Grandma Had it Goin’ On: Your Guide to Vintage Fashion, Part 1

Hello there, you throwback-loving glamourpuss, you! Ready to channel Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, or Dorothy Dandridge? Get your most lurid red lipstick ready, for this is the first in a series of posts about identifying, buying, and loving vintage clothing. I’ve been collecting women’s vintage clothing for years and years, and even sold it online for a while, so I mostly know whereof I speak. 

(Unfortunately, I don’t know squat about men’s vintage clothing. Gents, you are outta luck.)

This introductory post will be about how and where to buy the stuff.  I’ll get more specific about eras and identification in subsequent posts.


One of my favorite dresses to wear - a 1970s hand-painted Alfred Shaheen maxi dress.

The first thing you should do before you do any sort of shopping for vintage is invest in a measuring tape and measure yourself. I know, I know – about as fun as cleaning the cat’s litter box while being beaten with the September issue of Vogue. However, you simply are doomed to #vintagefail if you have no idea what your measurements are. After all, sizing was different in the fifties! The alternative to having a cocktail (or three) and measuring yourself is to choose your best-fitting dress, sweater, button-down, skirt, and pants and measure them. Here are the basic numbers you want (it can help to have a friend):

  • Bust – around the widest part of your boobage, or the flat measurement from armpit to armpit on your shirt (doubled)
  • Neck
  • Waist – around the smallest or largest part of your middle (depending on your shape), or the flat measurement of the top of your skirt (doubled)
  • Bottom of neck to waist
  • Shoulders – this is easiest done on a well-fitting garment. Measure shoulder seam to shoulder seam
  • Arm length
  • Inseam
  • Outseam
  • Waist to knee
  • Thigh
  • Hips (around widest part of butt)


Keep these numbers on you, on a slip of paper or on your smart phone. Now you have a basic working clue as to where to begin when you want to buy a piece of vintage. You never know when you might pass that stray garage sale with the ’50s ballgown of your dreams swaying in the breeze, whispering, won’t I make your cha-chas look divine, dahling?


One of the questions I get most is, “Where do I find XYZ size? No vintage is made for my body type!” Well, the hard part about something so individual as vintage clothing is that it can be difficult to find lots of stuff. You’ve got to actually a) make an effort to look for it and b) know what will fit you. Remember, though, that just because an hourglass shape was the 1950s ideal doesn’t mean that only hourglass people existed. They didn’t behead everyone with a flat butt. All shapes and sizes have abounded since the beginning of time! I’ve come across a lot of plus-sized vintage in my travels, for example. Once nice thing about eras long gone is that many folks made their own clothing to fit their unique sizes. There is stuff for you out there! But you can’t expect to have your size and favorite era drip from every Salvation Army rack.


As a general rule, if you’re purchasing to wear (as opposed to collecting to gaze at lovingly in your house. Not that I do that. Ahem.), there are a couple of things you should look for before you buy.

1.  Odor
Does it smell bad? General “sitting around” smell can usually be gotten out of clothing that can be washed (some cotton, some wool, nylon, some cashmere), but with vintage rayon or silk, cleaning can be much trickier. Body odor should just plain be avoided, no matter how pretty the garment, in my opinion. Here’s a great post at Vintage Clothes 13 about washing – or not – your vintage clothing. Dry cleaning should only be done by a place that has done vintage in the past. On an old item, it will often be more expensive than you’re used to, so factor that into the purchase price of the garment. I have a pink, velvet swing coat that costs me a cool $75 to dry clean. Ouch.

2.  Condition
Are the seams and fabric sturdy? Are there any holes? Any rot? A small hole at the seam can be repaired. Four feet of them might be a problem. Rot cannot be undone, nor can straight-up holes in the fabric itself. I’ve had sellers try to convince me that shattered silk across a boob can be easily repaired. Bullshit, I say! The seamstress in me cursed their armpits to be infested with the fleas of a thousand camels. If the garment flakes small pieces of dust that’s hard to get off your hands, it’s disintegrating and the dust (referred to by those in the know as devil dust) can even be harmful. Run away! Unless I really, really, really love it, I only buy what I’m willing to wear after cleaning. I’ve bought too many distressed items that I totally meant to fix… some day…

If you’re buying online, you have to go by pictures and description. ASK QUESTIONS OF YOUR SELLER! If they don’t reply, then to hell with them.


Vintage 1960s Leopard Faux Fur Coat
Vintage 1960s leopard faux fur coat (from my collection).

There are a plethora of places to find vintage. I’ll talk about eras and such in later posts, but here are a few general locations at which to start your old-timey adventure.

Thy vintage come, thy Goodwill be done

First stop in a low-cost vintage outing? Thrift stores, of course. These can be very hit and miss, so if you simply must have a size 36 blue angora sweater from 1962, I wouldn’t recommend thrifting for it. But if you’re open to surprise finds, check out a Goodwill, Salvation Army, Hospice charity store, or any number of thrifts. Look everywhere – scour that place! Every thrift store with a dedicated “vintage rack” I’ve ever seen has never contained much vintage on that rack. But a gorgeous vintage Norma Kamali jacket might be hidden on the next one over. (True story. I’ll never give up that coat!) Important to note: Have your measuring tape with you at all times! If you cannot try on the garment, measurements may be your only way of knowing the fit. After a while, you might be able to tell what will fit you on sight. I am a master of vintage-fu. I can see my bust size with one boob tied behind my back.

Vintage 1980s Norma Kamali Quilted Coat
Best $4 I ever spent - my 1980s Norma Kamali black quilted zipper coat from a thrift store in Chicago.

Garage Sales/ Craigslist

Browse the Internet for someone looking to thin out their collection or get rid of grandma’s stuff fast. But be aware that many, many people have no idea what “vintage” actually is. I showed up at a garage sale once to find the “1940s vintage” to be nothing more than a bunch of ratty 1990s track suits. Ugh. I did get some cute hats for a song, though. Of course, be careful when going to some strange person’s house. Bring a friend, but not one who wears the same size as you. You don’t want to have to cut your BFF over that vintage Jantzen swimsuit.

Estate Sales

If you’ve never been to an estate sale, they can be crazy fun. Bring your comfy clothes, hand sanitizer, and pointiest elbow, because they can be rough and tumble.

Google “estate sales” and the name of your town/county. Chances are there are some businesses in your area dedicated to putting them on. Get on their mailing lists and you’ll hear about the sales in advance. Most estate sales companies will know what vintage clothing is, but in my experience they don’t value it much and you can find some great deals.

You need to show up first thing on the first day of the sale, however. With an estate sale (and with a lot of garage sales, honestly), if you’re in any city with at least one vintage clothing store or online reseller, you will be competing with the professionals. I have been tossed to the ground by grown men on the way to the faux fur. If you get there at noon and the sale started at 7 a.m.? The good stuff is gone, baby. I recommend getting your butt outta bed for shopping, followed by victory waffles.

Bring several giant bags or a box (a box is harder to deal with, but can be used as a weapon. I kid, I kid. Sorta.), as the sale usually will not provide these things for you. Wear clothes you can leap over piles of old newspaper in and that you don’t mind getting gross. Do NOT wear your best vintage to the sale. I guarantee your prices will go up exponentially. When you see interesting things that look vaguely like your size just stuff them in the bag. Ponder and measure after you’ve seen all the offerings. While you’re pondering an acrylic sweater, the Pucci of your dreams might get snatched from under you. You can always put stuff back that you don’t want. Sometimes the sale officiator will not actually go through your bag, but will give you a flat price for everything. Smart cookies will stuff the expensive-looking stuff at the bottom. And bring that measuring tape!


I buy a lot of vintage online. Sure, some of it can be really overpriced, but when you have specific measurements you’re shopping for, or a specific item, the selection online cannot be beat.

Most sellers will list measurements for the garment. If they don’t, ask for them. “One size” is utter bullshit in a lot of cases. Look for clear, big pictures and a listing of all flaws. Many lazy sellers will say “good vintage condition.” WTF does that mean? Mothholes and a funk smell, most likely. Ask them specifically about any holes, armpit stains or discoloration, loose seams, smells, or missing buttons. Know what you’re willing to fix. I won’t usually bother with moth holes, but I have a huge button collection at the ready for quick and dirty replacements. Armpit discoloration is typically permanent, so when the seller says, “Oh, I’m sure you can get that right out,” beware unless you really know your fabrics and cleaning techniques. When I was selling, if I could get the stain out, I would (and increase the price). Not all will try, but most will tell you how easy it will be to get that giant spot out. Ha, ha, and ha. Cleaning vintage is a whole other ball of wax, so only bite off what you are willing to chew.

Another thing you want to see is the garment label, if there is one. (I’ll talk about labels in my future posts.) I’ve known sellers to either lie about the age of a garment by ripping off the label or just plain be clueless. There was even a thieving seller on eBay a few years ago who took big-name labels from hats, say, and sewed them into dresses to jack up the price. 1980s and 1950s can be tough to tell apart in some cases. And that dress may look ’40s in style, but the label will say it’s from the ’70s. Just because someone has a pretty shop online doesn’t mean they can date for shit. It’s up to you.

Vintage Clothing Stores

Besides online sellers, this will usually be your most expensive place to buy vintage. And why not?   They have overhead, a huge selection, and you’re able to feel the garment, smell it, and try it on. I almost never buy in a vintage shop, but that’s just me. I’m cheap and I shop so many other places.  Vintage shop owners, however, will usually know their stuff, which is always wonderful. Many, too, have a lovely mix of true vintage and retro.

Vintage 1950s Day Dress
Vintage 1950s olive green and lavender day dress (from my collection).

I’ve given pretty broad tips here. There are many, many more in-depth articles on the internet about vintage, and I encourage you to go out and learn more! It’s interesting and fun, and usually comes with pretty pictures. Fashion-Era is a great site, as is the Vintage Fashion Guild. Stick with sites dedicated to the topic at hand and avoid catch-all sites like They just aren’t as good.

Do you have any tip or tricks when buying vintage? Let me know in the comments!  My next blog will be all about the 1950s (and thereafter, the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s).

By Lucy Woodhull

Lucy Woodhull is a novelist, humorist, parodist, and all-around geek. Her new venture is THE SHITTIEST PRINCESS, a series of un-fair-y tales right here on Persephone. You can check out her sexy, fun romantic comedies at

5 replies on “Grandma Had it Goin’ On: Your Guide to Vintage Fashion, Part 1”

This is all great advice! As an online vintage seller and sometime wearer of vintage clothing, I would add a couple of things:

1. When you’re buying vintage clothing, realize right off the bat that it is old. The 60s was half a century ago, folks! Fifty years is a long time for something to survive and remain in wearable condition. Even without things like mildew and holes and the like, age alone does damage to textiles. (As does sunlight, humidity, etc.) I once had a 50s taffeta cocktail dress (that was in otherwise pristine condition .. and that I’d gotten for a paltry $9 at a thrift store) split down one of the front seams at the opera because the thread just gave up after five and a half decades. You can’t beat up on old vintage clothing like you can on clothing produced now, or even later vintage, and you can’t expect it to wear the same way.

2. For some people, “vintage style” is going to be better than “vintage.” There’s a world of difference between the 50s sundress you have to dry clean, hang in a special garment bag, and air out monthly and the 50s style sundress you purchased from Modcloth or wherever that you can toss in the washing machine (even IF it says dry clean only). If you want the look, sometimes the real thing is not going to suit your lifestyle or needs.

3. Learning design features, like colors, tag fonts, and buttons, of different decades can be really helpful to accurately dating clothing. An 80s yellow is not going to be same as a 60s yellow, although I’m of the school that if you like something, it doesn’t really matter when it was made. However, if you’re picky – or if you want to determine how accurately sellers date their items! – you ought to work to educate yourself about all the little details that signal the differences between design movements and eras.

4. If you are suitably armed with knowledge and have the fortitude to do it, find your local Goodwill outlet, where clothing is sold by the pound. Goodwill doesn’t tend to put a lot of vintage in its stores, but the clothing does get donated, and often. Where does it go? The Bins. Bring gloves and sharp elbows. You’ll be digging through piles of clothes.

5. Hit the unhip thrift stores. Thrift stores that are picked over are no good for finding good vintage. When I lived in Portland, I would drive up to Vancouver because who the hell would want vintage in southwest Washington? Yeah, no one. ALL FOR ME.

I am looking forward to the rest of this series!

Um, this is awesome, and incredibly helpful. Do you know of any accessory-specific vintage sites? Those can be (for us plus-sized gals who are not feeling up to the sometimes monumental task of tracking down today’s size-14 dress in vintage finds) a fun way to shop vintage without having to roll our eyes over the fact that apparently no one had hips in mainstream clothing from 1940-1970.

I shop for accessories ALL THE TIME!  (Ask my husband how many vintage accessories I have.  Oh, wait, he’s buried somewhere in a handbag pile…)

Ebay and Etsy are wonderful places to find scarves, hats, bags, and jewelry.  Vintage shoes are tough to do unless you have small feet, and even then I wear a size 5 but I have a wide foot, and apparently feet were narrower in the 50s.

On Etsy, there’s a whole section for “vintage,” so just choose that and search “silk scarf” or “hat” or whatever.  When you search eBay, just include “vintage” in the search terms.

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