When it comes to women’s clothing, fashions come and go. Last year it was peplums. This year it’s cold shoulders. And next year, well, I’ve got four words for you:
Unisex. Chain-Mail. Track suits.
Just wait. You’ll see.
But some clothing connoisseurs choose not to focus on what will be on the runways next year, or what’s currently on department store mannequins. They prefer to deal in vintage apparel, appreciating the colors, shapes, craftsmanship, and timeless styles from decades past. You can find them at specialty stores, with specialty store price tags, or you can cross your fingers that something will appear at a thrift store—it does happen occasionally. But one of your best bets for vintage fashions is through estate sales.
We spoke to Annette Vartanian, editor of A Vintage Splendor and Lauren from Wearing History, both well-versed in different aspects of vintage fashion. Lauren focuses on recreating historic fashions and appreciating the creative aspect of the vintage clothing world, while Annette actively seeks out authentic vintage styles for herself and her clients. Both know a thing or two about what to look for, and how to care for clothing from generations past. And they both know estate sales are a great place to find them.
“I go estate sale shopping fairly often. Usually at least once a month,” Lauren said. “When I look for estate sales, I always skim for photos of the closets and accessories, as well as any sewing items there are, since fabrics and patterns can be used to recreate vintage fashions.”
Annette also finds time for estate sales in between frequent flea market trips. “. . .It’s a bit more curated and you can usually learn more about the history of an item,” she said.
The style of vintage clothes varies between sales and between cities, which means there’s something for everyone. Annette focuses on classic yet on-trend styles. “I’m always looking for pieces that are practical to wear all the time and for years to come. My favorite pieces are always from the 60s and 70s (I’m drawn to anything Cher would have worn in those decades),” she explained.
Lauren, however, digs back a bit further. “I love everything from the Victorian era through the 1950s,” she said. “It's getting harder to find earlier pieces, but I often have a good chance if it's an estate of Victorian or antique collectors.”
And that’s the magic of estate sales. Unlike thrifting, where you’re frequently shopping through clothes that were donated when the original owner was making room for new styles, the vintage clothes you’ll find at estate sales will be those that people felt were worth holding onto. Clothing that embodied an era, or held special memories. Check out EstateSales.NET and you can browse the proverbial racks ahead of time—and occasionally you might find companies like Jennie Krausse Estate Liquidation or Austin Capital Estate Sales modeling the clothes themselves.
But those finely-aged fabrics are likely to be far more fragile than contemporary clothing. After all, making memories can cause wear and tear on your clothes. So even if you find just what you’re looking for style-wise, it’s important to know if it’s something you can both wear and properly care for.
So when you’re shopping—especially if you’re new to vintage clothes—there are some things to keep in mind.
Numbers lie. While you may be a size 8 in contemporary clothing, it’s likely not the case for the vintage duds. We’ve all heard the rumor that Marilyn Monroe was a size 16. Whether or not that’s true is frequently debated, but even if it is, her clothes would not translate to a contemporary 16. So plan accordingly, and size up.
“Give yourself a bit of ease, because if you don't, you won't be able to move in the dress or outfit, even if you can get it on,” Lauren said, advising two to four inches be added to your bust measurements, ½ inch to the waist, and about four to six inches in the hip. “A bigger measurement is always better than a smaller measurement! Bigger dresses can be taken in, but smaller dresses can almost never be let out,” she said.
Unlike retail and resale shops, estate sales do not have dressing rooms. Unless it’s marked as no entry, every room in the house is open for shoppers—there is no privacy. “I have seen some shoppers shimmy into dresses at estate sales in the open,” Lauren said. “If the sellers are open to that, you may wish to shop in a camisole or other lightweight clothing that's non-restrictive.” (Emphasis ours: always check with the sellers before trying on clothes.)
But if you are able you try things on, keep in mind that these clothes belong to someone. Until they are sold, they belong to the person whose home you are walking through. Treat them with the same respect you would like to see for your own things, should the day come that you need to hold a sale.
Know your limits. “There are two impossible fixes: making something bigger that is too tight, and repairing cracked leather or fur,” Annette said, adding that mending damaged embellishments is do-able, but difficult. “It’s time and cost prohibitive for a lot of people and may not be worth it, depending on the piece,” she said.
Get personal. Remember that vintage clothing was made with vintage figures in mind—those figures were often manipulated by vintage undergarments. Keep in mind the difference between vintage and contemporary lingerie, and be prepared to adjust your sizing choices accordingly, or...
Tailor it. Listen, I know. For some people (me included) getting an outfit tailored feels like a frivolous luxury. But when you’re shopping vintage, it’s hard to shop around—the next estate sale won’t have that same jacket or dress you’ve fallen in love with, just in a different size. And besides, if you’re getting your vintage clothing at estate sale prices, you might be more willing to pay a little more to make sure they fit as they should.
What’s in a name? High-end designer brands generally mean high-quality garments—especially when it comes to the early eras, when there was more hand-work involved. Even though the clothing has been worn, or the purse carried for several seasons and then retired, if it has a designer label, you should be prepared to pay accordingly.
“When shopping for vintage, it's important to know what pieces to pass on,” Lauren said. “If the item is silk and it is shattering, there's really no stopping it. The fabrics continue to tear and there's nothing that can be done.”
Know your era. Ultimately you should wear what makes you happy, but you might keep in mind that different eras tend to lend themselves better to different body types, particularly when it comes to women’s clothing. Styles from the 1930s, for example, work well on tall, slim frames, while 1950s apparel is flattering on curves.
What to look for:
Gaps. Many of these vintage garments have been sitting quietly in closets, drawers, and cedar chests for years, if not decades. Look for holes, especially around the armpits, by holding the fabric up to the light. While tailoring may be affordable, reweaving often is not.
Stains. These clothes have had a lifetime (or more) of opportunity to endure dribbles, drips, spills, or splashes. Watch for them, and decide if it’s something you can deal or live with.
Bald spots. If you’re in the market for vintage furs, watch for bald spots or shedding; over time, improperly stored fur can deteriorate.
When it comes to caring for and maintaining your vintage clothing, you have a few options, and a few good rules to live by. Even if your new-to-you clothes look sturdy, you should treat them carefully if you want them to last another lifetime. When you bring them home, take care to clean them, since you can’t be sure of how long they’ve sat dormant, and in what conditions, just waiting for you to bring them back to life.
But be honest with yourself. The comedian Mitch Hedberg used to joke “This shirt is dry clean only, which means it’s dirty.” If you relate to this on a spiritual level, you should skip the most fragile of fashions that require either chemicals or a gentle hand to clean them. “If a shopper only prefers to throw laundry in the washer and dryer, I’m going to recommend that she steer clear of silk, velvet, and embellishments,” Annette said. “These require special attention and if someone doesn’t want to commit to hand washing, then that piece may not be right for them.”
If you choose to dry clean your vintage garments, make sure your cleaner knows how to care for older delicates. “Anything that is luxury (rare vintage piece) or has a lot of embellishments, I take to a specialty dry cleaner,” Annette said. Perhaps reach out to a local museum for recommendations, if you’re dealing with something particularly old, fragile, or valuable. Can they recommend someone who routinely works with older textiles?
Take the clothing out of the dry cleaning bag as soon as you get home, to allow the fabric to breathe once again.
If you choose to take matters of cleaning into your own hands instead, you might try steam cleaning. This is a good way to remove musty smells. Do not use a fabric refresher spray, which could harm a fragile garment.
A wash in diluted bleach could perk up your vintage whites. Or it could destroy them completely. Aren’t vintage linens fun? Who doesn’t like gambling?
Ultimately, hand-washing is probably your best bet, if the garment can handle water. Choose a detergent solution based on the type of fabric you have, and the type of debris you’re fighting. The Smithsonian Museum Preservation Institute has a thorough list of possible garment stains and how to remove them.
“When hand washing, you want to use lukewarm water and allow the detergent to dissolve before you put any garments in the water, “ Annette said. “Just put the garment in the water and don’t agitate it—let it soak for about 45 minutes.” After rinsing the garment, lay it out over dry, clean towels, and roll it up for a few minutes, then unroll and lay flat to dry, she said. “Don’t use a drying rack as fibers are weakest when wet and you can do more damage!”
And finally: no wire hangers, ever.
Whether you’re hoping to find an early 20th century flapper dress, a mid-century hat like Don Draper would wear on Mad Men, a vintage Dior handbag, or a jacket with Working Girl shoulder pads (they’re due for a comeback, I just know it), browse the upcoming sales on EstateSales.NET, and you’re liable to find what you’re looking for.