Over the past decade, I’ve honed my skills as a vintage hunter, graduating from curious novice to downright seasoned professional. I’ve seen triumph (the Moschino suit I wore here), and I’ve seen tragedy (my mom cramming a 70s jacket my sister and I once fought over relentlessly into an airport trash can after it shed all over the plane). In more recent years, I’ve found that shopping vintage is particularly useful in situations where I might once have turned to fast fashion, like when I’m itching for something new and experimental but not able to pay brand-new designer prices. In addition to the more environmentally-friendly aspect of vintage shopping, there’s also a special thrill that comes from giving an old garment new life. Scroll down to what I mean–there’s a little guide to three of 2019’s micro trends, ripe for vintage reimagining, below.
1. Period Piece-Worthy White Blouses
As evidenced by what Harling recently dubbed “Renaissancecore”, the simple white blouses of summers past have grown up into lacy, pearl-buttoned confections worthy of Michelangelo’s attention, not to mention wintry ensembles. They can be dressed up with trousers and historically accurate sleeve garters à la Gucci or pared down with jeans and a sweater for an easy-like-Sunday-morning Celine dupe. You could even swap in some heart-shaped buttons for an extra dose of Marc Jacobs-inspired cuteness. Luckily for us, the variety of dramatic white blouses in the vintage world is endless. Nearly every decade from the 1860s through the 1980s offers a strong contender, from high-necked haughty lace numbers to pointy-collared preppy button-downs. As you pursue the perfect one for you:
– Know what can be repaired: White blouses are essentially a blank canvas, so any sort of damage to them is instantly visible. Big patches of yellowed or browned fabric are not fixable. Rips in lace or delicate fabrics like silk are very difficult and costly to repair. On the other hand, missing buttons and tears along cuffs, collars, or seams of the shirt can easily be repaired or replaced by any tailor. Stains or small brown spots from age can often be removed with a little extra scrub in the wash, which brings us to…
– Clean your vintage properly: If an item is discolored, soak it in a bath of warm water with a few drops of delicate detergent. If you don’t have any delicate detergent on hand and you need to wear your new vintage piece, like, tonight, use a squirt of mild hand soap or organic shampoo instead. Avoid stronger detergents that you would put in the washing machine; these are too abrasive for older fabrics. While the item is soaking, use another piece of fabric like a washcloth or dish towel to scrub at stubborn spots. When it seems like stains are beginning to lift out of the garment (wait at least an hour), drain the soapy water, rinse the garment repeatedly under running water until clean, and air dry.
Send items that are pleated or have beaded or embroidered details to the dry cleaner! And if something you find decides to bring a smell along with it, hang it by a window to air out for a day or two and send if off to the dry cleaner too, posthaste.
– Familiarize yourself with historical styles: Do a little bit of market research before you make a purchase. Brushing up on the stylistic differences between, say, a Victorian blouse and a less valuable, often mislabeled Edwardian blouse could mean saving a hefty sum! Victorian revival pieces made in the 70s are great because they’re less expensive and made from more durable, machine-washable fabric blends.
2. Strong-Shouldered Mini Dresses
In recent years, brands like The Attico, Rotate by Birger Christensen, and Alessandra Rich have won the hearts of many with their ultra-short dresses with padded and puffed shoulders. Something about the combination of a power shoulder with a party dress feels distinctly modern, but a quick perusal of 80s prom catalogues is proof enough that there’s plenty of B.S.E. (Big Sleeve Energy) leftover from bygone eras. With a little imagination and a lack of corsage, these once-teenage wares will be ready to dance at some decidedly grown-up holiday parties.
– Take it to the tailor: Love the puff sleeves or moody floral print on a dress but hate the way it grazes your ankles? Take it to your tailor and have them shorten it as much as you like. In general, hemlines are easy and inexpensive to adjust, but steer clear of anything that would need tailoring in the waist or shoulders, as these areas are much trickier to adjust. And don’t feel like it’s sacrilege to make big changes to a vintage piece–if it’s been out in the world for awhile now, chances are it’s already been to the tailor many times.
– Pick a period: When shopping vintage, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of items available in shops and online. It helps to narrow things down the style or silhouette you’re looking for by time period. Many vintage stores are organized by decade, and online listings will almost always include the time period if you search by keyword. If you’re looking for a dead ringer in the realm of the designers mentioned above, stick to the 80s. If you want something that shows even more leg, explore 60s mod mini dresses. And if you want extra-festive beads-and-sequins-galore, look to the 20s.
– Read the label: This tip is borrowed from vintage maven Stacey Nishimoto, who finds all sorts of vintage eye candy for her online shop The Corner Store. If you find an item you love with a label from a brand you’ve never heard of, plug the name into eBay and Etsy. Chances are that there’s more from said brand floating around in the vintage atmosphere. I’ve found that this technique is particularly helpful with fancier items like party dresses because so many now-defunct high-end labels are still in the hands of faithful collectors on the internet.
3. Varsity Sweaters
Bored of your sweaters already? Yeah, me too. With winter fast approaching, it’s time to get things (pumpkin) spiced up (sorry) in the knitwear department. Might I suggest a varsity sweater? Off-White, Alexander Wang, and my beloved Gucci all offer beautiful takes this season, but a quick search of the term “varsity sweater” in the vintage section of Etsy reveals nearly 2,000 options at a fraction of the price. A few things to keep in mind as you peruse:
– Material matters: Always read the care tag or message the seller for information about a garment’s material before purchasing. In general, natural fibers like cotton or denim will be sturdier and last longer than man-made fabrics. When it comes to sweaters, if you’re looking for warmth seek out wool and cashmere. However, if you have a low tolerance for scratchiness, you might prefer the feel of something in a polyester or acrylic blend.
– Choose handmade: When searching for sweaters, keep an eye out for items without labels or that specify in an online listing that they were hand-knitted. Not only are these knits one-of-a-kind, but they are also more durable because they’re typically knitted in one piece rather than machine-stitched together like a factory-made sweater. Also, there’s something extra cozy about wearing a sweater made by a grandmother, even if she’s not your own.
– Sort by color: Another way to sift through seemingly endless racks or pages of vintage is to limit yourself by color. Avoiding shopping fatigue is the name of the game here. Narrow your search to one or two colors and do your best to not let your eye wander elsewhere. When searching online, be as specific as possible, e.g. “Kelly green varsity sweater with pockets.”
With a little patience and a healthy dose of TLC, you’ll find that a good vintage piece will outlast any trend–but that doesn’t mean it can’t participate in one as well. I have a much-loved lace dress from the 20s who will be turning 100 next year. Drop me a suggestion as to what we should do for her birthday in the comments. Oh yeah, and show me what you get, too!