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The Vintage Voyeur:...

The Vintage Voyeur: Separating Quality from Crap

It’s every fashion maven’s dream to sift through the racks at her favorite vintage store and unearth a find so unique and so valuable that she’ll be the envy of all her well-dressed friends. In the sartorial world, there’s no bigger badge of honor than the perfectly sourced vintage find: the 1960s-era Pucci dress, the midcentury vintage denim, or the Hermès scarf in the hard-to-find print. Some women view vintage fashion as an investment that will appreciate with time—and some high-end vintage clothing surely is; most of us just appreciate quality craftsmanship and the chance to wear a small piece of another era’s style, often for a significantly lower price than new clothes cost.

So when you’re combing through those piles of clothes, how do you tell what’s valuable vintage and what’s just plain old? There’s a big difference, after all, and there’s nothing worse than taking home what you thought was a quality piece only to have it fall apart upon the first wear. Luckily, there are several foolproof ways to determine a garment’s real potential, and knowing them can keep you from making a grievous—and gauche—mistake.

Look for Good Construction
No matter when they were made, well-crafted clothes all carry certain characteristics. Look for weighted hems with a generous fabric allowance; tight, regular stitching along seams; enclosed seams that prevent thread from unraveling; metal zippers; and other signifiers of high quality and attention to detail. Patterns should be aligned properly, embroidery and beading should be done by hand, and buttonholes should be stitched the whole way around. Also, keep an eye out for luxurious fabrics such as real wool, cashmere, silk, or satin, instead of polyesters or synthetic blends. On shoes, look for cork or wooden heels, leather uppers, and stitched soles instead of plastic or synthetic materials that are glued together.

Learn to Spot a Fake
Some garments are modern reproductions made to trick customers into believing they’re true vintage. Remember that anything with a plastic or vinyl zipper was probably made after 1970, and true vintage dresses often have the zip at the side, not the back. Sizing has changed over the years, so a real vintage garment will often reflect a larger size than its modern equivalent—today’s size 8 would have been closer to a 12 or 14 in the 1950s and ’60s—and earlier vintage pieces often list the size in hip inches. Also, fabric-care labels only came into widespread use in the 1970s, so be suspicious of “vintage” clothes with modern labels. Garments from earlier eras are also more likely to feature netting or muslin underskirts for dresses, hook-and-eye fasteners, boning, or other handmade features that today’s mass-produced clothes don’t often have.

Gauge the Damage
It’s simple: well-made clothing wears better. No garment is immune to damage, but one that’s made by hand and with care is more likely to withstand the ravages of wear and time. Make sure that the garment is free of moth holes (a common problem with coats, dresses, and any garment made of natural fibers, like wool). Dyed fabric should display minimal fading or running, which may be the result of improper dry cleaning. Hems should be intact, the linings of dresses and coats should be free of rips and tears, and the outside of wool garments should have minimal pilling.

When assessing the condition of a garment, pay special attention to areas that receive the most wear—shoulders, underarms, zippers, seats, and any area where the fabric is more likely to be under extra stress. Look out for areas where the fabric may have become threadbare or thin, zippers that have lost teeth or become detached from the garment, and stains in the armpits or collar areas.

Know What Can Be Repaired
Sometimes, even if a garment is in less-than-perfect condition, it can still be restored by a skilled tailor. Falling hems, broken zippers or boning, missing buttons, and loose seams can easily be mended. However, rips in the center of the fabric, old set-in stains, bald spots, fabric stretching, or dye fading are not so easily undone. Sturdy fabrics, like wool or cashmere, and sturdy garments, like dresses or coats, can more easily withstand restoration than flimsy silk or satin can. If a garment is damaged beyond the point of repair, it’s virtually guaranteed to be worthless. A woolen sweater or coat with minor pilling or a frayed lining can be repaired to like-new condition, but what good is a formerly beautiful dress if it’s stained or full of holes that can never be mended?

Don’t Put Too Much Stock in Labels
Some clothing lines are more valuable than others are, but if your goal is simply to find fun and well-made pieces, the labels aren’t always important. True designer vintage from fashion houses like Lanvin, Valentino, Dior, or Chanel is unlikely to show up in anything but the most expensive resale or consignment stores, so don’t automatically disregard items without labels or those from unknown brands. In past decades, many garments were homemade and were just as likely to have the same high-quality construction as designer pieces have. Items from mass-market lines (especially those from the 1980s on) are unlikely to have these high standards, even though they may feature a familiar label.

Combing a store for quality vintage clothes can feel like looking for a single fish in a big, open sea—often fruitless and futile. The sad truth about textiles is that they don’t last forever, and without proper storage and care, most garments simply don’t have a very long life. But if you pay attention to the details and dedicate yourself to the search, your vintage hunt can reap some very chic rewards.

Allison Ford

Allison is a writer and editor who specializes in beauty, style, entertainment, and pop culture. She was part of the editorial team at DivineCaroline (now More.com) for more than three years. She loves makeup, sparkly accessories, giraffes, brunch, Matt Damon, New York City, and ice cream.

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