We all have to wear clothes, but not all of us are in love with fashion. That’s where vintage comes in. Don’t get me wrong – I love clothes.
I love what they can do for you – make you look perky when you’re feeling down, soothe your body when you’ve had a tough day, hide your bad bits and accentuate your good bits. In particular, I have a love affair with fabrics – with real silk lingerie and soft kid leather shoes; with cashmere and fluffy angora knits; with scratchy Harris tweed and butter-soft suede.
But I am not, at all times, greatly enamoured of fashion.
One of the reasons is that fashion often sucks. When the trend turns to sack dresses with shoestring straps, where’s a girl to turn? But another reason is that I’m a tightwad. If I buy a thing, and I love it and I look good in it, and I enjoy wearing it, I feel seriously aggrieved when fashion moves on and I can’t wear my lovely item any more because it’s ‘old fashioned’. Keep it long enough and doubtless it’ll be in fashion again, but you can’t wear it a second time because it only reminds people how long you’ve been on the planet.
What are the options? Get it out once a year, stroke it and put it away again? Give it to someone younger? Chuck it in the bin?
One way to avoid that obsolete feeling is to wear vintage.
Vintage isn’t for everyone but it greatly appeals to a certain type of woman – NOT being in fashion takes a bit of courage and it sometimes means you’ll attract attention. It’s not for shrinking violets. When you wear vintage, people often ask you where you got your clothes, or to turn around, or they feel your fabrics. When you wear it, you make yourself public.
Nor is vintage for people who are squeamish, worrying about whether someone’s sweated into this clothing, or broken wind into it, or – good grief – died in it. Dear readers, if you had ever worked in retail and seen the filthy sweaty women who try on the clothes that are then sold as so-called clean and still have their tags, you would be less worried about this. The first thing I do with my new clothes is get the things dry cleaned…
Anyway, about a third of my wardrobe is vintage, and here’s why:
* Vintage enables you to find fabrics that don’t exist any more. Fabrics come and go in fashion and those of the Victorian era through to the end of the 1930s are simply no longer made. Fabrics like peau de soie and peau de peche and vintage satin bear no resemblance to their modern equivalents. 1920s and 1930s silk velvets are so fine you can pull a whole garment through a wedding ring, and come in the most wonderful colours – saffron yellow, emerald green, devores of all shades. Pre-1960s cottons have a higher thread count per inch than modern cottons and remain crisp and cool in the summer heat, while the gold and silver metallic laces and lames are beyond description.
* Vintage enables you to find techniques that are now rare outside the couture market. Fully-beaded dresses, fully-sequinned dresses, handknits with beading on every stitch, knitwear lined with organza or dupion. If you’re really lucky and keep your eyes peeled, you might even get genuine couture at bargain-basement prices. I own several genuine couture items which would be well beyond my pocket if they were modern – my favourite is a trapeze-shape 1960s alpaca coat with nutria collar and cuffs, which cost £15. A similar one costs about £3,500 from Alexander McQueen.
* If you’re petite, you may find the fit is much better. I am a shade under 5ft 2inches, which means I don’t fit well into modern ranges other than petite (limited ranges and expensive). Luckily, I am handy with a needle, but reaching for the vintage racks means I don’t have to be. In particular, garments from the 1950s fit like a glove, especially those with the three-quarter sleeves which were so popular back then.
* The quality of cut and tailoring can be superb. Even in day dresses of the 1950s and earlier, the seam allowances are enormous, making the garment more sturdy, the sleeves are properly faced, bodices may be fully lined and you tend to find French seams and clipped pinked seams rather than serged. When it comes to jackets and coats, the differences are enormous – properly weighted hems, Hong-Kong finishes, organza interfacing, prick-stitching.
Who can’t wear vintage
Vintage won’t work for everybody. In particular, it can be a problem with taller women unless they’re thin and fine-boned. If you have a model’s figure, the world is your oyster, but if you’re broad shouldered or carrying any weight, your choice is more limited. Women have gotten bigger over the past 100 years and clothing before the 1960s was also worn over some form of corsetry, which shaped the figure from an early age. My friend M was slender but she couldn’t even get her arms through the sleeves of one of my 1950s coats because the cuffs were so tightly tailored and her arms were inches longer than the fit of the coat. Nor would her broad shoulders or wide ribcage fit into my tiny jackets.
A tight fit doesn’t apply to all items – the loose, untailored garments of the 1920s will fit many modern women and Victorian underwear is voluminous and fits almost everyone. 1950s ‘trapeze-style’ coats, which swing out from a narrow shoulder also fit most women – but broadly speaking, clothing of the rest of the 20th century can be problematical if you’re over 5ft 6inches or above a UK size 10 (US 8). Pay particular attention to sizing if you’re buying online.
The vintage market sells its goods by decade, so here’s what to look for in each era.
White cotton, often hand-embroidered, especially voluminous nighties (good for full-figured women), bloomers and petticoats. Hand-made blouses with lace inserts (you’ll need a tiny waist). Travelling costumes in wool or linen. Avoid anything black, especially silk – black silks were ‘weighted’ with iron salts which make the the fabric rot.
Pretty day dresses in cotton batiste or lace (very delicate). Tailored items in wool, especially gabardine. This was an extremely feminine era that used delicate fabrics and many of the clothes have not survived.
Evening gowns in beaded silk or cotton (store flat, never hang), lame items, devore velvet and silk velvet jackets. T-shirt-shaped blouses in silk, with beading. Evening coats and capes in velvet. Avoid gelatine sequins, which can’t be washed. The average woman in the 1920s was not especially thin or small-waisted and designs are often quite forgiving.
Bias-cut evening gowns in lame or silk tissue, velvet gowns, velvet jackets, ‘peignoirs’ (negligees) in chiffon or velvet. Fairisle handknits. You HAVE to be thin to wear 1930s dresses – this was the era of the great slim-down and gowns made so tight you could barely sit down in them.
Tailor-made suits, CC41 (official Utility wear) items, including suits and coats. Evening gowns and jackets, often in black and shocking pink, with big shoulder pads. Avoid items that are overworn – clothing and fabric production was tightly regulated during the war years and many fabrics are of poor quality and have not worn well.
Suits, coats, tailored dresses. Day dresses with full skirts, especially in cotton prints. Mexican-style circle skirts. Cropped knitwear with three-quarter sleeves. Beaded knitwear. Sequinned knitwear. Trousers and capris with side zips. The 1950s was a very feminine era and generally requires a small waist and a largish bust. You can always pad the bust if need be, but modern women tend to have thicker waists than in the 1950s, when women routinely wore waist-cinchers.
Shift dresses and coats of a similar shape, usually in stiffish fabrics, including some synthetics. Beaded and sequinned knitwear. Ribbon knitwear. Capes. Avoid the cheaper synthetic items, especially nylon that has been washed many times.
Maxi dresses in bold prints, original-era Laura Ashley frocks in dimity prints, embroidered ethnic items.
I’m stopping at the 1970s because that’s moving into an area when most of us either were, or became adults, and if there’s one golden rule about vintage, it’s don’t wear it now if you were an adult when it first came out. It’s borderline if you were a child, as I was in the early 1970s.
Where to find them
If you want to try wearing vintage, you can’t beat visiting a clothing store and trying things on. Pay no attention to sizing – this has changed over the years and the label is unlikely to tell you anything you need to know, such as whether the garment will fit your ribcage.
It’s very hard to get a good idea of vintage by buying online, and I’m wary of it myself even though I’ve been wearing vintage since the late 70s. If you do decide to buy online, make sure your vendor has a good returns policy, and pay close attention to the measurements given – most vendors give extremely detailed measurements. Err on the side of caution, if need be, and buy overlarge, and take the garment to a tailor for retailoring – you can always take a thing in, but don’t expect to be able to let an item out.