Tips of the Trade
Collecting Vintage Clothing
A 1980s couture party dress by Valentino.
Valentino's very simple couture label.
A silk jersey evening gown, ca. 1973, by the Parisian couture designer Madame Grès. Established in Paris in the 1940s, Madame Grès produced classic and elegant couture designs for famous women like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Grès was known for sculpting fabric directly on model's bodies, making each dress a unique piece of art.
The Madame Grès gown has a built-in corset.
Vintage, second-hand, used. These words are now practically interchangeable, as collecting clothes from yesteryear has become a part of mainstream fashion. "It's come to mean to the generation of 20-somethings garments which are pre-owned," says ROADSHOW appraiser Karen Augusta, of Augusta Auctions. "Vintage, to me, means that the clothing is at least 30 years old and wearable; antique clothing to me is a piece that predates the 1940. To call a piece vintage, use the 30-year rule: anything newer is used clothing."
Fellow ROADSHOW appraiser Beth Szescila says she sees "vintage" as a sort of marketing term: "It sounds much more elegant and appealing than 'old clothing.'" Today, even the acid-wash jeans that you probably threw out yesterday are deemed vintage. "Today's vintage clothing shows are very different in appearance than they were in the late 1970s through the mid 1990s," Augusta says, "In the mid-to-late 1990s, I started seeing more contemporary pieces."
Study before you buy. Knowledge can save you from expensive mistakes
Vintage clothing can be found in numerous locales and in countless conditions; it may have been worn, or it may be from "dead stock", which refers to clothing from another era that was never sold and may have its original packaging. "If the clothing has been used, it needs to be in very good condition to appeal to collectors" Szescila says.
Couture is another fancy fashion term whose definition has become hazy in recent years. "The public thinks couture is very expensive and by a famous designer," Augusta says. And those things are true, but the full meaning of the term goes beyond high price tags and glitzy brand names. Couture is clothing made to measure for one client by a designer who has been formally accepted into the French couture world. "These garments were made by fashion houses in Paris with at least 15 employees and were very, very expensive, well out of the price range of all but the very wealthy," Szescila says. Today, she notes, there are only 10 officially sanctioned haute couture fashion houses in existence.
It's nearly impossible to find couture by Madame Grés and other similar designers in regular vintage shops because the dresses themselves are so rare. Plus, many couture pieces lack labels, or if they are labeled, the text may be simpler than designers' typical labels. "If a dress is couture, its label will be marked with a model number that is archived by the design house," Augusta points out. "By looking it up, the couture house can determine when it was made and often for whom it was made." If there isn't a label and model number, often the interior construction will tell if the piece is couture or not. Some designers always lined their clothing in chiffon, or had a hand-stitched satin binding on seam's edges. For example, evening dresses made by Christian Dior in the mid-20th century all had handmade, built-in corsets.
What to look for ...
Keep an eye out for pieces by recent designers who are near the end of their careers but still have a strong public following. Browse the racks for garments by Yves Saint Laurent, even his less expensive prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) Rive Gauche line, and also pieces by Valentino.
Search for a piece that is an iconic symbol of its particular decade, ones that as soon as you see it, you immediately know the era it belongs to. Augusta says, "When you think of the 1950s as saddle shoes and circle skirts, those items didn't have designer names, but they are iconic pieces of the decade." The designs of a Versace or Thierry Mugler dress exemplify the 80s disco era. English "mod" clothes from the 60s and 70s are wise to collect, especially clothing by British designers like Vivienne Westwood, noted for her original punk aesthetic, and Thea Porter or Bill Gibb, both 1970s designers who captured the look of the hippie era. "At auction one can still find collectible, affordable garments; in another 10 to 20 years their values could easily soar," Augusta says.
Other very popular designers are not quite as collectible. Despite elegance and fine craftsmanship, certain vintage clothes are destined to remain comparably inexpensive. "Garments by Giorgio Armani, other than his Armani Privé label, or by Ralph Lauren, are beautiful, but they aren't seriously investment-worthy," Augusta says.
Szescila notes that sales of designer clothing from the 1980s are just beginning to pick up. "Such clothing must not look dowdy or like it was made for an elderly woman," she says "many young women today enjoy wearing vintage clothing, so it needs to be youthful and somewhat sexy."
It's a gamble to purchase vintage clothing online — especially if it claims to be couture — from someone you don't know. Images can deceive, and it's impossible to be sure of condition, fabric, and construction unless you can personally inspect the garment. "Ebay is very risky," Augusta says. "I've seen people selling things that are not what they say they are, either because they don't know or sometimes because they're just hoping for a quick sale."
Celebrities and college students alike have been drawn to vintage stores across the nation, ranging from highly culled boutique collections to local Goodwill shops. Not that long ago, thrift shopping was looked down upon by the mainstream public. It was a counter-culture practice that now is an acceptable, cool, and green way to shop. Anyone can walk into a local thrift store and pay pennies for an old microfiber shirt — or spend thousands of dollars on a rare couture piece at auction or a dealer's shop. It's the ability and knowledge to recognize that special garment and purchase it for a smart price — it's finding that beautiful item for a great price that separates the experts from the novices. It's all in the touch.
Rules of Thumb ...
Before buying a vintage garment:
- Study before you buy. Knowledge can save you from expensive mistakes!
- Learn how to determine true high-quality fabrics and construction, and accurate age. Museum clothing exhibits are excellent teachers and often vintage clothing dealers are willing to share their expertise
- Check for missing beads or buttons, holes, stains and alterations
- Make sure the label is original; some less-than-honest dealers will stitch designer labels into non-designer clothes.
To preserve your vintage garment:
- Air it out after purchase
- Do up all zippers, buttons and closings
- If you have a vintage garment dry-cleaned, be sure to choose someone who specializes in delicate or antique textiles
- Store garments away from sunlight, in a cool, dry place to avoid fading and fiber damage
- Use padded hangers and muslin covers for sturdy garments
- Use flat storage for fragile and beaded garments
- If an item is folded, it should be refolded differently every 6 months, since folded areas of fabric are weakened due to added stress
- Do not store garments in plastic, to avoid mold and mildew
- To avoid chemical damage when flat-storing garments, use acid-free paper between layers and store in an acid-free box. If acid-free materials are unavailable, cotton or linen sheets also work well
Check out a selection of vintage and antique garments (some famous!) in our ROADSHOW Video Archive »
All images courtesy of Karen Augusta.
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