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Shopping vintage is all about the thrill of the hunt. After all, you never know what you will find. And for the vintage shopper, unearthing a gem from a bygone time can delight like no other shopping experience. But what should you look for when you’re on the second-hand prowl? Vendors from The Manhattan Vintage Show, the largest vintage show in the US share what they look for when buying vintage, so you can hone your thrifting skills like a fashion boss.
The Manhattan Vintage Show, which took place in New York the weekend of April 7, included a special exhibition on vintage rock t-shirts called “The Rock & Roll T-Shirt Hall of Fame,” which happened to coincide with the 32nd Annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony (where Tupac Shakur, Joan Baez, Journey, and Pearl Jam were amongst the honorees). Over 30 vintage (1990s and older) rock t-shirts were available for purchase at the show.
If rock t-shirts aren’t your pleasure, there were hundreds of other looks to hunt through—a task which, admittedly, could get a little overwhelming.
From knowing what’s worth a repair to how to tell if an item is indeed couture, vintage shopping tips can help take your thrifting game to the next level. “Look around without expectations,” says Meika Franz of Another Man’s Treasure, one of the show’s premiere vendors. “And above all, let the items grab you.” The following is a guide on what to look for when shopping vintage, from The Manhattan Vintage Shows international vendors.
Lenore Newman of Patina Vintage specializes in buying from estate sales, and has a fondness for clothing and accessories from the mid-century, specifically the 1950s through 1970s. Newman, whose soft spot is handbags, doesn’t buy the big three (Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Chanel), but rather seeks out brands that are lesser-known yet still luxe, like Koret and Morris Moscowitz. “You must pay attention to the construction, when looking at condition. Look for attention to detail and styling.”
Although you generally want to buy items in impeccable condition, the one item where distress is desirable is t-shirts, especially if they’re rock & roll. Says Cherry from Cherry Vintage, “I like t-shirts that have had a life already.” To tell if the t-shirt you’re buying is truly vintage, look for natural fibers. Vintage t-shirts are tough and durable; back in the day, t-shirts weren’t treated, like today’s reproductions.
Lisa Victoria (pictured above), who has a predilection for Victorian and Edwardian finds, knows a thing or two about repairing garments that are literally over 100 years old. Look at how white she was able to get that turn-of-the-century ensemble above, just by hand washing with care. “Do buy something if it’s fabulous. You can have it relined or re-weaved.”
Jen McCulloch, a stylist and vintage clothing dealer from Olive’s Very Vintage suggests soaking a vintage garment in soap and water and treating it with a little bit of lemon juice and letting it dry in the sun. Additionally, if the item is white, make sure you treat the garment when it’s dry by dipping a Q-Tip into bleach and spot treating. Rinse immediately.
One of the reasons to shop vintage is the plethora of prints that are not available today, like this original Keith Haring print pictured above.
Masako Ogura of Mingei Japan specializes in Japanese kimonos that are both rare and vintage. She visits Japan twice a year to hand-pick “hand tie-dyed or hand-embroidered” kimonos that display stunning artistry. Although there’s no market in Japan for a second-hand kimono, people outside of Japan are thrilled to pick up a silk kimono for a fraction of what it would cost brand new. Plus, some of the designs are extremely rare because they’re vintage.
Serge Liagre of Vintage by Rosemaine is a former principal ballet dancer with the French ballet and preeminent collector from Marseille. “I like history,” he says. Holding up a Gaultiler dress, Liagre adds, “This Gaultiler dress says so much about the 1980s, doesn’t it?” Indeed, you want to make sure the designer item is authentic, so carefully examine the labels. “Ask questions,” Liagre says. “By doing research I learned that Balmain hand-numbered early 20th century couture.” The more you know about a designer, the better you are to invest in its authenticity.
Meika Warren of Another Man’s Treasure suggests you try on any vintage purchase before buying. “Cuts are so different depending on the era, and sizes have changed over the years.” Vivian Rodgers Hill of Lady V’s Second Time Around also suggests you have a friend, or store owner, take a photograph of you wearing your vintage find.
Rodgers-Hill adds that shopping by eras is a fabulous guide to thrifting. Her suggestion is to be authentic, as you don’t want to look like you’re wearing a costume. “Vintage shopping requires self-examination,” says Rodgers-Hill. “What’s authentic to you?”
You want your vintage find to blend seamlessly into the rest of your wardrobe. “It doesn’t have to be so out there,” Franz adds. “In fact, you want to be able to incorporate vintage into your closet for a modern look.”
Amanda Dolan and Meagan Colby of Spark Pretty, which specializes in everything 90s, suggest that a piece you shouldn’t pass up is one that has a narrative. “I love dressing up,” says Dolan. “The best thing about vintage is it now becomes part of your story. The item keeps living.”