How to Shop for Vintage Clothes: Beginner’s Guide

Dominique de Merteuil By Dominique de Merteuil11 min read

Last updated on January 30th, 2024 at 05:23 pm

How and where to shop for vintage clothes are the two questions people always ask when I give a talk on the subject of vintage fashion.

The topic of procuring vintage clothing requires a detailed explanation, often with visuals, and there is never enough time to go through it at an event. So I finally decided to put pen to paper and write a beginner’s guide to shopping for vintage clothes, to satisfy everyone’s curiosity.

In this article, you will learn tips and pitfalls to avoid when shopping for that dream vintage garment, places to buy it and more.

1920s shopping

ARE YOU READY FOR YOUR VINTAGE SHOPPING JOURNEY?

Image courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library, @Mary Evans Picture Library. You can find this and many other wonderful vintage pictures at www.maryevans.com and purchase a copy at www.prints-online.com


Definition of Vintage Clothing

What is considered vintage when it comes to clothes?

Many define a garment as vintage if it is 20 years old, but some consider clothing as vintage if it predates the 90s. The term ‘vintage’ has replaced ‘second-hand’ to make it more appealing to buyers. In the vintage community, the term ‘true vintage’ distinguishes garments from the 1930s-1950s from those from the 90s and 00s. In the picture, I’m wearing a true vintage Handmacher suit from 1953.
Vintage outfit ideas for spring.


DISCLOSURE: I’m part of an affiliate program, and I get a commission when you purchase a product through the links in this post. That’s how I keep my website alive, for which I’m very grateful to you. Shopping via my affiliate links comes at no additional cost to you. All opinions expressed here are mine, and I only recommend products I love.


Benefits of Buying Vintage Clothes

There are numerous reasons why so many of us choose to buy vintage clothes over contemporary pieces. If I were to mention just a few, it would be the beautiful design, superior quality, craftsmanship, and attention to detail. In my opinion, back in the 1940s and the 1950s, even cheaper brands and manufacturers produced clothes made of better quality materials than what we see in the shops today.

Benefits of Shopping for Vintage Clothes:

  • Unique and one-of-a-kind style
  • High-quality craftsmanship
  • Sustainability and eco-friendly aspects
  • Affordable compared to luxury fashion

Beautiful 1950s Dresses


Tips for Successful Vintage Shopping

Diving into the world of vintage can be overwhelming for beginners. Fear not, this beginner’s guide will equip you with all the essential tips and tricks to successfully navigate the exciting realm of timeless treasures.

Rebekka Adams, the owner of Bloomers and Frocks vintage shop, gave great advice to first-time buyers on shopping for vintage clothes.

If you have never worn vintage before, I recommend visiting a reputable shop and trying on garments from all eras to find which decades works with your body. For example, 1950s works with curvier women, 1920s-30s and 1970s work well for straighter silhouettes.When purchasing vintage garments make sure to turn the garment inside out to look for holes or discoloration, and do so in good lighting. Find a window in shops or take into sunlight if available.Make sure all zippers and buttons work. Reputable dealers will make sure that they have good quality so that your pieces will last for many more decades. Finally, ask your dealer how to clean your garments. Cleaning instructions will not be found on older garments and some items are dry clean only.

Rebekka Adams from Bloomers and Frocks

It’s not always possible to visit a vintage shop in person. Here is a tip from the wonderful Lauren Ricci of Bride of the Fox vintage shop on buying vintage clothes online.


Most importantly: to thine own self be true. For example, if you aren’t a dress person and prefer trousers, vintage Yves Saint Laurent and Jean Paul Gaultier are perfect for you. There are beautiful vintage clothes out there for everyone.
Secondly, know your measurements and always double-check them when buying a garment online. Third, when buying online ask questions. Ask about the condition if it isn’t clear in the description. Something else that new buyers need to know and inquire about when buying is that vintage garments fit differently than modern clothing.
Armholes may be smaller. Torsos may be shorter. This is where knowing your measurements come into play. You may also want to find a good tailor or alterations expert.
My last bit of advice is to buy high-quality pieces in excellent condition. I prefer quality over quantity in my own collection. Luckily one of the best aspects of vintage is that you can find high quality at affordable prices.

Lauren Ricci of Bride of the Fox

In the picture, I’m wearing a high-quality woollen skirt suit from the 1940s, which I found in Lauren’s shop on Etsy.

All of my 1940s clothes made of wool keep me warm in winter.

Take a look at my article for more tips on how to dress in vintage when it’s cold.

How to dress vintage when it's cold

The most important steps to shop for vintage clothes:

  • Determine your personal style and preferences. Are you a 1920s flapper girl, a 1930s socialite, a 1940s femme fatale, or perhaps a 1950s pin-up girl?
  • Understand different vintage eras and their distinct features
  • Research reputable vintage stores and online platforms
  • Set a budget for your vintage shopping. It’s easy to get carried away
  • Pay attention to the condition and quality of vintage garments, especially if you are not keen on doing alterations.

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The information presented will be extremely useful to anyone new to this area.


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If you are not familiar with the silhouettes of the 1940s, this article is definitely for you.

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Take Accurate Body Measurements When Shopping for Vintage Clothes

Tips on how to shop for vintage clothes – It’s all in the measurements.

I’ve been buying, wearing and writing about vintage clothes for a couple of decades now, and if I could give you just one piece of advice on shopping for vintage clothing, it would be, to know your measurements!

Before purchasing your first vintage outfit, it’s important to remember that vintage sizes differ greatly from contemporary ones. And most of the time, there won’t even be a size tag attached to the garment.


How to Measure Yourself When Shopping for Vintage Clothes

When shopping for vintage clothes online, you will find that the seller gives the measurements of the actual garment lying flat. What it means is that you have to be at least 2 inches smaller than the garment you want to purchase.

Here are all the measurements you will need to know before buying a vintage garment to ensure a proper fit:

how to shop for vintage clothes

BASIC MEASUREMENTS:

  • bust and under-bust
  • waist
  • hips
  • shoulder-to-shoulder edge
  • shoulder to waist seam
  • waist to hem
  • shoulder to hem
  • armhole depth
  • bicep measurement

PRO TIP FOR BUYING VINTAGE CLOTHES!

A lot of the beautiful 1950s dresses marked as ‘Junior’ tend to have a shorter torso, so make sure to know the length of your torso and the shoulder-to-waist measurement of the dress you want to buy.

In the picture, I’m wearing a 1950s ‘Junior’ dress that almost fits me. 🙂

vintage fashion blog

1940s fashion - femme fatale (2)

THE SHOULDER-TO-SHOULDER MEASUREMENT IS A MUST WHEN BUYING VINTAGE

If you have broad shoulders a la Joan Crawford, which applies to me, the shoulder-to-shoulder measurement is one of the most important ones when shopping for vintage clothes, particularly when looking for a 1930s gown. So many of them have a shoulder width that only a little girl could fit.

Remember that some sellers don’t put the shoulder-to-shoulder measurement in the listing and you must e-mail them about it.

What Vintage Clothes to Buy When You Are a Vintage Novice-Expert Advice

Dana, of Victory Girl Vintage recommends building on the wardrobe you already have.

Wearing head-to-toe vintage isn’t for everyone, but mixing vintage and modern is a great way to create a unique look. For example, wearing a vintage kimono or robe with a modern t-shirt and jeans can actually look very fashion-forward. Coats are also a great first-time vintage buy because when you wear them with a modern look it doesn’t scream vintage.
I always say don’t be afraid to stand out! You might feel a bit self-conscious stepping out of your comfort zone but people will admire you for being unique.

Dana of Victory Girl Vintage

best vintage shops on Etsy

 I suggest dipping your toes in with an accessory. Perhaps an evening clutch, or a silk scarf. Next, I would say a coat. My Mom never wore vintage until she tried on a gorgeous 50s swing coat. It was charcoal grey with a black velvet collar. The quality is beyond anything you can buy today. I tell women you would have to spend thousands of dollars to get the same level of quality in a new garment. It’s true. My Mom has since worn a beaded 1940s rayon cocktail dress to my brother’s wedding and wears vintage dresses for special occasions. 


NappaValleyVintage formerly Crush Vintage

The advice I would give someone who is starting their vintage collection is: Buy What You Love and Buy It Right Away. Don’t hesitate. If something speaks to you, get it. Vintage right now is so hot, and the good things get snapped up quickly. You can start with coats, jewellery, handbags, whatever you need to enhance your wardrobe. Oh…and keep your measurements handy!

NapaValleyVintage
best vintage shops on Etsy

PRO TIP!

If your budget doesn’t permit you to buy a 1930s or 1950s dress, search for 1970s dresses instead. You will find that many of them were inspired by the past decades, and they cost a fraction of the price.


how to wear vintage clothes and look modern

Vintage clothing effortlessly complements modern wardrobes, offering endless styling possibilities. Mix vintage finds with contemporary pieces to create unique and inspiring outfits that showcase your individuality.

Learn how to mix vintage with contemporary fashion!


What to Look for When Shopping for Vintage Clothes!


vintage fashion blogger Dominique de Merteuil in an article about shopping for vintage clothes.

What to Look for When Shopping for Vintage!


1. What to look for when shopping for vintage clothes in a brick-and-mortar shop.

When you buy vintage clothes in a brick-and-mortar shop, pay close attention to the stitching, buttons, and overall construction of the piece.

Avoid garments with signs of obvious damage or excessive wear and tear, as they may be difficult or even impossible to repair.

Don’t forget that a broken zipper or a missing button in a beautiful 1940s suit, in otherwise great condition, is an easy fix and should not necessarily deter you from buying it.

However, think twice before entertaining the notion of purchasing a vintage dress or a jacket you like that happens to have big moth holes all over the garment. Remember that a big hole in vintage clothing equals a big problem, a small hole can be fixed even without sewing.


Bo-Nash Fuse It Powder review

LEARN HOW TO FIX A HOLE IN VINTAGE CLOTHES WITHOUT SEWING!

ESSENTIALS FOR YOUR PRECIOUS VINTAGE CLOTHES



It’s better to buy one dream vintage garment in good condition than four that will require a lot of work. A well-preserved vintage garment will serve you for years to come.


2. What to look for when shopping for vintage online

It takes a bit of experience and a keen eye for detail to find great vintage clothes online that are not only in good vintage condition but are also reasonably priced.

  • Look for vintage clothes and accessories with detailed pictures
  • If the garment has a lining, ask for a picture of it
  • Ask if there are any tags attached to the garment, if yes, request pictures. This will help you to establish/make sure when the garment was made. There are a lot of 1970s clothes online dated incorrectly and listed and priced as a garment from the 1940s. I would like to refer you to my article on how to date vintage clothing.
  • Once again, please remember that the measurements in the listing are of the vintage garment. Make sure that you are at least a couple of inches smaller. For the last couple of years, I’ve been buying vintage clothes that are one or even two sizes too big to avoid any disappointments with the fit. If the dress or suit is way too big, I cinch the waist with a belt, which always looks great.
  • Look for the “Dry Cleaned and ready to wear” line in the description, as it will save you a lot of money and the headache of finding a reputable dry cleaner who is experienced in handling vintage clothes.
  • I highly recommend that you buy Eucalan detergent for vintage garments that can have contact with water.

I use Eucalan, jasmine and lavender are my favourite scents, for all my vintage clothes that can be hand-washed. It’s also my No1 no-rinse detergent for washing lingerie! Eucalan smells divine and it’s very gentle on both, the clothes and the skin. I’m prone to severe allergic reactions and have to be extremely careful with detergents, make-up and beauty products. I’m happy to inform you that Eucalan is 100% safe for me to use!


EUCALAN JASMINE, LAVENDER, EUCALYPTUS & GRAPEFRUIT



best detergent for delicates 2023

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Find out how to clean & hand wash vintage clothes the proper way!


READ THE DESCRIPTION OF THE VINTAGE GARMENT CAREFULLY

Evaluate the condition of the garment, including any stains, odours, or minor damages. Many imperfections can be easily addressed through simple restoration techniques like laundry, mending, or alterations. However, be cautious of major damages that may affect the piece’s wearability or be too difficult to mend.

WARNING! Perspiration stains are very difficult to remove.

Once you find and buy your dream vintage outfit, learn how to take care of vintage clothes properly.

how to take care of vintage clothes

Where to Shop for Vintage Clothes

Embrace the Thrill of the Hunt for Vintage Clothes!


Compared to shopping at department stores, vintage shopping is an adventure in itself. The experience involves exploring local thrift stores, flea markets, consignment shops, vintage fairs and online platforms. The excitement lies in the unpredictability of finding that one-of-a-kind piece that speaks to you. So, abandon your preconceived notions and embrace the thrill of the hunt!

I used to buy a lot of my vintage clothes at Vintage Fairs in London, but for the past decade, I’ve been shopping for vintage, mainly on Etsy, directly from vintage sellers on Instagram and through vintage-thrifting, as I call it. My American friends keep finding amazing vintage items at Value Village stores across the USA. Next time you’re nearby, check it out and you may discover a hidden treasure.

Vintage fairs in London I recommend:

  1. Clerkenwell Vintage Fashion Fair
  2. Frock Me Vintage Fair
  3. P&A Antiques
  4. Hammersmith Vintage Fair
  5. Portobello Road Market is best to visit on Fridays and Saturdays and, while not strictly a vintage fair, is a great place to search for vintage clothing and accessories.

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Where to shop for vintage clothes

And remember, vintage clothes are usually one-offs so don’t wait too long before you click the ‘add to basket button. Vintage waits for no one! Buy now or regret later.

Vintage fashion blog. 1950s outfit ideas.

VINTAGE WAITS FOR NO ONE!

Keeping Vintage Clothes in Good Condition

When you finally acquire your desired vintage items, it’s important to maintain them properly to ensure their longevity for another decade or more. I have written several detailed articles on this subject, which you can find in the Vintage Fashion Tips section of my blog.

Happy vintage shopping!

Dominique x


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3 Comments
  • Denise goldhagen
    January 3, 2024

    Hi I’ve been in the vintage business for 28 years shops etsy shows on the road if u are ever in Saratoga springs ny PLZZZZZ come see my shop 192-1980!!! Instagram….the vintage shop Saratoga love what u have written!! Yours Denise

  • Kate
    September 4, 2023

    Very useful tips, as always! I never paid much attention to the shoulder-to-shoulder measurement until I bought a late 1930 dress with my measurements plus a bit of room BUT… the shoulders were tiny! My much younger sister ended up wearing it. Oh well, lesson learned.