have been let out a little in the waist or bust area and if they fit you rather snuggly there where there's little seam allowance, you should be concerned about the seams ripping apart while you wear it. Waistbands with old elastic are notorious for losing their stretchiness, and unless you're handy with the sewing machine and know you'll get around to replacing elastic, it might not be worth purchasing something with elastic that's wearing out. Leather's another material to watch out for. Dried out, flaky leather, whether it be on shoes, purses, or apparel, will probably crack and the item will be ruined. Sometimes if leather's not too far gone, you can save it with some leather lotion, but be sure to factor that into the cost of the item and how much you're willing to spend.
When you're shopping online, and you're interested in an older item with elastic or leather, don't be afraid to ask the shop owner for extra detail about the elastic's quality or the leather's flakiness. Most sellers respond quickly and especially because you'll leave feedback after purchasing, they'll answer honestly.
If you are desperately in love with something even though it looks like it might need some work, use the item's faults as bargaining power with the store owner. If you get a good deal, it might be worth some time with the sewing machine or some money to a good seamstress.
Check for hidden fabric discoloration. 2 of 10
I came home from a shopping trip recently, tried on the amazing '60s dress I had scored, and realized that there were several good sized discolored spots on the dress where it had faded probably from direct sunlight during years of storage. I was so bummed, because I really didn't get a good deal on the dress, and definitely could have used the fabric's faults to get a better price. But inside the dimly lit store with bad fluorescent lighting, I hadn't noticed the fabric discoloration. So take it from me- when you're shopping online, really read the description to see if there are any discolorations and ask for better pictures if they aren't included, and when you're in an actual vintage store, be sure to take the item you're interested in next to a window and really study all of the material to make sure the fabric's in good shape. Pay special attention to the tops of the shoulders where fabric at the top of a hanger gets direct sunlight in some storage situations, and also check out the armpits. Pit stains really bring down the fabulous factor of an otherwise great vintage dress.
Beware of dried out shoes. 3 of 10
I've never had good luck with buying vintage shoes, and I'm beginning to wonder if it just goes with the territory. Almost every pair of vintage shoes I've owned have broken in one way or another after only a few wears. Sometimes the sole of the foot is just old and dried out and so it literally cracks in half, not only making the shoe uncomfortable, but unwearable in wet conditions. Other times the adhesive that glues the sole to the shoe has dried out and it begins to peel off, also leaving your foot susceptible to wet conditions. I've also had leather oxford shoes crack open at the wrinkles around where my foot bends, which was pretty sad because I loved those little guys!
So beware- when buying vintage shoes there is no guarantee they will last you very long. It might be better to look for a modern shoe in a vintage style. There are a lot available these days, especially at stores like ModCloth.
Make sure clasps and zippers are in working condition. 4 of 10
Sometimes in my excitement over finding the (supposedly) perfect purse or coat (especially at a thrift store), I neglect to check out every single clasp and zipper to make sure they're working well. Believe it or not, I've come home with purses that don't zip or coats with sticky zippers that end up making my life miserable. So not worth it. So be sure to really examine all clasps and zippers before making your purchase!
Don’t buy unwashable garments. 5 of 10
Let's be honest. Vintage clothes usually don't smell the greatest. Usually it's musty mothball scents that waft out of winter coats, or that unmistakably grandma scent that seems to be permanently embedded in a wool dress, but every once in a while there's a horrible scent of b.o. that can really turn you off from vintage shopping altogether. Sometimes it's not an issue, because you're looking at a cotton or polyester dress that after a good washing (sometimes with vinegar for set-in odors) will smell just like new. But other times, when you're looking at a wool coat or something like a heavily beaded or sequined dress, it can make you nervous to think about washing it or paying for dry cleaning. Really examine your heart and decide if you love this item too much to pass up and are willing to risk ruining it during washing or paying an expensive dry cleaning bill. Sometime's it's really worth it! But the cost and effort of cleaning is always something to consider.
Don’t settle for an ill-fitting hat. 6 of 10
When I first started collecting vintage hats, I mainly selected them for their style, and found out eventually that hats really aren't fun to wear when they don't fit you properly. If you have a larger head like me, it can make finding vintage hats really difficult. But do not settle for a slightly too small hat, or you will have quite a trial keeping them on your head!
I seem to have the best luck finding vintage hats online, because I can skip right over the ones that don't fit by using my head circumference as a search term. Sometimes sellers don't list the circumference in the item's title, however, so if you're really wanting to spend time combing through all of the vintage hats on Etsy and eBay, you might try searching for the style you're looking for, and then reading the description for the circumference, or messaging the seller to see what the circumference is.
Don’t rely on label sizing. 7 of 10
If you're new to vintage shopping, you might not know that sizing has changed quite substantially through the past several decades. A '50s dress tagged as a size 10 will really fit more like a modern day size 4, which can really throw you for a loop. Sometimes you can tell by just looking at an item on the hanger, but because the proportions of vintage clothing are also different from modern clothing, especially in eras where girdles were worn by most every lady, you'll want to try on the dress or other garment to be sure it fits you everywhere. You can't take back a vintage dress, so don't just eyeball it and guess! You might be really disappointed when you get home. Even antique malls will work with you if there are no dressing rooms available. I've been known to try on clothing in the restroom stalls- with permission, of course- and it's saved me from almost buying something that was just too tight for my non-girdled waist.
If you're shopping somewhere with absolutely nowhere to try on clothes, or if you're looking at vintage clothing online, use a measuring tape to find the largest area around your bust, the smallest circumference of your waist, and the largest area around your hips and bum. You can then check these against the dimensions listed in an online listing or if you're in a store, you can then measure the garment. Just be sure to leave an inch or two extra room to move around in the dress, or you might have trouble breathing or moving in a dress that's practically glued to your body! Trust me- I've tried this. More on that in the next slide.
Don’t purchase too-tight garments. 8 of 10
It might be tempting to buy a vintage dress even though it's pretty snug on you. After all- vintage garments are often one of a kind, and if you've fallen in love with something, it's not like you can go back to the rack and find one in another size. But if you're blouse is gapping in the front, if you can't stretch your arms out in front of you, and if you're having trouble getting a zipper up- just face it. It's just not meant to be.
Sometimes if you're losing weight, like after having a baby, or if you've committed to exercising and eating healthier, it's extra tempting to buy something one size too small and use it as motivation for weight loss. Of course, that's totally your decision, but in my experience it's better to wait until after the weight's come off to reward yourself with a new dress than to buy one that you may never fit into and might just end up making you feel like a failure.
If you're tempted to buy a dress that's ever so slightly snug, or maybe you purchased a dress online that you thought would fit, but is too small when you try it on at home, it might be a good idea to try to sell it to a vintage store locally or sell it online on eBay or Etsy. If you risk wearing it out, as I have done before, you just might have an embarrassing situation like the sleeve of your dress ripping off while dancing your butt off on the dance floor. Not saying that's actually happened to me, or anything.... it's just.... well, take it from me. It's a very real possibility.
Don’t overpay in your excitement. 9 of 10
Vintage clothing prices tend to be all over the place depending on where you're shopping. In Northeast Ohio, where I live, vintage clothing is numerous and usually pretty affordable. There are some shops that in their recent popularity have raised their prices, and while I might splurge on something from a shop like this, I tend to avoid them altogether lest I find something I really love and am tempted to overpay for it.
Shops that are loaded with clothing tend to have better prices than smaller boutiques with less items. And when shopping online, stores with poor quality photos tend to have better prices than shops with beautiful dress forms and perfectly lit, crisp photos. So when you're browsing through listings online, don't ignore those poorly photographed listings! They can be great opportunities to get a good deal on a great vintage items.
In general, it's a good idea to shop around a little, both online and in stores, to get an idea of what is a reasonable price to pay for something you're interested in. It will save you cash, heartache, and even give you bargaining power.
Don’t underestimate the bargaining power of a polite shopper! 10 of 10
Lots of shop owners would rather give you a deal than have you leave their store empty handed, but they're extra likely to work with you on prices if you're a courteous shopper. Sometimes vintage shop owners haven't had a shopper in their store all day and would appreciate some conversation. Ask them about their store's history, how they became interested in vintage clothing, and chat about your favorite style icons. Now I'm not advising that you be manipulative just to save a buck or two, but if you think something's worth a bit less than what it's listed for, or if you are buying multiple items, it's okay to ask for a bit of a price break. Sometimes I'll go to the register with three items that total $50 and ask if I can have all three for $40. The friendlier I am from the moment I walk in the door, and especially the more often I frequent a local shop, the more likely I am to get some great deals with the appreciative shopkeeper.
Check out more of Mandi's writing at Making Nice in the Midwest.
Check out more of Mandi’s writing at Making Nice in the Midwest.