Perhaps you’ve heard: Vintage clothing is having a moment. It doesn’t smell anymore. Fashion houses have always mined vintage clothing for designs, but now it’s apparent, so much so that vintage duds are interchangeable with the new stuff. Thanks to Instagram and reference sites like AbeBooks.com, there’s never been a better time to educate yourself, purchase old important clothing, and incorporate enough into your wardrobe to get mistaken for a janitor or someone who sells honey at flea markets. But how deep to go?
Think of it this way: Thrifting is sifting through garbage for longer than you want and not finding anything. Vintage shopping is sifting through what the store owner considers non-garbage and finding nothing. Going to the flea market is hoping to sift through garbage and not finding something. Shopping for vintage online is watching a Longhorns game, and the O-line is so bad, you search keywords on eBay and find nothing. Success is hitting a swap meet with no expectations and unearthing a pair of rivet Levi’s 501’s under a pile of baseball cards. The cost of not checking something out is always higher than the energy expended.
So, with the caveat that in swag, as in love, there are no rules, GQ presents 10 immutable commandments for buying and wearing vintage. Follow these and you’ll get most of the way to being an expert without ending up looking like you’re going full cosplay, destroying your wallet, or limiting yourself to garbage 1990s clothing.
The first and most important rule is you can buy anything anywhere. Curated stores and Instagrams are terrific and cut down on the work. But try flea markets and thrift stores. Shop online: eBay, Depop, RealReal, Etsy, Yahoo Auctions, Amazon. Go to the mall, rich neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, museum gift shops, jails, the Rose Bowl, church bazaars, swap meets, auctions, estate sales. Matchmakers say only one ne to work, but they’re not out there fortifying their wardrobes.
Some quick tips and advice to start. Know your preferred measurements—your body’s and those of your favorite items of clothing. Try and replicate fit, though better big than small. Inspect tags for era (Google and Lightning Magazine are indispensable here) and material. Jeans fit differently than church pants, which fit differently than army pants and therefore look different. Bring a tape measure wherever you go, and don’t be shy about using it. Develop healthy relationships with multiple tailors for when one of them inevitably betrays you. Beware clothing that looks better in photos than in the real world. Shop alone unless your friends deeply understand your style, and even then, learn how to fully dissociate from the real world as you make decisions on whether to purchase. The easiest way to avoid turning your closet into a holding pen is to only buy things that can be paired with what you own tomorrow, not down the line and not theoretically. Always ask your friend’s permission if you live in the same city and are eyeing the same used sweatpants they own and like wearing.
At no vintage bin can you go through everything judiciously, unless you have a surfeit of time or enjoy ruining your day. The best way to quickly skim through a whole store or warehouse is to finger every piece sans looking, like thumbing a deck of cards. Touching clothes immediately tells you how well made they are, and doing this enough will allow you to differentiate big heart Carhartt pants from post-NAFTA Sears jeans in time to make the 7 o’clock movie. Old clothing and good clothing feels different from trash. And while quality isn’t enough to make a piece worth buying, it’s enough to make you stop and check it out. By only stopping on clothes good to the touch, you’ll focus only on important pieces. You might miss a few, but it’s good enough if you’re buying for yourself.
True vintage aficionados who dress like train conductors: This one isn’t for you. For the rest of us, pre-OPEC clothing is unflattering, cut mostly to fit jockeys and strongmen. Since only those with Thai kickboxer body-fat levels look good in severely baggy and boxy clothing, why not tailor and taper? Plus, tailoring clothes makes them one-of-a-kind, something in line with the whole reason you’re buying vintage in the first place. No one at the party has the Abercrombie jacket you’re wearing—and no one else’s Levi’s are cut to your favorite shape.
Nineteen-thirties Carhartt overalls with the big heart logo likely won’t show up at the Savers by your home or office, but that doesn’t matter. Tags are only on the inside, and the American schmatta business, like the NFL and the Dutch techno scene of the 1990s, is a copycat industry. For every $5,000 piece of canon vintage, there exist five era-appropriate knockoffs that are more or less the same thing. Yes, the best stuff is so for a reason, and details matter, but you can get pretty close for a lot less. Levi’s jeans produced in the 1960s, say, match up with anything made by anyone overseas now: Non-Levi’s from that era are closer to 501s than anything new from Europe. Everything back then was made more carefully than anything now, so if it’s old and in your size, it’s both a dollar and pound bargain and unique, to boot.
Good advice, not just in matters of clothing but in all matters of life. Journalist Robert Caro’s editor, Alan Hathaway, at (New York) Newsday said Caro was the only Ivy Leaguer ever to amount to anything; Caro admitted it’s because he took Hathaway’s advice and “turned every goddamn page”: He called every number and chased down every source, and that’s how he wrote The Power Broker, his acclaimed Robert Moses biography, which is in its 41st printing. When you are looking to buy clothes that other people have worn, turning every page entails grazing hangers and going to every flea market and fair and visiting every booth and nook and cranny there. You, too, can succeed at such high levels if you look at every eBay seller’s other items and buy every Lightning magazine at Kinokuniya and sign up for every fly-by-night vintage–clothing app. Serendipity beats planning, and process beats everything.
In vintage, as in real estate, the game is speculation. But vintage is cheaper than new-build condominiums and new clothing, and lasts longer than either, so when in doubt: buy, buy, buy. Whatever is for sale is almost always worth it, as long as the material feels good to the touch and it doesn’t have moth holes. No one cared about Champion sweatshirts and T-shirts half a decade ago, and they went for nothing. Now they hit triple figures, and you can wear them to restaurants. Spending hamburger money on clothing that can make you happy for the length of an election cycle is one of the easiest decisions anyone can make in America.
Unless you’re feet-first committing to perfecting a look of, say, train engineer, hobo, severe mod, biker, flapper, or disco bully, it’s best to limit outfits to two era-specific garments. When a 1950s Buco leather jacket is paired with original PF Flyers and hard jeans, the outfit is wearing the person and not vice versa. But wearing a Buco jacket and, like, Cabela’s wicking overalls creates a look and a half. This rule goes out the window if you’re under 22 or over 50.
Everything you buy that someone has worn—everything vintage—should be washed first. Chances are it’s been laundered at the store, so this process is less about removing flu viruses off your Screen Stars blank shirt and more about creating an artificial waiting scenario for your clothes. Waiting for something you want that you have already paid for makes you Zen about possessions. If you buy a Spaulding sweatshirt from the 1930s that you want to wear tomorrow, and tomorrow is three Thursdays from now, your relationship with clothing becomes one at arm’s length. It’s frustrating but ultimately for the good, since caring less means you’ll keep your peace of mind when your dream vintage piece invariably doesn’t fit, gets sauce on it, or falls off a bridge. Nothing good comes easy.
Rules are nice, and it’s great to have a buying philosophy and only stick to Brooks Brothers, Champion, Levi’s, and Nike, but personal styles change in unexpected ways, and sometimes right away and with no warning. The best is when a piece of clothing from left field suddenly shifts to center and reframes your whole style; this happened to me last year with 1960s fraternity jerseys, and before that with mesh shirts. Such growth is why the best outfits you wore on Instagram two years ago seem like a mistake now. It’s also why you should spend $6,000 on an airbrushed drag-racing sweatshirt that you can’t wear outside—but one day might.
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