Secrets of shopping for retro clothing

How to Shop for Vintage Clothing

by Joanne Guidoccio


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I had always associated vintage clothing with the early part of the twentieth century, but upon further research, I discovered that clothing from the 1920s to twenty years before the present day is considered vintage.

Increased interest in vintage clothing among celebrities such as Julia Roberts and Kate Moss and more consumer emphasis on buying high-quality goods at lower prices have contributed to the blossoming of the resale industry. In fact, resale is considered one of the fastest growing segments of retail with 25,000+ resale, consignment, and not for profit resale shops in the United States.

According to a study conducted by America's Research Group, between 16 and 18 percent of Americans will shop at a thrift shop during a given year. For consignment shops, it varies from 12 to 15 percent. These numbers compare favorably with the 11.4 percent of Americans who shop in factory outlet malls, 19.6 percent in apparel stores, and 21.3 percent in major department stores.

Many people compare vintage shopping to mining for gold. You will have to dig through piles of less-than-desirable items to find that elusive treasure. This can be frustrating for the neophyte resale shopper who is accustomed to buying never-worn clothing at set prices. Before visiting a resale shop, consider the following tips:

  • Learn the Lingo. Familiarize yourself with the following terms, especially if you are planning to buy or sell vintage clothing online. Mint means perfect and shows no signs of wear. Near mint shows slight signs of wear. Excellent shows usual signs of wear due to occasional use. Very good is considered wearable but has some surface flaws such as staining or soiling. Finally, good is considered wearable but cannot be returned to excellent condition even if repairs are made.
  • Do Your Research. As of 2012, most vintage clothing in the United States sold for $10 to $100, but if you are searching for a specific designer or item, be prepared to spend more. For example, pre-1960s garments in good condition are valuable and often difficult to find. Before venturing out, "browse" in your parents' or grandparents' closets, basements, and attics. You may discover treasures for yourself or for resale in consignment shops and on eBay.
  • Try Different Sizes. Systems used to size garments in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century differ significantly from today. Use the change rooms of resale shops to get a handle on your "vintage" size. If you are purchasing online, ask about their return policies.
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  • Alter. If you are not handy with the needle, invite a friend or relative who has a good eye for what can and cannot be altered to accompany you on your shopping excursions. Her advice will be invaluable since it is unlikely that you will find vintage clothing that fits perfectly. Alterations can vary from lengthening and shortening to full dress resizing. Check alteration rates before deciding to purchase the item.
  • Haggle. Carefully inspect the clothing for any stains or tears, missing buttons, and moth holes. Use those flaws as negotiating tools, but do not be afraid to haggle even if the item is mint or near mint condition. If the merchant refuses to budge, and you are not comfortable with the price, visit one of the many other popular places to buy vintage, including charity-run second hand clothing stores, flea markets, antique markets, estate sales, auctions, garage sales, car boot sales, and vintage fashion fairs.
  • Familiarize yourself with the shopping environment. If you decide to shop for vintage clothing at flea markets and yard sales, arrive early in the morning, preferably right before they open, to avoid disappointment. Popular vintage items disappear quickly. On the other hand, you can shop at your convenience and find a vast assortment of vintage items at excellent prices if you decide to shop online. To save even more time, focus on eBay, Etsy, and Amazon sites. While Craigslist offers an excellent selection of furniture and technology, it is not the go-to site for vintage clothing.

Some excellent online stores include:
Firefly Vintage Clothing
Rusty Zipper
Vintage Vixen
Mama Stone Vintage


For 31 years, Joanne Guidoccio taught mathematics, computer science, business and career education courses in secondary schools throughout Ontario. Her articles, book reviews, and short stories have been published in newspapers, magazines, and online. She has bachelor's degrees in mathematics and education and a Career Development Practitioner diploma. Visit her website at JoanneGuidoccio.com.

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