Vintage Clothing 101

When I was in third grade, I was cast as the grandmother in our class play. When I told my mother I needed a little old lady costume, she took me to this old Victorian house in downtown Colorado Springs. The stairs creaked as we climbed the front porch. Inside, the light was dim and the place smelled like a musty old attic. Everywhere I looked, in what had once been the main living areas of the house, were row upon row of outdated clothes, hats, and shoes — like the kind my great grandmother and great aunt still wore.

This was my introduction to vintage clothing.

It wasn’t a good one. At the age of eight, I couldn’t begin to fathom why anyone would wear stuff like this. Why walk around looking decades out of style ON PURPOSE? It just didn’t make any sense. For the next twenty years, whenever someone said, “vintage clothing,” that musty-smelling house in the Springs came to mind.

My opinion changed in the early 90’s. That’s when my boss’s sister opened a vintage clothing store near Clemson University, in their home state of South Carolina. Pat would tell me how quickly those college students would wipe out Nancy’s inventory, forcing her on a constant quest to re-stock the store. Nancy had even stooped to running a “We Pay Cash for Old Clothing” ad in the local obituary pages, and scored a big hit when one of the grand old families in the area called her after their matriarch died. The old gal had worn couture for nearly sixty years but had never thrown anything out. Nancy paid $2,000 for the lot and promptly resold all of it in her store, pocketing nearly $40,000 in a week.

Anne Hathaway in Vintage Chanel
Photo courtesy of

That was the first time it occurred to me that there might be more to this vintage clothing thing than meets the eye.

Turns out there is – A LOT more.

So why do people wear vintage?

There are lots of reasons, including:

1. Great Workmanship

Once upon a time, quality workmanship was the rule. Beautiful linings, elegant closures, finished seams – it was how clothes were made “back in the day.” Today you pay extra for beautifully finished apparel.

2. Unique Look

Some people prefer vintage because they feel the old styles best express their viewpoint. Others pair vintage pieces with newer styles for a unique look. Still others want a one-of-a-kind look for a big party or event without the one-of-a-kind price tag that typically goes with it. Vintage helps them do that.

3. Classic Styling

Great styles are great styles whether they were conceived last week or two generations ago. If you like to watch old movies like I do, you’ll notice that many of the day suits and evening gowns from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s are as chic today as they were when they debuted. Want an easy way to capture some “Old Hollywood” glamour? Wear some Old Hollywood-era pieces.

4. Old School Accessories

Once upon a time, a woman wasn’t properly dressed unless she wore a hat and gloves when she left the house. You could tell she had “married well” if her husband gave her a parure [puh-roor] (matching suite of jewels), and you knew she traveled frequently if she had a matching set of luggage. Today, few women bother with any of these accessories – which means that those who do really stand out.

5. Cost Effective

Love designer clothes but not the price tag that goes with them? Then look to vintage for your designer fix. You’ll get the brand name and the designer look WITHOUT the current season price. Opt for simple lines and classic styling for a timeless look.

6. Going Green

Wearing old styles is one of the easiest ways to get on board with the green movement. Why buy new when you can recycle old?

So is everything that’s not current season considered vintage? No. Technically, here’s the age breakdown:

Antique – anything prior to 1920. Most antique clothing is bought to display in a collection, not to wear. Antique jewelry can be worn or displayed.

Vintage – anything from the 1920 to 1980.

Modern or contemporary – anything produced in the last 25 years.

The easiest way to look for great vintage pieces is to surf the ‘Net. You can learn about different eras and designers and start to get an idea of what constitutes a “great” deal. Here are some places to look:

Vintage clothing is great way to get a unique look, often for a fraction of modern day one-of-a-kind items. With a little persistence and an eye towards the classics, you can find great looks at great prices. Remember: value never goes out of style.

Need some help finding the best vintage clothing looks for your body shape and clothing personality? Download a copy of WARDROBE MAGIC to see how easy dressing well can be;.

Wardrobe Magic

1 Comment

  • Shel

    Reply Reply September 23, 2010

    I picked up a vintage mini parure of immaculate colored rhinestones (1940s) from a second hand shop and the compliments never stop! Necklace, earrings, brooch, and bracelet. Also, I shop at a cast-off shop and it’s so true about finding “timeless looks.” Some things really never do go out of style.

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