Collecting Vintage Clothing

Kate Miller-Wilson
1940s evening gown

Vintage clothing is fun to collect and wear, and some items can also be extremely valuable. Understanding your options and educating yourself about the various eras and designers can help ensure you end up with a collection you can enjoy wearing or displaying.

Nine Collecting Tips

Whether you're just assembling a wardrobe of vintage dresses you love or you're starting a serious collection, it's important to keep a few things in mind as you shop. The following tips can help make sure you end up with a collection you love.

Have a Goal for Your Collection

People buy vintage clothing for different reasons, and it's important to identify yours before you start shopping. That way, you'll be able to buy pieces that further your long-term goals for your collection. Consider which of the following goals works for you:

  • You want to have a great selection of wearable vintage pieces in your wardrobe.
  • You are fascinated by a specific style, era, or designer and want to gather as many of these examples as you can.
  • You see your collection as an investment and want to choose pieces that will increase in value.

Some people have a combination of these goals. They may want to wear some of their collection or amass a few valuable pieces. All that really matters is that you have a clear idea of how you envision your collection.

Identify Which Pieces Are Actually Vintage

These days, there are a lot of old clothing items that sellers label as vintage, and this is partially because there isn't really a classic definition of the term. Many collectors consider anything older than 100 years to be "antique" and items newer than 20 years to be "used clothing." Ultimately, you'll need to define the term for yourself and your collection.

Once you've settled on your definition, you'll need to be able to identify actual vintage pieces and distinguish these items from modern vintage-style clothing. There are a few ways to tell the difference:

  • Look at the label. Except for couture, many vintage pieces were made in the United States, according to Sammy Davis Vintage Clothing. If the label says it was made in another country, this may be a clue that it's a modern item.
  • Look for a care tag. Although some vintage pieces have care tags, these tags became a requirement in 1971 according to Vintage Fashion Guild.
  • Examine the type of fabric. Vintage Fashion Guild asserts that the label in authentic vintage pieces may list fabrics like Rayon, Dacron, and Nylon.

Keep Condition in Mind

No matter what goal you have for your collection, the condition of each garment is extremely important. If you're planning to wear the item, it should be strong enough to withstand use. This means that the seams should be tight, the fabric should be free of holes and thin areas, and the hem should be secure. The piece should also have securely attached embellishments and closures.

For collectors, the garment also needs to be as close as possible to its original condition. According to Vintage Textile, the most valuable pieces have not been altered to change their style or shape. They may be restored, but the restoration respects and preserves the original garment's lines. Usually, the items should have its original lining in order to be the most desirable to collectors.

Pay Attention to Construction and Design

covered buttons
Covered buttons are a sign of quality.

A garment's construction, or the way it was put together, is a sign of quality. Whether you are wearing or displaying your items, quality construction and creative design are important.

According to Vintage Textile, collectors should concentrate on finding beautiful pieces with special details like hand beading, fine lace, or embroidery. Ideally, the best items for your collection will have excellent workmanship, interesting design that is emblematic of the era, and superior fabrics and embellishments.

To learn more about design and craftsmanship, take some time to talk to vintage clothing dealers. Often, they have a passion for the subject and are excited to share their expertise. You can also visit textile and fashion museums to see beautiful examples for yourself. In addition, the following are signs of a high quality garment:

  • Silk or cotton linings
  • French seams or bound seams that have no raw edges
  • Fabric-covered buttons
  • Hand-sewn hems

Recognize That Vintage Sizing Is Different

If you plan to wear your vintage purchases, it's essential that you understand the difference between vintage and modern sizing. According to fashion site More Fashion, sizing has changed significantly over the years. Today's size 00 would have been a size 10 in 1940 and a size four in 1970.

This means you can't shop by size and expect a piece to fit you properly. Here's how you can ensure a good fit:

  1. Choose a similar type of item from your current wardrobe that fits you well.
  2. Lay the garment flat on a surface and use a tape measure to check the dimensions of the bust, waist, and hips. Write these numbers down before you shop.
  3. Carry the tape measure with you to measure the vintage garments you find. If shopping online, only consider pieces that have been measured flat.
  4. Compare the measurements to find vintage clothing with a great fit.

If you're only planning to display the piece, size is less important. However, if you have a dress form or mannequin you plan to use, measure it before you shop.

Understand What Makes Clothing Valuable

If one of the goals for your collection is finding investment pieces that will increase in value, there are a few other factors to consider when shopping. Antiques Roadshow Tips of the Trade recommends looking for pieces from well-known clothing designers, especially those designers who were nearing the end of their careers. However, you should also concentrate on buying pieces that would appeal to young women, since they are essentially the driving force in the vintage clothing market. This means staying away from dowdy or stuffy items, even if they carry a high fashion label.

However, a piece doesn't have to be couture in order to be a good investment. Another factor to consider is whether the vintage piece is emblematic of its era. If you think of the fashion trends of a specific decade and the piece in question symbolizes those trends, this is a good predictor of value. For instance, a 1920s chiffon drop-waist gown with lovely beading is a good investment even if it doesn't have a designer name. That's because this is the kind of garment everyone thinks of when considering the 1920s.

No specific era stands out as more valuable than any other, but each time period has its own fashion trends that lend value to emblematic pieces.

Look for Variety

Although it can be fun to collect from a specific era or amass a large group of a certain type of garment, Vintage Fashion Guild recommends incorporating a variety of colors and fabrics in your collection. They note that the most common color of vintage clothing is black, followed by ivory, but a black or ivory collection would not be as valuable or interesting as one that incorporated a number of different fabrics and colors. Instead, it's wise to choose pieces in both prints and solids, in wools, silks, cottons, and synthetics, and in a variety of different shades.

Take Care of Vintage Pieces

Vintage garments require more care than modern clothing items. When you add a piece of vintage clothing to your collection, begin by assessing its cleaning requirements. Most items should be dry cleaned, although it's always wise to seek out a local dry cleaner who specializes in vintage garments.

If you choose, you can wash some sturdy all-cotton pieces on a delicate cycle in cold water. If you're in doubt about the proper care for the fabric, consult your dry cleaner.

After a piece is clean, it's a good idea to take the following precautions when storing it:

  • Use padded hangers to prevent unnecessary stress on shoulder seams. Cover hanging garments in fabric bags to protect them from dust.
  • Avoid plastic containers and garment bags, which can trap moisture and cause the fibers to degrade.
  • Periodically check your collection to make sure buttons and embellishments are securely attached, zippers are closed to prevent snags, and creases are not forming in the fabric. Unfold and air out folded items every few months to change the locations where the fabric is folded.
  • Don't store items where they will be subjected to heat or sunlight. Changes in temperature can cause the fabric to deteriorate, and bright light can cause fading.
  • Store fur items and wool pieces with cedar or lavender to prevent pests.

Know Where to Shop

As you begin or expand your collection, it helps to know where to shop. In general, it's safer to buy vintage pieces in person because you can assess the condition of the item for yourself. You can find great items at local vintage clothing stores, as well as flea markets and thrift stores. However, the downside to shopping this way is that you are limited by the selection in your geographical area.

You can also shop online, but it's essential that you check the return policy for the store. You need to be able to see the piece for yourself and decide if it's right for you, and you don't want a financial penalty for deciding to return the item. If you're shopping online, consider the following retailers who have good return policies:

  • Rusty Zipper Vintage Clothing - Carrying both men's and women's vintage fashions from the 1940s through the 1990s, this store has a 15-day return policy for a full refund. You'll find a great selection of items, ranging from home-sewn clothing to garments with designer names.
  • C. Madeleine's - This designer vintage store specifies that all items are 100% authentic, and they accept returns within 24 hours if there is a specific reason. You'll find items from the 1920s through the 1990s, and you can shop by designer or by decade.

Buy What You Love

Whether you choose to wear your vintage purchases or display them as fashion art, there's a lot to know about clothing from other eras. Educating yourself is essential if you're going to be a serious collector, but the most important thing to remember is to buy what you love. That way, you'll always have a collection of which you'll be proud.

Collecting Vintage Clothing