The Secondhand & Vintage Shopper's Ten Commandments

Buying secondhand and vintage clothes isn't exclusive to the broke student anymore (though that may be where many of us got our start). ...

Buying secondhand and vintage clothes isn't exclusive to the broke student anymore (though that may be where many of us got our start). I, personally, began my secondhand buyer journey very early in life. Many early Saturday mornings were spent rummaging garage sales or thrifts shops with my mother as young as four years old. I'd take my allowance and my mother would help guide me and teach me to barter for China-dolls, pogs, and a pair of light up Disney Pocahontas velcro sneakers. This developed over the years and my appreciation for excellent vintage blossomed. By my teens my eye and skill for finding and styling well-made clothing or home goods became an art. Not only was it all I could afford (my family had extreme financial difficulties during this time) but it allowed me to creatively express myself. 

Whilst everyone else was wearing soulless, mass-produced polo shirts and ruffled mini skirts I delighted in pairing my grandmother's 1950's chiffon dress with my mother's 70's leather jacket and my Goodwill sourced modern boots. While I may have been born and raised with the secondhand soul, not everyone comes by it naturally. Many become anxious and overwhelmed when searching for pieces and leave empty-handed. They'll claim it's just easier for them to buy new; discouraged and unable to see the potential in so many items. If you're in that department: this article is for you. 

Disclaimer: You don't have to dress as "creatively" as I do/have in my past (see my early styling days of mixing vintage with everyday wear). It can be about buying well made pieces, being eco-friendly and sustainable, or shopping on a budget. 

The Secondhand & Vintage Shopper's Ten Commandments: 

  1. Be True to Yourself: Just because it's a well-made item and a steal of deal, if corduroy overalls or floral oil paintings aren't your style then pass on these. Look for pieces that spark joy and that you are drawn to over and over again (new or old). 
  2. Experiment: Being true to yourself being said, if you do find yourself looking to try new styles secondhand is the perfect way to test it out. It's affordable and if you change your mind you can always donate your trial runs and not contribute to more waste. 
  3. Start Gradually: If you're a newbie to the vintage game and/or are turned off by the idea of owning used items start gradually with items that bear little evidence of their previous lives. Purses, belts, silk scarves, and jewelry are excellent ways to ease into sustainable shopping. 
  4. Combine Old with the New: Wearing purely vintage isn't suggested unless you want to look like you're headed to a costume party. The secret is to mix in these pieces into your existing wardrobe. Pair those vintage Levis with a cashmere turtleneck and Alexander Wang boots. The key is to find a happy balance that adds interest to your outfit while looking organic. 
  5. Get Creative! If you're comfortable with getting crafty DHY (do it half yourself) and dye a dress to a more up-to-date color, buy a bargain top just to steal the buttons to add personality and a unique flair to another piece (use the bargain top material for cleaning rags or recycle), take a dress' sash and use it as a headscarf (pictured above), change the shoes laces for velvet ribbons, hem a dated skirt to flatter you, etc. 
  6. Leave Your Snobbery at the Door: While it can be an absolute thrill to find designer items (I've found items from Burberry, Oscar de la Renta, Chanel, and Dior for complete STEALS) this isn't the time to be a brand snob. I don't mean you should still consider Forever21 (QUITE the contrary!). I'm saying check for quality, not brands (though, I do find it a quick shortcut to look for certain brands that are known for their quality craftsmanship). How do you do this, you ask....?
  7. Check for Quality Craftsmanship: Turn the garment inside out and inspect the piece fully. If the inside is made just as beautifully as the exterior it's a good sign that this piece was made to last. Look at the lining material (is it silk or polyester?). Test the seams: are they well and precisely sewn with a tight stitch? Or are they noticeably mass produced in a factory with sloppily sewn seams? Same goes for buttons. Factory machine sewn buttons will always have stray threads. These will always fall off sooner than hand sewn buttons. Look at where the fabric meets. If there are stripes or a pattern, does is line up? What is used for the zipper or button materials? Plastic / polymer or beautiful metals, mother-of-pearl, or wood? In today's modern fast fashion world with mass produced items it's nearly impossible to find quality craftsmanship that is affordable. The whole, "Things just aren't what they used to be," saying completely applies here sadly. Yet another reason to shop secondhand and vintage. You can see how these pieces hold up against the test of time with maintenance. 
  8. Check for Beautiful Fabric: If you're been doing this a while you'll know it's a tactile sensation. Often when secondhand shopping I can just run my hands along the racks and stop once I feel the soft or rich feeling material. Then I read the labels: checking for the material's source (is it from couture locations such as Italy / United States / Paris or a mass produced country like China?) and composition. I try to opt for natural materials such as leather, wool, silk, cotton, angora, camel hair, vintage fur*, and viscose (made from plant fibers). However, not all natural materials are created equal. Go to an the expensive designer parts of Nordstrom or a boutique and feel their clothes made of wool, cashmere, silk, or cotton verses the cashmere at Uniqlo or cotton at H&M. The quality of material, weave, and treatment have a remarkable impact on the feel and end result of the fabric. A way to test the quality of wool, cashmere, or silk is to rub the piece together. For wool/cashmere if the fabric balls up it's lower quality. For silk, you should feel warmth when you rub the material together against your palm. I also listen for a distinctive crunching sound (like stepping on snow) when rubbing silk together. 
  9. Pay Attention to Details: Does the zipper work properly? Does the leather smell musty? Is the fur rotting? Does the liner of ____ have sweat stains? Does anything bunch from being sewn poorly? Is the silk stained or water damaged? Is it genuinely vintage or is just an old, poorly made department store item? Never compromise workmanship when shopping for your clothes. You should be just as proud buying your vintage items as you are when taking home something new. 
  10. Try it On! I know so many people who have made the mistake of impulse buying secondhand items and not trying them on or inspecting them-only to get home and discover a hole somewhere, a stain they overlooked, or just to realize the cut and fit are completely wrong for them. Trying on clothes gives you time to feel, smell, and check in with the item. Don't rely how it looks on a hanger. Styles and cuts change drastically over time in fashion and once you try the clothes on you may notice these better. Don't fret though, you may be able get a piece you otherwise love altered to a modern style or tailored to fit. 
Here are some excellent pieces from my latest thrift haul that I discovered. I didn't take them all home (some where too similar to items I already have) or the fit wasn't quite right for my body. However, all of these were worthy of coming home with another lucky shopper. I'm also sharing how I'd style some of these pieces with my wardrobe. 

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