I’ve shopped vintage for over half my life now. I used to shop thrift stores to find as many outfits as possible for my sad style allowance, but at some point I started combing the crammed racks to find individual items—and my individual style. In my years shopping Salvation Army, Goodwill, and dingy little neighborhood vintage stores, I’ve lived and learned. I’ve bought some fashion mistakes and even fashioned a few of my own, but mostly I’ve sharpened my style and eye, and broadened my fashion horizons.
There have been dozens of truly unique articles of clothing that I’ve really adored, but walked away from for one reason or another—tears, stains, broken zippers, wrong length, unflattering fit, etc. Oh, it pains me now to think of them.
The first time I didn’t walk away was the day I discovered a green taffeta and lace number from the 50s. It was all wrong for me lengthwise (mid calf), and worse still, it had bright orange pit stains on it. It’s one thing to romantically imagine a previous owner and life for a garment, but quite another to see the chemical reaction of the fabric and the original owner’s deodorant. But I loved that green lace taffeta. I needed that green lace taffeta. So I didn’t walk away without it.
It hung neglected in my wardrobe for a couple of years until I enrolled in a beginner’s sewing class. I was finally ready to make that green dress wearable: I cut a few inches off the bottom, hemmed it, cut off the sleeves, and used the discarded fabric from the skirt to cover the raw edges of what were now the straps. My first adaptation was a huge success and mental wake up call, and today, that green lace taffeta dress takes pride of rotation in my closet.
There are several other second-hand finds I altered, such as the tacky long-sleeved pink gingham button-down shirt. I cut the sleeves off and changed the buttons to give it what I think is a funky, rockabilly look. I’ve changed necklines, narrowed waistlines, and in one instance, added a panel of fabric to a dress that fit beautifully on top, but just wasn’t accommodating when it came to my hips.
After my first few successes, I began to scour vintage, thrift, and consignment stores, with an eye for the potential of every item. Some I can tell are not going to be worth the effort, but a special fabric, pattern, or cut with minor imperfections now goes from promising to perfect in my inspired mind.
You don’t need to know how to sew or plan to learn to be a thrifty shopper. Sometimes a bargain find is worth the alteration costs. Visit with a friendly tailor and get an approximate idea of alteration costs so that when you see a $4 shirt that needs to be taken in a tad, you’ll know that the alteration will cost you an additional $7—and you can make an educated decision as to whether the fabric and style is worth $11. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. You don’t always need to rip a piece apart to make it work for you. Sometimes a quick button change is all that’s required to bring an old piece up to speed with the rest of your wardrobe. For instance, I found a fabulously fuzzy white coat, but it had a couple of very visible cigarette burns. I simply sewed some snaps onto two faux flowers I bought at a craft store and voila! The burns are hidden, the coat is personalized, and the flowers snap right off so I can easily throw the coat in the wash. Patches are great for disguising imperfections in the more casual thrift store finds and they allow you to be creative. You can be bold in your choice of patch fabrics to truly make your pants an expression of your style.
A strategically placed brooch is a quick fix for fabric stains or tears. Who cares if the stain you want to cover is just above the left hipbone? Cover it with Grandma’s bold faux sapphire pin and it’ll give your vintage dress a whole new look. Soon all your friends will be pinning brooches on their hips! Sometimes the right belt is all you need to achieve a more flattering form. If you don’t have the right belt, a silk scarf may work. There are loads of options and don’t worry about conflicting styles clashing. Sometimes that’s the very thing that makes your overall look really work.
In college, I started collecting my “Mr. Rogers sweaters,” which were basically just polyester cardigans from the thrift store. They came in all different colors and rarely cost more than six or seven dollars, so I had a pretty expansive collection. I personalized each sweater by replacing the buttons with ones you wouldn’t expect to see on that kind of sweater. The mint green sweater got Deco-looking square black buttons; the pink sweater got red heart-shaped buttons, edged in white; and for the deliciously gaudy mustard yellow sweater, I chose rhinestone buttons. After these simple button changes, all association with Mr. Rogers was lost and these sweaters fit perfectly into my wardrobe which was, at the time, a curious combination of Vintage, Raver, and Riot Grrl looks.
For those of you who have survived to date without knowing how to thread a needle and you don’t want to learn now, don’t fret. A good fabric glue is an essential cheat tool. Magna-Tac 809 is my favorite—just don’t use it on delicate fabrics or anything that must be dry-cleaned. Also, I’ve embraced the beauty of a raw, unfinished hem. Try it—the style grows on you quickly especially once you remind yourself that designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood have made millions on the unfinished look. It doesn’t work with everything, but there are times when a jagged hem is exactly what your ensemble needs to elevate the overall look to fierce.
So next time you find yourself walking away from a piece of fashion history, stop yourself. Consider your options. Consider its options. You could instead be walking away with fashion history in the making.
Related Story: Bling Your Ring: Easy Ways to Accessorize Your Cell Phone