How to Shop Vintage: A Tell-All Guide on How Your Favorite Style Icons Do It

Spring cleaning is at peak season and I know that more than a handful of you are looking to find some new clothes/accessories to fit into your closet. If I have to find something unique, the only method I swear by is by shopping vintage!

Growing up in Asia, vintage shopping was seen as a stigma as it was associated with people who couldn’t afford much to buy new clothes. Also, it was deemed unhygienic as the garment was previously used. It wasn’t until I started reading Mary-Kate and Ashley’s Two of a Kind series that I learned what vintage clothing was since a character wore secondhand clothing from two decades ago. I was desperate to emulate the “cool girl” look by shopping vintage. As a diehard fangirl of the Olsen twins, I learned that their famous semi-homeless chic bobo style mainly included vintage clothing as their base. I mean, even Kate Moss’ style was deeply rooted in vintage clothes she scored at flea markets and thrift stores! Deeply incentivized by the urge to try vintage shopping, I walked inside What Comes Around Goes Around during a summer vacation in NYC when I was 12. Despite walking out empty-handed, I felt inspired to find vintage clothing and accessories whether it be from a boutique to my late grandmother’s closet.

Ever since I went to college, I treated myself to vintage goodies and based on the five years I’ve shopped secondhand, I feel like it’s time for me to (finally) give away my secrets. Gear up and take notes, ladies! (Gentlemen, you are included, too!)

  1. Study the popular silhouettes/trend of a decade

As history buff, I endlessly scroll through Google, pore through my mom’s fashion history books and hit up museums that display antique clothing. When I look at more than two garments, I begin to picture the silhouette on me.

If you are a beginner, try sticking to one silhouette that matches with your current wardrobe. It helps you identify what will flatter your body as vintage cuts are generally smaller than contemporary sizing. Also, the majority of vintage garments are built to be fitted to one dominant body type of an era.

2. Look carefully at the label or date on a garment

Carbon-dating sounds extremely tedious, but you can save yourself some time by investigating carefully at the labels. If you ever go shopping in the US, there’s a label “ILGWU“, which stands for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. This label was common in the ’60s to the ’90s, when it disbanded. Shall you encounter it anywhere at a vintage store, snap it up immediately as you can never find it again.

Also, labels help you indicate the era a garment was made. However, this issue of finding an era doesn’t stop there. In fact, dates on garment’s label or drawing are common as it will tell you when it was produced. But finding a date on the shirt doesn’t stop here…

3. Zoom closer on vintage tees

If you pop into a vintage store and run through the racks for vintage concert shirts, every single design will indicate the date. In fact, dates are a matter of life and death. As so many vintage band tees are being reproduced by fast fashion companies (ew!), it will basically give out the year when an old design is recently licensed for the company to produce it. For example, if you are looking at a Led Zeppelin tee, but the date is from 2006, it’s most likely to be a licensed repro than the real deal. (This happened to me once as I didn’t look at the date carefully!) For tours or events that are well known (e.g. Rock for Choice or Guns ‘n Roses and Metallica’s co-headlining Use Your Illusion Tour), these tees are super duper RARE! Rule of thumb: The rarer the shirt, the better.

4. Condition

Ideally, every single vintage item should be in pristine condition. In that case, it means no tears, smells, stains and other flaws your local dry cleaner can clean out. But in vintage terminology, these are the terms you need to know:

A) Deadstock – new unworn old stock. Sounds confusing, but it’s basically unworn old inventory that has been lying around in storage for YEARS! In fact, some of deadstock items you find will have a price tag attached.

B) Excellent – the garment has been worn multiple times, but there are tiny, yet extremely fixable flaws that aren’t that terribly noticeable from afar.

C) Good – a bit more worse for wear than an “excellent” vintage garment, but there are more flaws. This is where rips and tears or pilling fall in.

D) Fair – a bit average above poor, but the garment is super distressed and a LOT of repairs need to happen. If ultra distressed is your thing, then you got the best beaten up vintage treasure that a lot of fast fashion retail stores try so hard to achieve with heavy chemical processing and labor.

5. Types of vintage pieces you must invest in

In case you are wondering why some vintage pieces cost as much as your rent or year’s paycheck, it’s because the quality from eons ago was better. Not to mention, fast fashion wasn’t so prevalent; hence, the superiority in durability. No matter if the item is branded or unbranded, some things are worth saving up for. Here is what you need to start out with:

  1. Concert, TV show or movie tees – owning a piece of history feels so great and as a pop culture fiend, it rings a bell as I want people to notice my interests. Showing your passion for a band, TV show, solo artist or movie you love is best done via a graphic tee. It’s the type of understated statement piece that all of you must have! But only buy it if you TRULY like the topic. (No posers, please.)
  2. Leather jackets – details are king. In case you are wondering why Kate Moss’ leather jackets look so comfy, it’s because all of her pieces are vintage! Leather jackets from the ’50s to ’80s have drastically changed their silhouette to suit the popular fashions of each time. Despite the dramatic changes in style, I’ve noticed that all of my vintage leather jackets (from my Kate Moss Roncelli trucker jacket from the ’70s to the ’80s cropped studded leather biker jacket) end at the waist for a flattering, figure-friendly look. Whether it’s oversized, slightly long or shrunken, go for one that plays well with your proportions! Although buying jackets seem so tricky, it’s actually one of the easiest things to buy.
  3. Bags – no outfit can be complete without one. If you want quality purses, go for designer vintage pieces whether it be Dior, Fendi, Gucci or Chanel. Each piece from these designers never repeats the same design seasonally every year. Most importantly, treat your bag like it’s your ride or die as you want it to match with at least 75% of your closet.
  4. Dress – I LOVE dresses. I always swear by it whenever I feel too lazy to put on a pair of pants. Given that each of us are built differently, you MUST get one for at least 3 separate occasions: everyday, work and cocktail/party.

As easy as vintage shopping sounds, here are some gems I’ve picked up along the way:

  1. Try on things you can’t return at the (physical) store – I’ve had moments when I wanted to return things because they couldn’t fit. Mainly those things are button down tops and jeans. As vintage sizing for jeans is absolutely the trickiest, it’s best to try it on in store before you order it online.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask – if you shop online like I do, the first thing I do before I buy is to ask the owner. They will go out of their way to help you at all cost. At the end of the day, what you purchase is what you MUST KEEP as most vintage stores don’t accept returns. (True story, guys!!) This rule applies best for shoes as I’ve made the mistake of NOT asking if the chic leopard print furry Mary-Jane platforms were gonna crumble after wearing them for 2 years (RIP furry shoes! :’/).
  3. Measure yourself before you shop – one of my late granny’s go-to methods for shopping always included a roll of measuring tape. As strange as it sounded to me, it was purely handy. Size measurements are never ever wrong it can help you determine the fit of the garment. As each era has different cuts, pattern and styles, you always need to know if your body suits the shape of the actual garment no matter how trendy an item was 20-60 years ago.

Here are my top vintage picks for you:

  1. The Kickstart My Heart Jacketheavy metal hottie jacket.jpg

I am wild at heart and I also love how ’80s heavy metal reflected the energy of the artist’s super turbulent lives. While thrills are sexy, living the junkie lifestyle ain’t that hot. However, you can get a dose of ’80s rock ‘n roll from Dr. Feelgood with this super duper cool Motley Crue-esque jacket (Go find photo #17 on this Buzzfeed listicle –  it’s the closest you can get to Tommy Lee’s version!).

Like a true ’80s child, pair it with high-waisted jeans (or leather pants!) and a crop top. Or a band tee and high-waisted shorts with white ankle boots and matching socks! Aquanet hairspray optional.

BUY IT HERE

2. The Cadet Kelly Crop Top

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Remember the Hilary Duff teen movie, Cadet Kelly? Her uniform looked extremely similar to this super adorable vintage Boy Scout crop top from the ’80s! Shorn, sexy and with a touch of innocence, you can run wild with your imagination. Whether it be casual with mom jeans or music festival-friendly with faux leather shorts, you can take this top anywhere with you. Don’t be surprised if all the designers want to copy it on the runway. 😉

BUY IT HERE

3. The Around the World in 80 Days Skirt

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 8.50.07 PM

Instagram photos may be the new postcards, but this skirt takes it a notch. With so many countries’ flags plastered all over the skirt, it adds such an interesting statement piece that adds color and character. If you are to pair this with anything, it can be ultra femme with a slip camisole or laid back cool with a white tee. Seriously, this masterpiece from Galliano-era Dior is not to be overlooked.

BUY IT HERE 

4. The Survivor Onesie

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 9.49.46 PM

I can’t let go of Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” music video, where all Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle wore camo from head to toe. A camo onesie might seem super duper extra, but I like how this roomy design can look fierce with boots or a pair of high-heeled strappy sandals.

BUY IT HERE

5. The VIP Mini Backpack

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 10.06.06 PM.png

Buckled details are a tale as old as time; however, they’ve always remained fresh. In case you missed it, one of the greatest examples of multi-buckled garments was in Pamela Anderson’s show VIP. (FYI, it’s on the first episode where Pamela tries on clothes with her friend, who wore a bondage-style multi-buckled top!) Multi-buckled bags are seriously one of the most underrated and overlooked trends of the ’00s, but once you see them on the street, always think about who wore them first. 😉

BUY IT HERE

6. The Boho Babe Dress

anna sui dress

Part Seattle grunge (look up Bridget Fonda in Singles), part boho, this Anna Sui dress is pure ’90s dreams. Causal in a denim jacket or dressy in a PVC clear trenchcoat, you can style this dress anyhow you want. That’s why Anna Sui is one of my favorite designers: her pieces can be easily worn to dress up an outfit, even if it’s a simple clean white sneaker with denim or delicate gold jewelry!

BUY IT HERE

7. The Cool Cat Sunglasses

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 12.40.45 AM

I love a cat eye and it’s a big part in my personal style as I like all things retro. Personally, this silhouette is SUPER flattering as it lets your eyebrows stand out and softens the most masculine features of your jawline. (FYI: my paternal grandpa thought that I look SO manly because of my jawline lol!) Whether you have a pixie cut, a Christina Aguilera-style ponytail or a fierce lob, go for it!

BUY IT HERE

8. The Shoes Ariel Would Walk In

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If Ariel and Drew Barrymore walk into a bar, then this killer pair of metallic blue boots is a cocktail you must sip. Part grunge, part mermaid and a whole chock of young Brittany Murphy in Clueless, the metallic hue helps to make an outfit pop! While most girls back in the day would wear this with coordinating pastel blues, you can work the millenial blue look by pairing it with a floral dress (with some bit of blue flowers!), small cross body bag and a suede miniskirt. It’s flirty, yet it can get great conversations to come out from it.

BUY IT HERE

Will you try vintage shopping? If you plan to, what are the top 3 things you want to buy?

Photo by Hallie Geller

Published by

Michelle Varinata

Lapis - (n.) a layer Shrek once said that "onions have layers" as he was peeling one. Like an onion, I have layers. Born in Jakarta and raised in Singapore, I grew up being surrounded in a multicultural environment. Then, I moved to the States, where I lived in NYC and L.A. The creativity, hustle, bustle and vibe of those cities inspired me to become a blogger, journalist and influencer. Writing by day and living it up by night, I slay in the streets one OOTD at a time. Full-face makeup included, too. ;)

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