Eighty per cent of my wardrobe belonged to someone who is now dead. The slight scent of mildew and engrained perfume is my signal to the world that I am Doing My Bit for the environment and our sartorial history.
How to begin your vintage journey
1. Refine your search
My obsession with vintage clothes came out of my obsession with eBay in general. Second-hand was the gateway to vintage – first 70s, then 60s and now 30s (a far greater challenge).
I have pockets of interest: nightwear and lingerie, bibbed minidresses, housecoats.
If you don’t quite know what you’re interested in yet, start with an eBay search for something like ‘vintage dress’, filtered to Condition – Used. You’ll get lots of vintage ‘style’ crap but you’ll also start to find what you like. There’s another filter called ‘Original’ vs. ‘Reproduction’ and you can filter by decade, too. This can be more reliable than searching the decade (‘1970s dress’) because it goes by the item’s TAGS rather than whatever bizarre title the seller has put on the listing.
Once you know you’re looking for a Laura Ashley shawl collar jumpsuit or 1940s spectator shoes, set up some saved searches. As well as these specific searches, I do more general trawling because often the bargains are from people who don’t know what they’ve got. ‘Sailor collar’ is one of mine – it could be anything from Edwardian to 80s and I’d be interested.
MAKE OFFERS. Professional sellers price very carefully but the people clearing out their mum’s wardrobe do not. Make an offer if they’ve got an offer button. I have been surprised over and over by what people are happy to accept.
I generally only head to Etsy for vintage if I’m looking for something very specific or more expensive. This is a home for professional sellers rather than randos doing a clearout.
I like Etsy for quality and curation, but it’s not where I find bargains.
As well as eBay and Etsy, find vintage sellers on Instagram. Many sell only by direct message on the platform (and you then pay with PayPal), so there’s a whole world of vintage beyond the big selling platforms.
Those who do have their own websites will often post what’s coming up so you can be ready, and many are open to an offer before they’ve listed an item.
While buying direct from a professional vintage seller can be more expensive, it’s worth following them to get ideas of what you want to search for yourself – and also because when a true Holy Grail comes up, it’s a bargain whatever the price. For me, that’s white Edwardian button boots. One day.
Physical vintage shops are usually more expensive, too, but I like to support my local stores. They can be the right place for that specific treasure you’ve been looking for, but the expert curation factor also makes a nice change. It’s a lovely experience, a treat.
2. Learn the care basics
Vintage clothing has its challenges. It can be difficult to wash, it may have stains, it may smell like an old garage.
I wash EVERYTHING vintage on the delicate setting of my washing machine. If it doesn’t survive that, it’s not going to work in my wardrobe – it’s just not practical for me to have clothes I need to wash by hand. Thankfully, I’ve never lost a single item, even dry-clean only things. Even Edwardian pieces! Use your judgment; a £300 antique lace dress is probably something you’ll want to wash by hand.
Something that’s particularly important to adjust to is that the people who originally wore these clothes would NOT have washed them after every use. Get used to washing clothes when they need it and airing them inbetween. Your clothes will last longer, your energy bills will be lower and your impact on the environment will be slightly abated.
The only things I have never washed are my wedding dress – a 1950s beaded confection that I had steam cleaned by a vintage specialist – and a fluffy pink child’s party dress whose Swiss spotted cotton voile is too delicate to even wear, let alone machine wash.
With old clothing, those stains are usually properly set in. I’ve had rare successes with a spot-application of wonderful Vanish powder but part of collecting vintage clothing is accepting imperfection and looking like a Haversham heap of dirty old rags. It’s how this works.
What I do with stains that are going nowhere is visible mending. A patch, a little embroidered rose, a new trim. One mark does not ruin a garment, but it can get you a bargain if you’re happy to address the issue yourself. Most people aren’t, so they miss out.
The one stain that will stop me buying nearly every time is sweat stains under the arms. They won’t wash out and I haven’t yet figured out a way to disguise them apart from a wide stripe of fabric paint up the sides and down the length of the arms, which is pretty drastic and won’t work for every kind of garment. Pit stains do rather ruin the vibe of an elegant outfit.
But if you can’t disguise a small stain? Fuck it, who cares. A beautiful piece of clothing deserves to live on despite its flaws.
Airing and steaming
Washing alone may not get rid of the ‘vintage’ smell and it’s not a great idea to keep Fabreze-ing delicate fabrics. My top tip is to hang the item outside on a sunny day. The air and the sun will deodorise it naturally.
I DO NOT IRON. For one thing, it’s a waste of my time. For another, steaming is gentler on vintage clothing and it can help lift mustiness.
3. Find your fit
Buying vintage clothes is an art. You can’t just find a piece labelled your size and be fairly sure it’ll work.
For a start, vintage sizing is different. Up to and including the 80s, vintage clothes are about two sizes smaller than labelled: a size 12 will be a modern 8. This is why most vintage sellers will give you measurements as well as labelled size. Do not rely on their calculation of the modern size (I actually search without filtering for size because people make so many mistakes).
I find the most important measurement, because it’s hardest to adjust, to be chest. Most sellers will provide a ‘pit to pit’ measurement across the flat garment, so double it for your actual bust size.
People did tend to be slightly smaller in the past but we see so many tiny items still around because they couldn’t be passed down to as many people or worn for so much of a person’s life – it’s survival bias. So, plus sizes can be harder to find and you’ll often find a wearable bust will come with a little waist or tight sleeves. I have some junior miss (teen) clothes but they’re usually terrifyingly small.
But don’t limit your options by only searching for your narrow requirements. We’re treasure hunting! Sometimes a child’s dress will work for you as a top; sometimes a cocaine-skinny man’s suit from the 70s is your perfect fit. Know your measurements and get searching.
4. Make it work for you
It’s hard to be a vintage collector if you can’t make basic adjustments like hemming, taking in and repairing.
I’m the right sort of size for vintage and stuff often fits like it was made for me. Sorry, how annoying – although some of that is knowing how to find my size.
But without my sewing machine, I wouldn’t wear most of my clothes. So much comes to me with a popped seam, an immovable stain or an unflattering length. Fixing or customising to your idea of perfection is incredibly satisfying.
You don’t have to be a home-ec goddess. My abilities are rudimentary at best, but unpicking seams and sewing straight lines is really most of what I need to do.
You can find a decent sewing machine on sale for well under £100 and it pays for itself. Professional adjustments are SO expensive and you can’t get them done five minutes before you leave the house when you’ve decided you have nothing to wear but this 1960s lamé cocktail dress.
My mending pile is endless but I get to each piece as I want to wear it, and it’s usually a quick job. Perfect? No. But no one is eyeballing your hems.
Collecting and wearing vintage is a labour of love
This isn’t just shopping. It’s a hobby, for sure. Some of my searches are a daily pursuit. Add in the storage and care, and you have a really time-intensive pastime.
But I love it. Nothing makes me happier than styling a 1970s necktie with a Victorian underskirt and a pair of trainers. It’s history, it’s fashion and it’s expression.
Join me, won’t you?