How to buy vintage clothing: Three experts give their tips
Vintage clothing has become more and more popular over the past decade.
Underneath obvious markers like the launch of brands RRL, or artificially aged sneakers, men have been gradually buying into vintage because it’s authentic, because it’s a way to buy old styles that are suddenly trendy, and just as importantly, because it’s cheap.
I’ve bought vintage off-and-on for most of that time. Initially leather goods, then military clothing, and more recently outerwear. I wrote a post earlier this week about one piece, an M47 Parka.
However, I’m a real beginner when it comes to buying vintage. So I turned to three friends to get their advice, providing tips for any readers venturing into vintage clothing.
Tony is a singer, writer and stylist. He currently works for Timothy Everest as well as touring with rock band Turbonegro. He is a passionate consumer of vintage clothing.
What general advice would you have for someone buying or collecting vintage for the first time?
Most importantly, buy things that you want to wear rather than as collector’s pieces. You’re looking to fill the holes in your wardrobe and/or find a superior quality version of something current, so buy things that are practical and wearable.
Some people look at me shocked if I’m wearing a jacket they know to be particularly rare or special rather than keeping it hermetically sealed in my house, but I’m building a wardrobe, not a museum.
How wary should someone be of variations in pricing, eg something being trendy and therefore suddenly much more expensive? Is that something that affects what you buy?
Again, just don’t let that affect your decision making too much. There will always be mini-trends on the vintage market and things fall in and out of favour, so look more for quality, fit and value.
Pricing will ultimately be directed by scarcity, but there’s plenty of scope to still buy cheap.
If you take the classic Vietnam-era US Army “Jungle Jacket”, the much-copied staple, a first pattern was issued in the late 50s when there were less than 1000 US troops “in country”. Therefore the numbers in circulation were minuscule compared to the fourth pattern issued in 1968, when there were over half a million US soldiers stationed there.
A deadstock 4th pattern should set you back £50 or so. A first pattern? Good luck.
Is it OK to alter vintage clothing to fit, or is that undermining the point of it?
I mean, that is entirely up to you. The reason I buy vintage, however, is often for a specific fit. Unfortunately when a lot of current brands bring out their take on military vintage, they “modernise” the fit, particularly slimming down the silhouette.
That aside, I do like finding pieces that people modified contemporaneously, adding another level of personality to the item.
The other reason I buy vintage is for fabric choice. There’s just a different feel to worn in cloths, especially cottons. As the fibres in poplin or “Cramerton” chino cloth, for example, break down they gain an incredible handle and texture that you cannot replicate.
What categories and periods do you like to wear personally?
I have things from the turn of the 20th century onwards really. My interest wanes after the late 70s/early 80s.
I’ve talked about this a lot before, but my interest is in finding the common ground and the flow between different periods rather than aping a specific timeframe or era.
Just from a penurious perspective it’s often more expensive to find quality, well-made modern clothing than it is to find vintage high-caliber goods. I’m looking for an overall accord rather than to dress up as a soldier or a rockabilly.
Do you always mix them with modern pieces? What tips would you have for doing that well?
I suppose I do, yes. I mean, once it’s in my collection then it occurs naturally rather than in a mindful way. An army jacket will be on a hanger next to an oxford-cloth buttondown and some bespoke trousers so I can see how it goes together.
The same rules probably apply to buying vintage as to buying new clothes: buy less, buy well and spend wisely. The more patterned or “wild” a piece is, then potentially the less wear you’re going to get from it.
What magazines and particular shops would you recommend?
In London, you need to visit The Vintage Showroom in Covent Garden (Doug and Roy are peerless in their knowledge and their books should be part of the canon), and Levisons in Shoreditch, especially if you’re interested in British vintage in particular.
Same goes for JoJo’s General Store, AKA Rag Parade, in Sheffield. In Paris, visit Gauthier at Le Vif for everything.
One of my favourite things is seeing how different collectors and vendors contextualise pieces. The same jacket might get shown in a completely different light based on styling and surroundings.
An American field jacket might be presented by Bryan at Wooden Sleepers in Brooklyn in an East Coast prep/ivy context; while Le Vif might highlight its countercultural frame of reference with specific button badges or accessories; and then JoJo at Rag Parade might showcase its similarity to a later Massimo Osti-designed technical coat worn by English casuals.
Gauthier is a curator, editor and vintage dealer. He collects and loans vintage as part of his Le Vif showroom in Paris, and has a Le Vif vintage shop specialising in made-in-America clothing.
What general advice would you have for someone buying vintage clothing for the first time?
Ask as many questions as you can in the shop, and be comfortable with the fact that you don’t know anything. It’s normal, and not your job to know. If the guy in charge can’t answer the questions, perhaps you’re in the wrong place!
Then just go for anything you like, that fits, and that makes you happy. If you’re confident in the seller, you like how the piece makes you look, and it fits, then that’s success. Don’t worry about it too much more than that.
Is it worth shopping around, for example in street markets and on eBay? Do better-known shops always charge more?
If you have time then yes, of course, it will always be cheaper online. But you will also be taking a risk as regards size, authenticity and condition.
A shop will usually charge more and that’s normal as they provide a service: to curate, wash, size and help you find what you’re looking for. And most of all you can try in person that it fits, check the condition and have the security that it’s authentic - if it’s not, it’s so much easier to complain. You know where to go.
What periods or categories of clothes are easiest to buy, or best value?
Denim, military and T-shirts are to me the best investment. They never lose their value and there is often a clearly defined price (like on a stock market): a Levi’s 501 from this era costs that in this condition, a Rolling Stones T-shirt from this tour in this condition costs that etc.
The cost will change with supply and demand naturally, but these categories are much more stable.
What is your favourite type or period of vintage clothing and why?
I don’t think I have a period or a type to be honest. I’m very broad in my tastes and I keep a really open mind. I just love really well-made clothes from yesterday, today and tomorrow.
I love some pieces from World War 2 and then hate others, because the fit means it isn’t wearable anymore. There are amazing pieces from the 1970s, and then there are some that are just good for costume, cut in polyester fabrics.
There are good clothes and beauty everywhere: the job is to be able to tell the difference, and for the shop-owner to curate and offer the clients what they see as fitting into that.
Max is the manager of the Real McCoy’s shop in London, and has been buying vintage clothing for over 30 years. He is a collector, a consumer, and a font of knowledge.
What general advice would you have for someone buying vintage for the first time?
The first thing to be aware of is that vintage pieces will all fit differently to things you’re used to in high-street shops. The rise on trousers, the length relative to chest size on a jacket, neck relative to chest on a shirt. So I would never buy vintage online - always take the time to go and try it on.
Because just saying it’s a 32-inch waist doesn’t mean anything - the rise could be really high, and you wouldn’t know?
Exactly. All the patterns were different, and they varied between different eras. Also, body shapes were different: men wear shorter, and less often big or fat. So generally things are a size smaller than you’re expecting, on the chest but particularly on the length.
Can you get a sense of which eras and pieces fit you well, after you’ve tried on enough?
Yes absolutely. If you go into a shop and buy a pair of 1920s trousers, they’ll have a huge rise and a balloon leg. But that became less extreme later on.
How do you feel about altering vintage to fit? Is it sacrilege?
No I think it’s fine, it’s something people have always done. Particularly after wars, with people buying up military surplus. Often it had to be altered to fit and to be functional for civilian use.
Are some categories easier to find, or easier to buy for how they wear over time?
Militaria is easiest to find usually, because there’s so much of it and because it was so closely defined and controlled.
In terms of wear, outerwear like jackets and coats will often wear well, but can be the hardest in terms of fit. Because shirts or knitwear can be layered up if the fit isn’t right, or worn in different ways. There’s no hiding with outerwear.
How does pricing vary? Are better-known vintage shops always going to be more expensive?
Yes generally, but that’s part of its story - the piece has probably gone through lots of hands, from person to person, making a little bit of money each time. With a good store, you also know the piece will have been cleaned, repaired and made wearable. There’s a guarantee there.
So in general, you’re not going to save lots of money unless you start travelling to flea markets, searching through large volumes of poor quality pieces in small regional shops?
Yes exactly. There’s a lot of legwork there, and it’s up to you whether you want to spend your time doing that. Or go to a shop where you’re paying someone else to do it for you.
Also, remember that the shop likely has far more pieces than it can show. So talk to the manager, ask if you can’t find something in particular. It’s good to establish a relationship there.
What pieces do you enjoy shopping for yourself?
In the past five or 10 years I’ve got more into sportswear - coming away from the normal army surplus, denim, leather jackets. It’s fashion to a certain extent - I’ve been doing this on-and-off for 30 years, and spent a long time collecting the other areas.
Do those fashions have a big effect on pricing of vintage, a little like furniture - with mid-century suddenly becoming cool and expensive, brown heavy brown antiques unfashionable and cheap?
Absolutely. In the past two years the 1990s has become so trendy, which is crazy. It used to be so cheap, just throwaway. Now everyone is feverishly collecting American sports jerseys and everything else from that period. Basketball shirts that you bought at the game for $20 are now changing hands for $200.
The following are Instagram accounts that Max recommends for buying and browsing vintage. The Japanese magazines Clutch and Lightning (available at The Real McCoy's and Clutch Cafe in London) are also great reference resources.