Those of us that love vintage fashion know that the hunt can be exciting and maybe a little daunting at times. One trip to the Goodwill can land you a killer score or a disappointing flop, however the rush you get when scrounging through mounds of old clothes makes you feel like a little kid digging for treasures and the thrill is unlike any when you find something you truly adore.
I grew up shopping at thrift stores and garage sales with my mother, and she would always tell me "the best thing about shopping at thrift stores is that you will be able to wear things that nobody else has". She always taught me to be original, and I guess it stuck. I didn't really learn to appreciate shopping second hand until I became a rebellious teen. FIGHT CONFORMITY! Though at that time I was looking for old concert shirts and leather jackets (don't get me wrong, I still love finding both). As I got older I expanded my horizons when it came to what I shopped for. I don't think I have any brand new furniture in my home and I love telling my friends about the awesome vintage lamp I bought for less than I spent on lunch.
This article is going to be a bit more focused on shopping for and inspecting vintage lingerie. Go figure, right? So now, let me share a few secrets to how I decide what is worthy for selling at my shop and why these little things may help you when shopping on your own.
Who wants to wear old lingerie anyway?
Well, lots of people! Lets face it, if you are looking to wear a gorgeous day dress from the 1960's you are probably going to need the proper foundation pieces to wear under it in order for it to fully grasp the intended look. Of course you can take it in to be tailored, but that's no fun! Bullet bras are a bit more comfortable than you think, and they fill out the bodice of many tops and dresses beautifully. Girdles offer that slimming curvature to make your hips and bum pop under your pencil skirt, and gorgeous lacy slips protect your skin under some of the harsh textured fabrics and closures that were worn in generations past. Not only are slips and foundation necessary for your overall fit and style, they are simply fabulous and beautiful and unlike anything you can find in modern styles. They are special and each piece is a one of a kind in our here and now.
Vintage Shopping in a Nutshell: Quality
Quality in vintage clothing should not be seen as being the same as quality in a brand new article you see at Target. Many vintage items will be of very high quality but may have a few pinholes or patinas in the color. Vintage clothing is not new, and even if it still has the tags intact it may still have a few signs of age. When studying for quality in vintage takes a little more work.
Fabric & Structure:
Lets start with elastic. If you've shopped for old clothing with elastic you know that cringe-worthy sound of elastic breaking upon stretch. When deciding on an elastic piece, I do a little stretch test. I pinch each side of the item and stretch slowly to see if I feel or hear the rubber cracking. When you release it should bounce back to its original form, but when there is rubber rot it will hold its shape once released... and it's sad to witness. Simple things like waistbands can be easily replaced, as long as the fabric is still good.
Most vintage lingerie that I carry is made of silk, rayon, and nylon. Silk is so delicate even in brand new fashions so finding good vintage silk is an ultimate win as it is so luxurious and rare. Silk is a protein, so needs more care to preserve. When studying silk I often look for weak spots, holes, and fraying. Weak spots are usually fine, as long as in a loose fitted spot such as above the hem. I will do the same little stretch test that I do with elastic, just with less aggression. Pinch both sides and give a slight pull. There should be forgiveness and slight stretch with good silk, and the threads should not separate too far.
Rayon is much stronger than silk and was the primary fabric used from the 1930's and up to the very early 1950's. Rayon is incredibly durable as well as versatile. Rayon can be buttery soft and smooth with a light sheen like Bur-mil, or it can have a high and silky sheen as found in rayon satin. Rayon is awesome, and adds so much elegance in the styles and shapes of many nightgowns and peignoirs. It is also much easier to care for and mend.
Nylon of course is the easiest of the three to care for and was used for just about everything from the early 50's through the 60's and early 70's. It can be very silky and sheer or stiffer and opaque. Nylon is easy to mend and wash, but can fall victim to 'picking' and 'pulling'. This is the delightful little bunches of thread and knot-like appearance we see sometimes in slips and nightgowns.
Just because an item has a hole here or a stain there, does not mean it should be thrown out of the love boat of wants. Many holes can be mended, and many stains can be lifted. It is normal to see light browning or water spots on lots of lingerie items from 50-100 years ago. Sometimes a light soak in a gentle detergent or a dab and steam with white vinegar will do the trick. For ultra delicate and very old items, you may want to take your darlings to a specialized cleaner where they can dry clean with special cleansers to lift more stubborn stains like rust and transferring dyes. Other times you have to simply decide how much a stain will take away from an items beauty, and make your decision from there. I will often refrain from purchasing items with stains that I cannot live with, just to be safe.
Availability & Rarity:
Depending on your needs this may not be a factor for you, but for me and my my finicky tastes, it is quite important. There are so many white slips in the world, so being able to identify the diamond in a pit of pebble stones is part of complying to the needs of my collection. A white slip from the 1930's made of pure silk will be more special to me than a white slip from the 1980's made of polyester -this is just my opinion. Knowing which brands were highly sought after or rare to find helps in this matter, (see this awesome article by Sweet Vintage Designs for good tips for identifying rare vintage lingerie brands) and aids in my knowing how much I am willing to pay for it.
Dead stock, AKA 'New Old Stock' (NOS), AKA 'Somebody get this girl a drink and a rooftop for me to yell hallelujah I've just struck gold!'... is vintage clothing that has never been worn and often still has its tags attached. Dead stock is especially valuable if found in extra old items from the 1920's, 30's, and 40's because it will likely be made of a much more valuable fabric like silk, crepe, or rayon. Dead stock items are great to find and should be snatched when you find it. The hardest part is deciding whether to or not to remove the tags for wear!
Wait a second, isn't it kinda gross to wear someone's old intimates?
Well, I suppose that's honestly a personal preference. In my opinion, no. As stated above, a pair of dead stock panties from the 60's has never been worn. You are the first wearer. In previously worn items, as long as there are no unsightly stains, they can be sanitized. I for one enjoy wearing the lovely high waist, nylon bloomers with a wide mushroom gusset. I love them, love them, LOVE them! Many people do and they are a top seller. I as well as many vintage sellers look for staining and wear ability when shopping for clothing, especially things like panties and step ins. I usually refrain from buying too many pairs of used panties unless in near-new condition, but gladly purchase used step-ins from the 20's and tap pants from the 40's. I use very high temperature steam to press and sanitize items after they have first been laundered, so they are perfectly clean for the next wearer.
How does one confidently go about shopping for vintage online?
Shopping for anything online can be a bit frightful. It is hard to trust someone that you have likely never met with your money with only reviews, descriptions, and photos to refer to when making the decision to purchase. Reputable sellers will always be honest about flaws, but I'm sure we have all been stung by the disappointing eBay wasp... you know, falling in love with the image of something labeled as being in pristine condition with absolutely no flaws found only to feel your heart drop to your toes when you open your long awaited for package to find that there are rips and stains EVERYWHERE! Yeah, that wasp. It hurts. So here's what you have to do: study every detail and ask as many questions as you please. Look at every image. ZOOM! Read every word of the description, and if anything seems to have been omitted, ask for more information. If a seller is unwilling to provide the answer(s) to your questions, it should be a red flag. Also look for return policies if an item has been misrepresented. I feel much more confident knowing that a seller will accept a return request if my purchase was not as described.