Build a vintage closet

Building a vintage closet, preamble to part 4: Before you shop

Many vintage and antique aficionados will tell you that one of the best parts is the joy of finding the thing you’re looking for. We all love to get a good deal, a good score, and the difficulty of finding treasures leads to a greater degree of satisfaction when they’re found, and subsequently worn. Hunting and gathering clothing can make you more grateful for, invested in, and mindful of what you buy and wear.

So how do you do it?

There are several ways. I use eBay, Etsy, online vintage shops, local brick and mortar vintage shops, flea markets, estate sales and local vintage shows as my primary means of acquiring clothing and accessories. There are also thrift shops, Facebook, higher end online websites like (which I also don’t use because I can’t afford it). I also use Instagram a lot, and I love the sales that pop up from time to time. Great bargains can be scored there, if you’re handy with a needle and thread, or don’t mind a few spots here and there. These are wonderful if you’re just starting out buying vintage because the investment and risk is low, helpful when you’re still figuring out what works best for you, as most online sellers do not allow returns.

But before we go shopping, there are a few things we need to address.

1. Foundation garments. 

I cannot stress enough the importance of foundation garments, especially if you’re looking at more form-fitting styles. Vintage and antique clothing assumed the presence of corsets, girdles, waist nippers, longline bras, or some kind of full-body shape wear. If this sounds uncomfortable and/or anti-feminist to you, I totally get it. I was a women’s studies major. I know. Women are liberated! We’re no longer bound by artificial constraints to conform to shapes that appeal to men and restrict our movement! I know. But there’s another way to look at these things: we have a choice. As women, we can choose to go out in public in yoga pants, tee shirts and ballet flats, wearing little more underneath than some cotton undies and a bra without an underwire. We have the freedom to wear essentially whatever we want, and I appreciate that freedom. And if that’s what you feel best and most confident and free in, then girl, you go. But I feel best and most confident and yes, free, in my vintage girdle. It’s not too tight and it smoothes to give me the best shape under my clothes. I do have a corset, and a waist nipper, and a longline bra, but I don’t wear them all the time; I believe in some kind of compromise between not being able to take full and deep breaths, and being bulgy and uncomfortable. Although a simple girdle will do, I recommend a good long line bra and a high waist leg shaper, because they work for pants as well as skirts and dresses. Be sure that you’re wearing the right size bra – there are lots of guides and images on Pinterest floating around about how you’re probably wearing the wrong bra size. Use them. [2017 update: I have let a lot of this go. I love a longline bra and for certain garments I wear a waist nipper, but other than that, I rely on good tailoring and fabrics and just don’t care that much anymore about achieving a particular shape.] 

2. Know thy measurements.

If there’s anything more important than foundation garments, it’s being intimately familiar with one’s measurements. The most important three are your bust, waist, and hip. Secondary to that are your torso and shoulder measurements. First, measure around the fullest part of your bust with a proper bra on. Second, measure the thinnest part of your waist at rest, standing up. Then, measure the fullest part of your hip. Finally, measure the distance between your shoulders. Do you feel those bones at the tip of your shoulders? Measure between them; it’s easier to do it in front. Finally, measure from your shoulder to your waist. This is your bodice length. Memorize these numbers and remember to bring your measuring tape with you when you go shopping.

3. A note about price

If you’ve done any vintage shopping at all, you’ve noticed that price varies wildly depending on where you shop. Roughly, in order of most expensive to least, it goes something like this:

  1. Retail (either brick and mortar stores, dealers at shows that specialize in quality vintage, or online boutiques of the same quality)
  2. Etsy
  3. Flea markets (at least in Los Angeles, prices can be fairly high)
  4. Ebay
  5. Thrift stores
  6. Estate sales

Now, there can be some overlap in price between these for sure. This is just a general guide, ascending in price as your effort decreases. Basically, the more work you have to put in to find something, the lower your cost, and the difference in cost between say, a thrift store and a good vintage store can be two or three times as much. You might be wondering, what’s the deal? If I can find the same dress at a thrift store, why would I pay two or three times as much on Etsy or at a brick and mortar vintage store?

The answer is fairly straightforward. Aside from the fact that these days you will probably not find the same dress at a thrift store, you are paying for the time, effort, love and expertise of the seller. You are paying for them to stand in line outside in the cold for two hours at an estate sale with sometimes weird and/or hostile people and dig through piles of nonsense, to know what to pull out of the pile, how to clean it, fix it, date it, photograph it, and tell its story. When you shop at a vintage retail store, you are paying not only for the garment itself, but also the overhead that allows that store to be there for your convenience, for the expertise and advice and fellowship you get from the people working there, for the confidence in knowing that you have a quality garment that is what they say it is.

I try not to get angry at folks I overhear at shops (with reasonable vintage prices) make snide comments about how much cheaper their local thrift store is. You know why it’s cheaper? Because to get something good, you have to spend time digging through racks of modern mass-produced bullshit that cannot match what you see here in terms of quality and style, if you find anything good at all. If you happen to live in a place that doesn’t really value vintage clothing that much and you do have a great thrift store where you can always find something, lucky you! Shop there and revel in how much better you have it than us poor saps on the coasts. But please, don’t belittle a vintage shop owner’s effort and investment, because they know what things are worth in the wider market and they work hard to curate a good collection, so shop with them when you want something special and reliable. I try not to get angry at these folks because it’s not really their fault; the prevailing wisdom in our society is that cheap is good, getting a bargain is good, and getting a bargain means paying as little as possible for something. I look at a lot of advertising from the 40s and 50s, and the prices on the clothing was astonishing, and not just the things in Vogue. For example, take the 1959 advertisement in the image above. It’s from a mid-priced Southern California department store, and you can see that dresses are in the $25 range, better dresses in the $35 range, and juniors $10. This basic shirtwaist dress, presumably worn for daily casual activities, would cost about $200 in today’s dollars. The junior’s dress is nearly $100. While there is certainly clothing that costs that much today, it’s difficult to imagine everyday clothing at that price being worked into most people’s budgets these days. These things were meant to last, and last they have. So I hope that if you haven’t already, you will come to redefine the word “bargain” for yourself, if you currently are of the mind that bargain is synonymous with low price. This isn’t to say that women in the 1950s didn’t love a bargain. But take this super duper sale advertisement:

Screenshot 2015-01-28 23.35.48

This ad is from 1958, also near Los Angeles. The cheapest casual day dresses are regularly $20 (about $165 in today’s dollars), and on super duper birthday gift sale, they’re $5.29 (about $45 today). Compare this with H&M, where sale dresses are in the $10-$20 range, full price often as low as $25. So when you see a 1950s day dress in good condition listed at $75, if it fits your body and style and you love it, you are getting a bargain. At twice that price for something special, you are getting an investment piece. Though they may have some minor flaws, they will last longer in terms of style and construction if you care for them well. Of course you’ll find $30 bargains every now and then, and you’ll be thrilled. But the more realistic your expectations are, the more pleasant and efficient your shopping will be. It’s quality, not quantity.

Hopefully, all this information isn’t too daunting and you’re still on board to create or refresh your vintage closet. It’s a lot of fun, I swear.

Next: Let’s Go Shopping. 

in January 29, 2015

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  • janeray1940 January 29, 2015 at 7:29 pm

    Oh, the price thing! Although I wear mostly vintage-repro rather than true vintage these days, I know full well that either of these will cost more than off-the-rack – and will be worth it. I mostly wear dresses handmade by Etsy seller Let’s Backtrack. My boss once asked how much I pay for them – at the time, the seller’s dresses were around $70 each (the’ve gone up a wee bit, and rightfully so – worth every penny and then some). My boss was absolutely shocked, and her response was “I would never pay more than $40 for a dress. At TJ Max I usually find them for under $25.” I had to bite my tongue to not respond “Yeah, and they look like it…” 🙂

    • Jessica Parker January 30, 2015 at 1:52 am

      Ha, exactly!. I have some repro stuff as well, and some of it also handmade by Etsy or other sellers with vintage patterns. I LOVE supporting them and their work. How long will that $25 dress last you? What is the global cost of having it made? And yes, how does it affect how others perceive you? If I want to be perceived as organized, creative and smart, I should probably dress like it.

      An excellent point, thanks!

  • Rebecca January 30, 2015 at 1:30 am

    Another informative post! I know you’re probably winding up to this but now that I have a half a closet filled with vintage things I’m getting worried about caring for them/washing them, etc. I hope we get to hear some of your expertise on that too 🙂

    • Jessica Parker January 30, 2015 at 1:43 am

      Thank you, and yes! That will be coming. I’ve learned so much from experienced sellers in the community about garment care, and there are many good resources out there already, but that’s absolutely something I have planned 🙂


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