Building a vintage closet, step 4: Can we please go shopping now?
Yes, yes we can! The first shopping post in this series deals with how to shop at vintage stores and estate sales. Whoa girl, you might be thinking, those are very different. They are! But there are a few reasons I want to start with them. First, building off last week’s post, where I talked about how your cost goes up as your effort goes down. It’s fun to see the difference first hand, and it helps you appreciate a good retail experience that much more when you’ve picked stuff yourself. Second, if you’re going to be an educated online buyer, it helps a lot if you actually see how things fit you, as well as fabrics and labels, before you buy something with only pictures.
How to shop estate sales
As I mentioned before, I am by no means an expert. I’ve only been doing this for a few years, so I know there are plenty of tips and tricks I don’t know. But this is what I do know. I find nearby sales using estatesales.net. It’s super easy to use and usually includes all the information you might need for each sale. There are three bits of information you’re looking for: location, terms, and contents. Location is pretty self-explanatory, but if you live in a large metropolitan area it’s sometimes worth it to check out sales that are further out of the city. As for terms, most sales accept cash only, though increasingly some accept credit cards with a threshold of anywhere from $25-$500. You are responsible for transporting your own purchases. Some negotiation is expected, unless it is the first hour of the first day of a sale and there are people waiting to get in, in which case you probably will have to take the price they quote you.
What’s this about waiting to get in? I can only speak to sales in the greater Los Angeles area, which is a competitive market. It’s not uncommon to show up at a sale, especially in a wealthy part of town, three hours before the stated start time and see a queue of 10 people in front of you, or many more than that if you show up 15 minutes before the stated sale time. You just have to take it and wait, or show up super early. Many companies that run estate sales have a numbers/list policy, and this basically means first come first served. Basically, whoever gets there first (in the morning, night before isn’t usually tolerated) starts a paper list, writes their name down as number 1, second person there puts their name as number 2, and so on. When the sale starts, the staff will generally let in the first 10 to 20 people, sometimes less if the house is small or very stuffed. Different companies have different rules, but that’s the gist. The waiting outside part is not particularly fun, especially if people are whiny about the list, or the parking, or someone who got to go in that they don’t like, or they try to intimidate the people who are standing around them. It is definitely a situation that triggers people’s fear of loss in a big way. But if you just chill, keep your eyes open and accept what the universe wants to give you, things will turn out fine. And that might be nothing. Many times I was the next person waiting at the door, and watched someone in front of me leave with a big pile of 1940s rayon or something, only to find nothing left I could use once I got inside. Or you are the first one inside, and you find that things you saw in the pictures were pre-sold or not what you expected. It’s fine. Some days you are that person who snags the pile of goodness. Most of the time it’s something in-between, you get two to eight good pieces that you may or may not be able to clean up. Prices vary; I’ve been to sales where all clothing was $2 each and some where dresses were $40.
And finally, the content. There is almost always something to find at an estate sale, even if it’s not what you’re looking for. This can be good if you don’t mind buying more stuff, but can be distracting if you’re on a budget. For me, as an enthusiast for all things old, I love going into people’s homes and seeing how they lived, taking in the little details to reconstruct their story. This is probably creepy, and I don’t care. The website usually provides not only a cursory description of what’s available, but often pictures as well. These pictures can be just where and as things are, so you have to use your imagination a bit to see if there’s anything worth going for. Things like furniture and art can give you contextual clues as to the taste level of people, so if a listing says “women’s vintage clothing” but there are none pictured and they seem to have nice stuff, it’s probably worth going.
I probably find actual 40s and 50s clothing at about 60% of the sales I go to, 60s is much much more common, and almost all have something from the 70s and 80s. Furs are pretty common, because they were an investment that women kept, though they might have jettisoned all their other clothes from that era. Ultimately, it’s a risk. Fun, but a risk. Once you get inside, you just have to dig around. Closets are the obvious choice, but there are sometimes boxes and trunks in a garage that store older items. This week I found an adorable late 1930s pinstripe suit buried in a box with a letter sweater of the same time period, just hanging out with some blankets. How they weren’t moth eaten I have no idea. You just never know what you might find.
When you do see something you’re interested in, pick it up. It’s not necessary at this time to fully inspect it, the preliminary goal is to gather everything that seems like it might be interesting or useful and sort it out later. Picking something up signals to other shoppers that you are interested and basically calling dibs until you put it down and walk away. You can start a small pile close to you that signals the same thing, but holding things is the best way to prevent them from being picked up by someone else. You can also go to the front of the sale where the staff is ringing people up and ask them to hold your items for you until you’re done shopping, but my FOMO usually prevents me from doing this if there are other people looking at clothes. When you’re convinced that you’ve picked up everything you’re interested in, then go ahead and inspect each item carefully. Things are probably not going to be in excellent or even good condition, but they are often easily fixed with some cleaning and mending, so learn to see past the dust and smells (we’ll learn how to deal with these later). On the other hand, you don’t want to start a repair box that sits in your garage for two years, either. Only choose things that you can fix or want badly enough to learn how to fix them.
But let’s say you have something specific in mind that you need. You’re looking for something to fill in those gaps in your wardrobe, or for your basic building blocks that will help you focus your style. I am severely blessed in Los Angeles to have so many incredible vintage boutiques available, and I know most folks are not this lucky. But if you do have one within an hour’s drive, pick a day and make the journey. Let’s go shopping!
Most shops are organized according to type or era or size. Some group all party dresses together, some group all, say, 60s together, and some sort by placing all smalls/mediums/larges together, or some combination of these. Often, the shop owner or shopgirl will greet you and explain their grouping and tagging, but if they don’t, go ahead and ask for help getting acclimated, if there’s someone available. Take some time to browse through all the sections, and take special care when handling vintage garments. Never pull on a garment from the bottom or middle, as this puts stress on the seams and closures. Try to gather as much information as you can from the garment in place – the fabric, size, description and price – as this information is often visible or on the tag already. If you see something you’re interested in, go ahead and gently take the hanger off the rack and let the shopgirl know you’d like to try it on (or repeat until you have several things). And for goodness sake, if she tells you something like “You know, this is much smaller than it looks, I’m not sure this is going to fit you,” PLEASE listen to her and do not be offended. She has the best interests of both you and the garment at heart and is not trying to insult you. You certainly don’t want to split a seam on anything, whether or not you intend to purchase it.
To that point, remember your measurements? They’re somewhat less important when you can try things on, but if there’s a waist size listed on a garment tag and you’re any larger, you’ll only be setting yourself up for disappointment if you try it on, either because it won’t fit, or you might damage it. Either way, no bueno. Be realistic with what you can fit into. Remember the foundation garments, from before? Do try to wear them or bring them with you when you try on clothes. Seems obvious, but I almost always forget. Same goes for clothes that are too big. If you really love something but it’s too big, ask if the shop can recommend a tailor and whether they think it can be altered. It helps me to keep in mind that I don’t have to wear all the things, that for every piece that is too big or too small for me, there is another one that will be just right.
Most vintage boutiques are not places for negotiation on price. Some are more willing to offer you a deal if you buy a lot, but most won’t, especially if their prices are low to begin with. It’s certainly not something I ask for, but have been offered if I seem particularly in love with a piece.
Where to shop
These are my go-to spots in Southern California:
3100 W Magnolia Blvd
Burbank, CA 91505
Paper Moon Vintage
4516 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
105 W Chapman Ave
Orange, CA 92866