The first piece of vintage I ever bought was an iridescent purple ‘80s prom dress with a sequined bodice and a ruffled skirt. I had no date to my senior prom and because of that, I decided I would go full pizazz with my dress. This was 2008 and I lived in the middle of New Jersey without much access to vintage shops. So I scoured eBay until I found the sassy, gaudy dress of my dreams and purchased it for under $100. In a sea of floor-length gowns from the Deb shop at the local mall, I felt cool and unique. My love affair with vintage clothing had officially begun.
That love has only grown since then. At first, it was the unique quality of the pieces that really spoke to me — I was drawn to the ability to find one-of-a-kind clothing that nobody else had. It felt exciting to wear a DVF wrap dress from the ‘70s to Christmas dinner while my cousins were in their bandage skirts. I felt a slight thrill when I went to my first job interview for a fashion website and my would-be boss complimented the wide-legged trousers I picked up at a flea market the weekend before. I spent a good chunk of my teenage years feeling like a bit of an outsider. Vintage clothing helped me take control over that narrative and turn it into something positive and expressive.
As I’ve gotten older, the closed-loop nature of buying secondhand has become more appealing, and building a more sustainable wardrobe has become more important to me. A staggering 100 billion garments are made *every year* around the world, and shopping second-hand helps keep some of those pieces out of landfills by giving them new life.
Although that first prom dress purchase was on eBay, I’ve gotten into the habit of shopping for vintage in-person at flea markets, vintage markets, and antique shops. When I’m traveling to a new city, I always map out the vintage spots first and plan a full day to dig through them all. But, like most in-store shopping, once the pandemic hit, my vintage hunting moved online. Plenty of retailers opened e-shops, but a number of my favorite shops actually started selling via Instagram. “Most of my customers used to be in-person at flea markets or in my studio, but since COVID, the majority of them are now online,” says Naomi Bergknoff, owner of OMNIA, a vintage shop based in Brooklyn, NY.
And even though I had experience with shopping second-hand on the internet, I quickly realized that this type of retail required a different skillset to shopping IRL. (You can’t, after all, try something on digitally.) So, I tapped a handful of pros to figure out the ins and out of shopping for vintage online.
Whether you’re an old pro like moi or are new to the second-hand game, these tips will help ensure you wind up with a piece you love, and not one that makes you look like a 1950s housewife. (Unless, of course, that’s the goal, in which case, these tips will also work!)
Start In Your Own Closet
There is a lot of vintage out there, and it can be overwhelming to know where to start. But according to Anna Gray, founder of Club Vintage, the easiest place to begin is in your own wardrobe. “Start with pieces you already like,” she says. “So if you have a favorite silk blouse with a high collar and a button cuff, try looking for other blouses that are silk or that have a high-collar and a button cuff.”
Keeping an eye on your own closet can also help you identify holes, which can help point you in the direction of where you should be spending your money. “I keep a ‘thrift list’ of pieces that I’m interested in purchasing, and every time I’m browsing an online thrift store, I consult the list,” says Abby Mills, an influencer known for mixing vintage pieces with more modern buys. “You can’t always find those pieces in an online thrift store, and sometimes you need to buy it new, but it gives me an idea of what I actually need. And most of the time, I can find something similar to what I’m actually looking for.”
That’s an important tip to note, too — don’t feel like you need to toss everything out and start fresh with vintage buys. “I think a more realistic practice is incorporating vintage and thrifting with other things that you already own in your wardrobe, as well as modern pieces you may buy,” Mills says.
Know Your Measurements
One thing that all three of our experts agreed on is that it’s so important to know your measurements. “Any good seller will list measurements and whether or not a fabric has stretch, but not every seller allows for returns,” says Bergknoff, whose shop does accept returns. “That’s why it’s important to know your own measurements.” Mills says that at minimum, you should pull out a measuring tape and get the numbers for your inseam, bust, natural waist, hips, and shoulders.
If you don’t have a soft fabric measuring tape, Gray has a useful tip: “Use a piece of string to measure, and then measure the piece of string on a rigid tape measure.” It’s also a good idea to measure similar pieces in your wardrobe to see how they compare to a listed item. So if you’re eyeing a dress, measure the shoulders, waist, and length of a similar dress in your closet to get an idea of whether or not it will fit your body. Most items are measured flat, so if you’re measuring on your body, halve the number to get the proper number.
And remember: A good tailor can work wonders on vintage clothes, but only to a point. “It’s easier to take something in than to let it out,” Mills says. So be realistic about how much surgery you’re willing to perform on your new buy.
Consider The Fabric
Any seller worth their salt will list a product’s fabric makeup, but if you’re unsure, it’s important to inquire. A blouse that looks like silk could actually be polyester, which would affect the price it’s listed at. But don’t sleep on synthetics. “Polyester gets a bad rap because people think of it as this hot, stuffy fabric, but it can feel a lot of different ways,” Bergknoff says. “And since it’s synthetic, it also holds up a lot better than more natural fabrics.” Fabrics like wool, silk, and cotton can break down over time, so it’s important for the seller to note the state that the fabric is in.
It’s also important to remember that these more natural fabrics require a bit more upkeep, Mills says. “If you’re someone who wears their clothes a little hard, or who won’t invest in dry cleaning, it’s important to keep that in mind when shopping for vintage clothes, which tend to be more delicate,” she says. So if you’re not willing to put in the effort to dry clean that gorgeous vintage silk blouse, it’s a good idea to pass on it.
Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Questions
Unsure about a product’s quality, how it may fit, or whether it has a funky odor? Just ask! “I truly don’t mind if a buyer asks me a million questions, because it shows that they’re actually interested and mindful about the piece they’re buying,” Bergknoff says. “I’m more than willing to send extra photos in different lighting, or to take a closer picture of a potential stain, so that the buyer is extra-informed.” It’s also a good idea to inquire about a how worn a product actually is, or whether it may need some mending.
“You don’t always know what you’re going to get, and you can’t always return it, so asking questions is so important,” Mills says. “Make sure you’re looking at a reputable seller with a lot of good reviews, or who seems to have an engaged following.” If a seller pushes back on questions, or won’t send extra pictures, consider that a red flag.
And if you wind up with a piece you don’t love? “You can always resell it,” says Gray. “Start getting comfortable with the cyclical nature of thrift shopping. Vintage and thrifting isn’t just about moving clothes in, but about moving clothes back out of your closet in a circular way.” Sites like thredUP, Depop, and Poshmark make listing your pre-loved items a snap, and you’ll be contributing to the closed-loop system without creating more waste.
At the end of the day, shopping for vintage can be a fun way to incorporate more interesting pieces into your wardrobe in a more sustainable way. So the next time you’re looking for a statement piece, or the perfect white blouse, or an adorable wicker bag, take a page from 18-year-old Maria’s book and go vintage. You never know what’s out there waiting for you.