City Style: The Breakdown: How to Shop Vintage

This month more than 150 dealers from around the world will assemble at the Vintage Fashion and Antique Textile Show in Sturbridge (5/7), offering clothing, shoes, and accessories from before the turn of the century up to the ’80s. But sifting through decades of fashion to uncover truly worthy items requires a willingness to take risks, a creative eye (what would this blouse look like without sleeves?), and a knowledge of what to watch for.
Plus: Our web-only Vintage Shopping Guide.


This month more than 150 dealers from around the world will assemble at the Vintage Fashion and Antique Textile Show in Sturbridge (5/7), offering clothing, shoes, and accessories from before the turn of the century up to the ’80s. But sifting through decades of fashion to uncover truly worthy items requires a willingness to take risks, a creative eye (what would this blouse look like without sleeves?), and a knowledge of what to watch for. “Vintage isn’t about cheap,” says Rachel Hirsch of History, a new high-end boutique in Cambridge. If you find a vintage garment that costs as much as its contemporary counterpart—like a rare ’50s Chanel suit—you’re paying for more than clothing. As Hirsch says, “It’s a piece of fashion history.”

’50s shift dress, $56, History; ’60s faux-alligator handbag, $20, Bobby from Boston; ’50s leather pumps, $40, Café Society. For information on the Sturbridge show, go to vintagefashionandtextileshow.com; for more on our favorite vintage shops, visit bostonmagazine.com.

Construction: Most vintage garments were more carefully assembled, which means the craftsmanship, fabric, and details are all sturdier.

Fit: Sure, you’re a perfect size 6 at Barneys, but every era had its own sizing, shape—and underwear. Expect that ’50s dress to be looser on top and tailored to someone else’s natural waist. Usually, though, garments can be let out or taken in. More good news: You can skip the girdle, and stockings are no longer required.

Leather and fur: Inspect the inside of furs for cracks at the shoulders and armholes. Many coats come from estate sales and storage lockers, and even one summer of neglect can cause the skin to dry out beyond repair. Leather has the same vulnerability, though it’s easier to pass off weathered jackets, boots, and belts as part of your look.

Style: Vintage novices should start with dresses or blazers from the ’40s and ’50s; according to History’s Hirsch, the structured shoulders and tapered waists make them the most popular and flattering silhouettes.

Label: Few pieces have labels, so pricing depends on the condition of the clothing and, sometimes, the color (for example, brights were rare in the ’40s, so an emerald green sweater or red dress from that decade will fetch a higher price).

Fasteners: Finding an exact match for a vintage sash or button is nearly impossible. If you’re eyeing a coat that’s one button short, be prepared to replace the whole bunch.

Defects: Any piece should be examined for holes, pulls, and thinning. While holes along seams are easy to fix, disintegrating fabric usually can’t be repaired—but if the price is low enough, and you’re willing to get creative, you could get your money’s worth from just one wear.

Material: Patterns are a simple way to spot worthwhile buys. Spend more for Duke of Hollywood classic surfer-and-palm-tree Hawaiian designs; flashy op-art scarves from Vera Neumann; metallic brocades circa 1960; and tiny calico flowers on sleeveless ’50s blouses.

Shoes: Footwear takes such a beating it’s rare to find vintage pieces in decent condition. Of course, if you’re totally devoted to ’70s boots and find a pair in your size, a deft cobbler can probably fix any heel or sole problems. But, as with clothes, damaged fabrics or dried leather should be a deal breaker.

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