Building a vintage closet, Step 1: Who are you?
I dress in vintage clothes and accessories every single day. I do it for a number of reasons, including the fact that vintage fits better, is higher quality for what I can afford and it’s often unique. And let’s face it, I’m cheap. I don’t like to pay gobs of money for mass-produced clothing, copies of which are available to everyone, when I have to mess with getting it tailored anyway, and it will look dated (in a bad way) in two years. New clothing is perfectly fine for most folks, but the thought of adding to demand for new goods that will end up being discarded soon turns my stomach.
I often get stared at, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not so good. I often hear things like “I wish I could do that.” Well, ladies, you can. I dare you to read this article by Rebecca Emily Darling on Huffington Post and not want to build your own vintage wardrobe. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Let’s assume that you’re already convinced. Let’s assume that you too value history and mystery and construction and glamour, and are ready to start building your own vintage wardrobe. Where do you start? I admit that I haven’t been doing this for very long – just about three years – but I’ve learned a great deal in those few years. As a concept, vintage clothing is more popular and visible than ever, and this sword cuts both ways. On one hand, we’re maybe not as weird as we would have been ten years ago. People are starting to get it, and dressing vintage is way cooler than it was back then, and there are many more vintage sellers and shops than there used to be. The downside of this is that old supply and demand thing: the supply of vintage is finite, and as demand grows, price increases.
But you can do it if you want to. You can build a working vintage closet for the same amount of money (or less) that you would spend on a new one, and look – in my opinion – infinitely more fabulous. This series will help you identify your wardrobe needs, define your personal style, assess your assets, edit, and ultimately start building your vintage wardrobe.
Ready to get started?
Step 1: Start with known factors
Vintage clothing is about more than beaded ball gowns and cocktail dresses. Women in the 40s and 50s had to run errands too, and there’s a lot to choose from in terms of everyday vintage style. So take a moment to think about the places you already go where you have to wear clothes, the people you interact with, your age, lifestyle, and basic temperament.
Sidenote: it took me several years to build up my wardrobe to the point where I was wearing only vintage. And even as I write this, I’m wearing newer denim. My point is that you’re never “done” with this project. The goal is just to help you save time and anguish when you open your closet to get dressed, so you can go out in confidence and joy and change the world however you see fit. Whether that includes modern or reproduction clothes is totally up to you and the style you build out of this process.
So, what are your answers? Write them down somewhere you can take a look at them later.
Where do you wear clothes?
How would you describe your body?*
What’s your favorite restaurant?
Are you a warm or cool person?
What’s your favorite decade or historic style?
Fave colors, including neutrals?
How would you describe your wardrobe right now?
Whose style do you admire?
*NO judgment here. This is a factual assessment, nothing more. It’s not the place for “but I’d like to be…” Learn first to dress the body you have now. Wanting to improve is great, but right now it’s distracting.
Here’s mine for an example:
- I work full-time in a casual office at a small tech company near the beach, go out in the evenings sometimes to casual spots, very few formal events, mostly running errands or working on the house on the weekends
- Soft hourglass, short
- Sage vegan bistro – outdoor patio with trees, recycled furniture, fantastic food
- New Orleans
- Claire McCardell
- Warm all the way
- 1946-1949: this was before the 1950s really took hold and there was still a lot of postwar futurism and promise for equality, though it ultimately didn’t materialize
- Autumn neutrals: rust, browns, tan; but also black
- In flux as I get older, weeding out dramatic pieces and focusing on comfort
- See #5
From this information, we can build a basic framework. I need mostly casual daywear that supports movement and isn’t too restrictive. Despite my obsession with suits, I don’t work in any environment where they’re necessary (or even appropriate, for that matter), so they’re more like a hobby for me that I wear to vintage shows. When we do go out, it’s only slightly more formal than work, so cocktail dresses aren’t really needed. I do keep a handful of formal dresses on hand, but no more than three cocktail length and three gown length. As a nearly-middle-aged woman, I don’t own any short skirts or frilly dresses, not because I think older women should never wear them, but I just don’t feel comfortable in them. And comfort is as much a part of this journey as fashion. I tend to favor more durable fabrics like cotton, linen, wool and twill, and not so much silk or rayon unless it’s rayon jersey. If you don’t have such preferences yet, that’s ok. We’re just trying to get a big picture right now for what you need as part of your daily wardrobe. We’re building a framework, a road map. Once you get familiar with the process, you can start a new path or make your own guidelines, but for now, we’re building that foundation.
So once you have three answers firmly in mind, start pinning. Pin what you like to a ‘my style’ board, keeping in mind your answers above. Don’t worry about directly applying anything yet, we’re just building your visual language. If you already have a my style board and feel confident about it, start analyzing it.
What themes jump out at you? Are you constantly pinning full skirts or wide leg trousers? Write down some common themes, including colors, shapes, accessories (or lack thereof), decade, and context (for example, are you only pinning ball gowns? probably want to branch out into daywear). This is my style board.
Some common themes for me? Fitted waists, late 1940s styles, turbans, wrap necklines, wide leg slacks, no prints, interesting details, skirts below the knee. This is after a long time of editing, trying, and focusing my style – at first I pinned anything that caught my eye, from couture ball gowns to 1930s beach pajamas. I still love the beauty of those things, and I do wear beach pajamas sometimes because duh, but they don’t make up the core of my style. Distractions from that core not only mean unfocused style, but more importantly they mean wasted money, when you buy something just because it looks amazing and then you never wear it (unless you’re buying just to collect, which is outside the scope here).
Keep pinning and honing your taste, and follow No Accounting for Taste for some (p)inspiration and a peek at our topic for next time: Defining your style.
Hello! I’m so glad to have found you and your blog! For years I’ve told myself I would replace most of my closet with vintage clothing but other than the odd dress, I haven’t really made the effort until this summer. I’m living in France right now which makes it a little difficult – all the good things on etsy seem to be in the US so I spend a lot on shipping! I’m going to have to stock up when I come back to Los Angeles. Anyway, question for you… I’ve been having trouble finding good cigarette pants (Audrey Hepburn style). I’ve found a few people who make them from patterns on etsy but they don’t give them pockets (and I would really like pockets… is that period? It’s hard to tell in the photos of Audrey but I thought I saw pockets) and they also aren’t as fitted near the ankle. I also wonder about the quality of material when I see reproductions online (which have the same fitting problem, though). Do you know a good and affordable tailor in L.A. who might be able to make this sort of thing? Or somewhere I can find authentic pants in this style? Thank you for your time!