Top ten tips for buying vintage

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Stylist Team
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Always loved the retro look, but scared of shopping vintage? Finding the best pre-loved pieces can be tricky - with high pricing, confusing sizes and must and moth-holes all dilemmas for the vintage novice. So we asked the UK's leading vintage stylist, personal shopper (and author of new book Style Me Vintage) Naomi Thompson to create a guide on finding the best items. Don't hit a jumble sale, vintage boutique or second-hand market without it.

1. Be prepared

Arm yourself with garments that are easy to get out of; something you can slip on and off without fuss – my favourite uniform for vintage shopping is a button-down dress. Wear minimal make-up. Many vintage garments do up at the side and have to go over your head, rather than over your hips, so whilst it’s tempting to don a red lippy to get into the spirit of things, it’s best not to smear it all over the neck of a yellow 50s frock. You won’t be judged in a shop for not looking the part.

2. Always hold garments up to the light

Have you noticed how dark vintage shops can be? Well, it’s not always intentional (they can just be cluttered places), but it sure does make it harder to spot flaws. By holding it up to the light you can instantly see any holes or repairs. The light will also shine through any patches where the fabric has become too thin and delicate. With woollen garments, check the elbows to make sure there is not excessive wear.

3. Always check the armpits

As far as I am concerned, this is Number One in terms of importance; I don’t know why it took me so long to do this automatically! Before the days of deodorant, sweat had a habit of damaging fabric due to the acidic qualities of perspiration.

4. Look at the fastenings

Double-check that none of the buttons are missing and the zips are working properly. This may seem like a no-brainer, but all too often I’ve gotten home only to discover that a crucial covered button has fallen off or a zip is faulty. Key areas to check fastenings are around the neck line where small buttons may be hidden under a collar, and also around the cuffs. Whilst you are there, make sure the belt is still attached. If there are belt loops and no belt, it’s OK to ask for a small discount because the garment is no longer complete.

5. Talk to the sales assistants

Don’t be too proud to ask for advice in a shop, especially if you are looking for era-specific garments. This will speed up the learning process and before long you will be having a friendly debate on the age of a frock. Good shopkeepers should know their stock inside out and quite often they will keep special pieces behind for the right customer. It’s also good to develop a relationship with the vendor, as they will start to look out for garments in your size and style. Most vintage sellers are passionate about what they do and are happy to talk to customers about stock, sizes and fair pricing.

6. Go for the best you can afford

Resist the temptation to buy in bulk. Despite years of collecting for the sake of it, I now wish I had stuck to buying garments that were 100% wearable and in my size. My repairs bag is huge and you can’t ‘rescue’ everything. The less you buy, the more you can spend on those show-stopping items!

7. Don’t pay any attention to sizes on labels

Sizing is completely different nowadays, and if there is a size label I’m afraid the best option is to ignore it. To give you an example, I am an 8 but fit an 80s 10, a 60s/70s 12 and a 50s 14. Now, is this because women were smaller or are current brands changing sizes to make us feel better about ourselves? This has not yet been answered, and if you are interested in finding out more read up on Vanity Sizing. Gemma Seager, who writes the Retro Chick blog, is considered to be the industry expert.

ABOVE: Pictures from Style Me Vintage, and Naomi in a vintage outfit.

8. Always check the bottom of shoes

More often than not, a heel tip will be missing. Check the leather around the buckle and strap for signs of wear and tear. If a leather strap looks cracked, it may break off easily. Make sure the shoe is not too bendy and will hold your weight – this can be achieved only by trying it on. In some cases the shoe’s sole can be reinforced, but this can be costly. Avoid shoes where the leather has stiffened, as they will be uncomfortable to wear.

9. Don't buy anything that needs a lot of repairs

Don’t be tempted by garments that need altering above and beyond a simple strap shortening or a dropped hem. Scant few alteration shops will do it justice and if the fabric is raw, frayed or thin, it may not last even one cold wash!

10. Don’t be scared to try anything on

If you like it on the hanger, then chances are you will like it on you, but you also shouldn’t shy away from the bizarre; sometimes a hanger can’t convey an item’s true potential, so get it on your body – what’s the worst that could happen? As a vintage personal shopper, this has been the most rewarding element of what I do. If I got a pound every time a customer reluctantly tried on a garment which turned out to be amazing, then I could probably retire! Have fun, expect the unexpected and shop with an open mind, as you never know what may turn up.

And's a Vintage Shopping Kit List

  • A tape measure. With this and a good knowledge of your own measurements, you will save yourself a lot of stress finding changing rooms and squeezing into and out of too small items.
  • A waisted belt to try things on with – dresses can look completely different once they are cinched in.
  • A handbag with a strap to help free up your hands and avoid having to put things down. (I’ve put things down before, not realised and then seen them sporting a price tag on my next visit!)
  • A smile – it helps with discounts!

ABOVE: Style Me Vintage is £9.99 and published by Anova Books

What are your tips for buying vintage? Share them in the comments below!