Vintage clothing shows are something I wait for and save for a few very special times a year. I have no concept of whether these things occur outside of California and New York, but they’re pretty magical. Los Angeles has a few per year, two really big ones and a few smaller ones throughout the year. The Vintage Fashion Expo just happened this past weekend and as always I went over budget. It was dumb. But you get in an environment that is just full of the very thing you crave and it’s like a concentrated, pure drug. Basically I walk into the showroom and each time I feel like this:
I BARELY restrained myself from buying a perfectly fitted Lilli Ann suit for over $500. That’s how stupid I get. Note, I do not have $500 to spend on a suit. I was going to take some great photos for this post, but when I started taking them, my camera told me that I’d left the memory card at home. Worst. Blogger. Ever. So how many photos do I have? Four. That I took (or someone in the dressing room took) with my phone.
But the tips I have don’t really require supporting imagery. Let me say up front that I’m probably not a very smart expo shopper. I don’t negotiate that well, I almost always go over budget, and I’m sure I miss out on a lot of good stuff. But I kind of feel like the most important things to get out of these shows are to find one or two really good and special buys, build relationships with vendors and/or other enthusiasts, and build some hunting skills and knowledge. So here’s how I approach shows.
I take one brief spin around the room and see who’s here and where to revisit. I’ve been doing this long enough that I know what vendors I can and can’t afford. Skirt Chaser Vintage (now local in LA!) and Elsewhere Vintage (Orange, CA) are two of my staples, along with a few others that I know will always have something I love and can afford. Some vendors focus on 70s and 80s high end designer labels (one woman came into the dressing room with a $3000 gown and $5000 matching cloak from the 1980s), some have extremely high end Hawaiian and tiki and sell rare blouses for over $300. They might be worth it, but that doesn’t make me have that much money. So I do a quick pass to see where my best prospects are, checking out some price tags to see if they’re generally in the $80 range or the $300+ range. I might buy three things in the $80 range, or one thing in the $300 range. Know your limits and stick to them.
Actually, my first tip is to save up for these things in advance. Shows are not flea markets; they are not the best places to find a bargain (though you sometimes do). They are for adding quality pieces to the core of your wardrobe or collection. I typically start saving 2-3 months in advance, usually about $300, so I can spend without guilt. I see people there spending $500-$1000 at multiple vendors, and that’s great for both of them. But comparison is the thief of joy, and I like to be overjoyed at my finds and staying somewhat close to my budget.
As with any vintage shopping situation, you do have to dig through the racks a little. Mind your manners – don’t tug on clothing from the bottom and try to put it back gently where you found it. Bring a tape measure and remember your measurements. If you forget, and a waist measurement isn’t noted, there’s a trick that works for me: I hold the waist of the garment up to my neck. If the waist held flat goes all the way around, it will probably fit. I’ve heard that this doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for me. When you find something you like, shows often (but not always) have dressing rooms. You may have to leave a credit card and/or ID with the vendor to go try something on. If a changing room is provided, it will most likely be communal (just the ladies, though. Men have their own room – yes, there is sometimes menswear, so you might be able to convince your SO to go with you). Remember your shape wear, from before? It’s to your benefit to wear it to the show, both because it will help you trying on clothes and because it helps if you’re insecure at all about undressing in front of strangers. Please do not try on vintage clothes over the ones you’re wearing, though – it can damage them and give you an inaccurate picture of how things will fit you.
If you find something you love that fits you well, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask the vendor if the price tagged is their best price. They’re looking to take home fewer pieces than they arrived with, so sometimes they’ll take off 10% or 20%, but don’t expect a great deal more than that, especially on the first day of the show. Some vendors only accept cash, though it’s increasingly common to be able to pay with a card (though you’re more likely to have to pay sales tax or a small fee if you do).
Shows like the Vintage Expo and the Pickwick Show in Burbank happen a few times a year. I find out about them through word of mouth/social media, mostly. I always pay extra for the early buy. I don’t know if it’s worth it or not, but I get squeamish about competition and crowds, so it feels worth it for me. One of the most fun finds of the day was this 1950s Mr. Mort silk wiggle dress in excellent condition: [2017 note: I can’t believe I was ever that thin]
AND this amazing unlabeled Claire McCardell:
Can’t wait for the next one.