Build a vintage closet

Building a vintage closet part 4(c): Online shopping & flea markets

In the time since I started writing this series, I started working full time again, so I’m sorry if it started to get a little drawn out. We’re going to wrap it up this week though, so that by next week you should be armed with all the tools and knowledge and resources to continue building your own working vintage closet.

Online shopping is a huge resource for me. This falls into three basic categories: eBay, Etsy, and independent online retailers. The strategies for Etsy and independent retailers are basically the same, but eBay is kind of a different beast.

Vintage shopping on eBay

Actually, I could write a short book on how to buy vintage on eBay. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to give you a quick overview and let you learn on your own what works best for what you’re looking for. Vintage clothing sections on eBay are divided into decades, which isn’t really as helpful as the way they used to divide midcentury vintage clothing: by era. It used to be WWII (1939-1946) and then New Look – Early 60s (1947-1964). I guess these were too broad, or people were confused, because now they divide by decade. It’s led to some slight annoyances for me, because usually something from 1948 looks a hell of a lot more like something from 1952 than it does something from 1942. But whatever. The fact that remains is that sellers don’t often know what category their thing belongs in, and this can work to your advantage, because the prices can be below market, the photos might be terrible, and if you take a risk you might get a really good deal. I have bought so many designer and high quality pieces for under $30 on eBay because the seller spelled the name wrong, put it in the wrong category, or took poor photos.

Keywords are extremely important on eBay because you can save searches. You can spend the time to browse through the tens of thousands of items in each category (and I do), and/or you can create saved searches using designer names like “Lilli Ann” or you can create saved searches for things like “noir” in the 1940s category, “nipped waist” in the 1950s category, or my personal favorite, “of California” in both categories, because I’m a sucker for those California sportswear companies. I tend to cap my searches at around $45 unless I KNOW exactly what I’m getting, but that’s pretty much the top of my budget.

I won’t go into any bidding strategies here, because there is plenty written about that, and bidding on clothes isn’t much different than other things. Know the measurements of an item, be willing to ask, or be willing to take a risk – sometimes it’s worth it NOT to ask the seller for a measurement if the price is very low, because adding that information to the listing could increase the price. If this sounds a lot like you’re taking advantage of a seller’s ignorance, well, you kind of are. But for my budget, it’s absolutely the best way to get a bargain. I’ve sold on eBay as well, when I can’t be bothered to fix a seam or remove a stain, and watched people flip my stuff for more money. I’m totally okay with that. It’s all one big global swap and sell.

Etsy and independent sellers

Etsy and independent stores are somewhat different. Most of the sellers I follow will have already done their homework and done the work to provide quality pieces, clean and free from severe damage, and they know the value. What you’re paying for here is very much the same thing you’re paying for with brick and mortar: effort, expertise, and confidence in getting a great piece. Most do not offer returns (though some do) so it’s always a risk, but if you ask enough questions beforehand (for example, under bust measurements or bodice height) you shouldn’t have to return something for fit (hopefully). Even though my stated policies don’t provide for returns (yet— I just don’t have the margins at this point), I will usually accept a return if asked, because I would much rather a give the buyer a clean avenue for getting rid of a vintage item than feel like they have to give it away or keep it in a drawer because they don’t have anything else to do with it. My goal is to get good pieces into the hands of people who will wear and enjoy them, and if that means accepting returns every now and then, I’m happy to do it. What I don’t want is someone buying an item because they have a costume party, knowing they can return it, and then sending it back to me five days later in worse shape. But, as my husband says, everything is negotiable. That’s one of the wonderful things about working with humans who own their own shops and merchandise and set their own terms. Everything is negotiable.

So what are some of the keywords and strategies I use to find great stuff? I already mentioned “noir” and “nipped waist,” but some of my other common keywords include “wiggle” (meaning a dress or skirt that fits very close to the body), “peplum” (meaning that cute little hip area that flares out from the waist on a blouse or jacket or sometimes, dress), “ruched” (because ruching is always flattering), draped, sophisticated, 1940s, 1950s, 40s, 50s, “new look”, “full skirt”, rayon, crepe, fitted, “hip pockets”, structured, “fully lined” (can indicated a quality piece), high end department store labels like Bonwit Teller, Haggarty’s, Montaldo’s, Jay Thorpe—all those stores you see advertised in the front sections of vintage Vogue magazines. And, of course, your favorite designer labels, if you have any. It took me a couple years before I started to develop those preferences, choosing instead to stock my closet with inexpensive pieces like blouses, skirts, sweaters and dresses so I could learn what I liked and how to care for them (coming soon!).

As with the difference between estate sales and physical boutiques, you should be prepared to pay a little bit more on Etsy and online sellers’ shops than you would on eBay. A dress with a designer label, or one that’s particularly well-made and in good condition, could go for $20-$50 on eBay and for $85-$165 on Etsy. This (usually) isn’t sellers being jerks, this is, again, paying for their curation, cleaning, repair, effort, and expertise. That said, it’s not like you have to pass some test to sell on Etsy; there are plenty of undervalued and poorly photographed items there as well, so by all means dig through those listings too, you could get lucky (and on the flip side, there are also a few sellers who overprice their items or misdate them. Caveat emptor, amirite?). It’s really a matter of looking in the right place at the right time. And if you don’t have time, remember what I said about your cost going up as your effort goes down? I have a handful of trusted Etsy sellers and online boutiques that I know will always have something fabulous.

Alright, are you ready to go shopping? These are my fave shops on Etsy.


[2017 note: In the time since I first wrote this, I have developed a long list of sellers on Instagram I know and love, and most of them are on etsy. Follow me @noaccountingfortaste to discover more.]


Shopping at flea markets

I’ve been going to flea markets for about 15 years now, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t all that long, but it’s long enough to have developed some strategies and tips, especially in terms of clothing and accessories.

Get there early.

I mean like, really early. Some markets open around 5:30 or 6am, and while I can never bring myself to get there that early, I find that 7-7:30am is a perfect time to arrive, because it’s before most of the crowd, and most vendors have set up or are mostly set up by then, and also because I just can’t get myself together before then. If a market opens later than 7:30, I get there about 15 minutes before the stated opening time.

Come prepared.

This includes bringing cash. Many vendors now will accept credit cards for a small fee or tax percentage, thanks to mobile credit card processors like Square or PayPal, but cash is still queen. There might be an ATM on site, but it will likely charge you $5 or more for the convenience of taking out cash there, so it’s most economical to take it out beforehand. This also includes knowing those measurements I keep talking about (bust-waist-hip-shoulder-bodice) and bringing a tape measure. Most vendors will not have a place for you to try anything on (and if they do you’d probably best not be modest) so knowing in advance whether something will fit you is helpful.

Most transactions at flea markets are negotiable, especially if you are buying several pieces. Admittedly, I’m not great at negotiation, because I usually get so excited about a piece that I just accept whatever price I’m quoted. But every now and then I catch myself and use phrases like, “What’s the best you can do on this?” or “What can you do for these three pieces together?” Or if the stated price is $45, I’ll say, “Could you do $30 on this?” I never go too far below a vendor’s stated price for a couple reasons. First, the price is usually pretty reasonable. Second, because I shop the same vendors over and over, I want them to know that I’m not trying to cheat them and I’ll always come back and be a good customer. And sometimes they say no, that’s their best price. It never pays to be sarcastic or rude at that point; they know what they paid for it and what they need to get for it to make a profit. I either take or leave that price and bid them good day. The difficult thing to keep in mind is that yes, most of these pieces are unique and you will likely never see the same thing again. But you don’t have to have all the things. For every piece you find that doesn’t fit your body, style and budget perfectly, it will fit someone else’s, and there is something else that will fit yours. It’s okay to let it go.

And really, that’s something I have to keep in mind when shopping for vintage in any of places we’ve talked about. Sometimes you get the great thing, and sometimes it works out for someone else. It’s part of the fun–at least, it’s part of the game. And it really is a wonderful game.

Next time: putting it all together.

in February 23, 2015

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