Vintage Fashion: Expensive Thrift or Smart Shopping?

Is "vintage" just a fancy word for "old"? When it comes to fashion the answer is "yes." Then again, the answer is also "no." I have been thinking a lot about this question since TEDxHouston, after seeing a video entitled "Wearing nothing new" by Jessi Arrington. Arrington only buys second-hand clothing, and the hook for her speech is that she only packed seven pairs of underwear for her trip to TED and went thrift shopping for her conference wardrobe once she arrived in LA. Her most expensive outfit cost $55, head-to-toe.

The main thrust of Arrington's speech is that shopping second hand is inexpensive and has a lower impact on the environment than buying everything new. But Jessi Arrington is thrift shopping, not vintage shopping, and for better or for worse, "vintage" has become a keyword for "expensive," even in second-hand stores.

Go to most any Goodwill or Salvation Army or independent thrift shop, and you can find 50-cent t-shirts and 10-cent picture frames. The chances of taking home a vintage Chanel suit for $50? Slim, my friends--very slim. So while I can appreciate Jessi Arrington's aesthetic, it differs from my approach to vintage, which is to look for distinctive pieces of good quality that I can rotate into my regular wardrobe of purchased-new clothing. I'm not looking for it to be less than $20; rather, I seek out pieces in good shape that I think are a good buy. A designer label on a damaged item (soiled, torn, stained) doesn't make the purchase a good investment in "vintage." I found a pair of Ferragamo boots in a vintage store two years ago, but they were so badly scuffed that they were hardly worth the affordable price tag of $98. So how do I determine a good vintage buy from regular old second-hand clothes?

1. Examine the garment/accessory for damage: I don't care what label is on the dress or purse if the garment is stained, or if it smells. If you think the damage can be repaired by a professional, and the Hermés scarf in your hand is miraculously priced at $2, go for it; if it's priced at $200, skip it. Irreparable damage makes any vintage piece a bad investment. For items like suits and jackets--especially anything with a lining--inspect the inner seams for wear. Carefully examine closures like zippers and buttons, or decorative embellishments like beading and sequins.

2. Designer label not required: Some of my favorite vintage pieces have no designer label. Vintage really just means "from a particular period," but upscale vintage shops have used the word to hold shoppers hostage to high prices. Obviously a Max Mara dress is going to be priced higher than a no-label dress, but that doesn't mean you should toss aside beautiful second-hand clothing that is in good shape for a damaged Max Mara. Likewise, if you look better in the no-label dress, buy the no-label dress!

3. If it doesn't fit, and never will, it is not a good buy: Is that DVF wrap dress one size too big? Buy it--your tailor can alter it. Is it five sizes too big, or just the wrong proportion for your body type? Skip it and invest your money elsewhere. Don't forget that sizes have changed dramatically over the years--try on everything to see if it fits before you buy.

4. If you are just starting out, try accessories first: Accessories like purses and belts are easy to rotate into your existing wardrobe, you will get a lot of use out of them, making them worth the investment. You might carry a purse every day, as opposed to a cocktail dress you will wear once a month.

5. Consider if it's really "you": If you are buying something just because it has a big-name label, but it isn't something you would normally wear, it's not a great investment of your money. Think about how often you will really wear the piece before purchasing. It seems like common sense, right? You would be surprised how often I've considered purchasing a vintage fur coat only to remember I live in Texas.

To illustrate, here are a few of my favorite vintage pieces, clockwise starting from the top-right:

1. Slim-cut leather coat by Leather Fashions/Harry Pollack, California: The label says size six but in modern sizes I'm a 0-2 and this coat is very form-fitting.The lining is in incredible condition and the sleeve length is perfect. Well worth the $86 I spent on it at a vintage shop on South Congress in Austin. It is the perfect weight for Texas "winters."

2. Whiting & Davis white mesh chain strap handbag: The lining is intact and unstained, and the original, built-in mirror is intact as well. I paid about $20 for it at The Guild Shop in Houston.

3. Rings: On the left is a large amethyst in white gold with diamond accents, on the right a large aquamarine set in yellow gold. The stones are not perfect, but the amethyst was gifted to my mother by her parents, and the aquamarine belonged to my grandmother. These are my go-to cocktail rings.

4. Vintage perfume bottles: The blue-and-white is a Guerlain l'Heure Bleue and the solid gold colored is Tuvache Jungle Gardenia; both empty, but they look beautiful in my perfume collection. The large bottle is Germain Monteil Bakir that has a few sprays left in the bottle. It's a discontinued fragrance, and buying vintage perfume is another blog altogether, but I got lucky--this one held up nicely.

5. Leather handbag, no label: My favorite vintage piece, this was also a gift from my mother. She thinks it's old and hideous but I get stopped on the street over this bag. It's my go-to day purse, and I've never seen one like it. Are you a vintage shopper in Houston? Is there a thrift shop we should know about? Let us know in the comments.

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