Beginners Guide to Vintage Shopping

In my numerous vintage shopping excursions I have observed many people coming into shops who are not familiar with vintage, and may be just starting out.  Some get overwhelmed, others confused, so I thought I’d offer up some of my personal tips that I know make for a better shopping experience.

Be Respectful

When you are at a vintage shop, most of the time, you are looking at items that have been hand selected by the person standing behind the counter.  Keep in mind that time and lots of consideration went into buying the pieces that fill these shops. So try to keep negative comments out of the conversation.  If you just popped into Starbucks before sweeping into the shop, and there is no clear “No Food or Drink” sign, be sure to ask if it’s okay to have your drink. Same goes for pets. Handling the garments with care (more on how to do that in a bit) also shows a sign of respect – you are respecting the garment and the shop owner’s hard work.

Know your measurements!

A lot of higher end vintage shops will have the measurements of their garments on the tags, and coming in knowing your measurements is going to make things a lot easier for you and for the shop owner.  While some shops may have a small/medium/large system, that sizing is relative and subject to the person tagging the garment.  What is small to one person may be a medium to another.  Bring a tape measure with you, so when you visit the shops that do not have the measurements noted you can measure the garment yourself to know if it is going to work out or not. This saves time, and avoids any likelihood of having an embarrassing moment of being stuck in a garment.  Also note that if you see a size 16 label inside of a vintage dress, don’t think it isn’t going to be your size. This is another reason why measurements are important.  Vanity sizing has skewed sizing over the years.  What was a size 12 in the 50s, is around a size 6 or so today.

Stick to your measurements!

While your bust and your waist may be a little squishy, it’s important to stay within one inch of your measurements.  If you’re a 28 inch waist, don’t try on a 24 inch waist dress! You may do harm to the dress, and that may annoy the shop owner.

If you get stuck ask for help

Even if a garment reads as if it will fit, you still might get stuck! I got stuck in a pair of pants once and could not, for the life of me, get them off! They were a pair of riding pants that were very tight in the calves. Thank goodness it happened at a friend’s shop, so her coming in wasn’t too terrible.  But a lot of shop owners are not phased all that much by seeing some skin. Asking for help means you are less likely to damage a garment too.

Handle with Care

Be careful when sifting through racks and when trying things on, as the items you are handling are 30+ years old, and some are going to be on the more delicate side. It’s best to move garments by the hanger, not by the garment itself. Tugging on the garment can cause seams to split or fabric to tear.  When you move by the hanger, you do not put any strain on the garment.  Be careful when stepping into skirts or dresses, as not to step into the hem, and be careful when pulling a garment off over your head, don’t yank.

If you damage a garment, let the shop owner know

There is nothing more annoying than a shop owner inspecting a garment after it has been tried on to see a busted zipper or ripped out hem.  But if you do damage something, let the shop owner know.  Many won’t have any repercussions, but it’s better to be honest, especially if you are planning on returning to that shop in the future.

Know your budget/It’s not okay to play dress up

If you’re wanting a dress for a special occasion, know your budget and stick to it. It’s not a good idea at any time to try on something you can’t afford.  You can hurt your own feelings that way, and you run the risk of annoying a shop owner by trying on something you cannot afford to buy.  Due to the age of some items, they may only have a few wearings left in them, and trying on with no intention of buying is an unnecessary risk, so try not to try things on “just for fun”. It’s also important to keep in mind that some of these shop owners are going to become pals of yours.  I am friends with numerous shop owners in Portland, and this friendship I have developed over being courteous has resulted in getting spectacular pieces and at great prices.

Buy what you like

Don’t let current trends affect how you buy vintage if you are going to turn yourself into a 24/7 vintage wearer.  Buy what you like. Buy what you feel good in.  Also, it’s okay to mix-and-match eras.  But you can also be a period perfectionist too. Once again, it comes down to what you want to do with your wardrobe.

When it doesn’t fit

One of the pluses to vintage shopping is also one of the biggest downsides: one-of-a-kind.  Yes, it’s wonderful to have something unique, but you are also going to come across items that are not going to fit.  You need to weigh your options when you find something like this.  Most often, the best option is to let the item go.  It’s important to check the seams of an item you think fits.  While it may appear that it fits perfectly, there is a chance that you are stressing the seams of a garment, and over time the seams will simply rip out, and the garment will then have to be made smaller to repair the seams.  If the item is too big or too small, alteration is an option, but can be costly if you don’t know how to do it yourself.  If the item just barely fits, don’t skip meals or diet just to get into one dress, that’s just silly.

Shop wearing proper undergarments

When I say “proper” I mean shop with your average undergarments.  I don’t know about you, but I have a few garments that require a “special” bra – meaning on that makes my boobs a little smaller, some of you may have one that makes your boobs a little bigger. It’s not a good idea to shop with these “special” bras on, as they will give you a false impression. Also in my Vintage Must Have series, I noted how the bullet bra revolutionized how I wore vintage.  For years I had fought with bust darts not being in the right place, but all that changed when I began wearing a bullet bra.  Keep this in mind when shopping for vintage.  Vintage garments were cut with the undergarment trends of the time, so 50s and 60s garments are going to feature higher bust darts.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions!

If you’re unsure about how to care for a specific garment, ask! Often shop owners are experts at cleaning items, and are going to know who to recommend in terms of dry-cleaning.  Many shop owners enjoy sharing their knowledge, and helping those who want to get more involved with vintage.  They are going to be able to offer all sorts of tips, from what jewelry may go with something, to what resources you have available with regards to vintage hair-dos!  They are also going to know of more vintage shops for you to check out!

16 thoughts on “Beginners Guide to Vintage Shopping

  1. Wonderful tips! I often buy vintage on Etsy, but have rarely been able to try on purchases in store (we don’t have any good vintage shops where I live). It’s always a gamble to buy without trying on, but I’m very familiar with my measurements, so it’s nice that most Etsy shops will list them! These are such great things to keep in mind!

    xox Sammi

  2. This is a great post! I used to work in a vintage shop here in Winnipeg and we had several signs up that reminded customers that most of the clothing was older than their grandmothers and to be respectful of the merchandise (i.e.: don’t play dress up).
    Even though I wasn’t the owner it was always sad to see someone come in and wreck something beautiful by mishandling it.


  3. Ha, I was just thinking of writing one of these today (it’s been a crazy day…. ugh people, seriously?)

    All of these are spot on! I’m terrible about having a measuring tape with me, because I tetris so much nonsense into bitty box purses. I use the “belly button to spine” trick. Holding a garment flat up to yourself is misleading, but if you hold a waistline to your bellybutton, and wrap around to your spine, you get a much better idea of whether or not it’s too small. (If it doesn’t meet your spine… it’s not going to work!)

    Have you read this guide btw? It’s not as gracious as yours (you are being kind & informative, and this is a bit more shaming)…. but seriously. I guarantee any vintage store employee/owner has experienced all of these things. Spot on.

    See you later this month!

  4. Stellar, well thought out, and really wonderfully written post and advice. There’s so much common sense at work here, yet (as you know firsthand) sometimes folks forget the seemingly obvious points of shopping etiquette when in the realm of vintage garb (and elsewhere, for that matter – I worked retail, so I speak from experience). It’s awesome that you put this post together and just came out as said what I think so many of us seasoned vintage wearers have long thought on the topic. This is a must read for new and veteran vintage sporting folks alike!

    ♥ Jessica

  5. Great advice! I’ve been buying vintage for about 2 years now, and had no idea what I was doing at first (apart from having fun). Now I’ve got experience, both from wearing vintage and working for a vintage shop, but it’s always good to be reminded; too bad I didn’t have a list like this to prepare me back then!! (And seriously, your points about damage hit home for me. I once went to put a 1920’s silk blouse back in its spot on the rack, only to find the entire underarm blown out and shredded, and not just along a seam, either. The customer just left it like that without saying anything. That was sad and frustrating.)

  6. this is a great post. i love the idea of showing respect to the items while shopping vintage.
    i often get horrified when i watch other girls trying on vintage treasures, not buying anything in the end … you just hear them giggling in the changing room while putting on a far too small silk wiggle dress from the early 50s ….
    as being a studied costume designer (not working as one anymore) i see quite quick, if a piece fits me or not. i really love the shops that show the measurements on the tag. this is really helpful, it safes a lot of time and at least, it safes the clothes …

  7. I’m catching up on your blog this evening and I needed this blog post on Friday! 🙂 I was out shopping with some friends of mine and we stopped at a well-known antique store so I could look for furniture for my new apartment. Unfortunately, all of the furniture was well out of my price range (this shop fixes/repairs all furniture prior to selling whereas I think more of a fixer-upper piece would be in my price range), but there was a small selection of vintage clothing. I took a look, and liked a few things, but I felt a bit in over my head, so I didn’t end up doing anything more than looking!

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