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My foolproof method for styling vintage clothing

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Thursday, January 07, 2016

My love of vintage and thrifted fashion dates back to my childhood: along with the blessing of my five siblings came the sartorial restraint of seasonal hand-me-downs from our much-older cousins. As a child growing up in the 90s and dressing in 80s clothing, I was unburdened with a need to be cool. Instead, I developed an attraction for all things unique and would customize my hand-me-down sweaters and jeans with boy's undershirts hand-decorated in puff paint and complete the ensemble with a backpack shaped like an elephant.

Years of sifting through all those old hand-me-downs helped me to become adept at selecting and styling vintage and thrifted pieces. In case you're considering picking up a vintage habit in place of your fast fashion addiction, here are the basic rules that I follow…

#1 Look for quality materials and construction
This means silk, wool, cashmere, 100% cotton, etc. Avoid polyester, rayon, and other fake fabrics as much as possible. Check for tiny, neat rows of stitches and do a quality check on the lining, darts, zippers and other things that are hard to change.

#2 Pass on anything with visible wear-and-tear or damage
A missing button or falling hemline can be easily fixed, but walk away if there are stains, tears, holes, pilling, etc.

#3 Stick with either simple, classic items OR the (very rare) outrageous things you'll never find again
My favorite DC vintage-and-consignment store was the best source of both categories. I picked up a classic leather Gucci pencil skirt there for $60 that has given me years of great outfits, and also bought a pair of high-waist, cropped turquoise silk pants that are vintage Anne Taylor circa 1990 (and haven't been worn in forever, but will be making a cameo very soon given my #nonewthingschallenge and that cropped pants are now back in style…)

#4 Wash or dry clean immediately
When I found this (awesome) gray wool coat, I took it straight to my dry cleaner - meaning it did not enter my house until it had been thoroughly sanitized. This is a really important step. While there are some vintage, thrift and consignment stores that clean items before selling them, most don't and it's just good peace of mind to take care of it yourself.

#5 Tailor and make minor adjustments
After cleaning a piece, I bring it home, try it on and think of the changes it needs to be truly wearable. Minor adjustments can include removing shoulder pads, changing buttons, updating hemlines, even bringing it in a size or two. The dress I'm wearing in the above photo is a 1970s dress that had shoulder pads and a matching belt when I spotted it on the street. After dry cleaning, clipping the shoulder pads, and pulling off the belt, it was perfect! Once, I spent $75 to tailor a silk-and-wool blend dress (that was $10 thrifted) to my exact measurements and it was worth every cent in the compliments received.

#6 Make your vintage or thrifted piece the statement of your outfit
This means that you can only wear one vintage or thrifted piece at a time, and need to pair it with simple, everyday pieces to keep it looking modern. The 1970s dress is made cool when paired with classic boots and my favorite Madewell bag.

It's really hard to find a piece that passes rules #1-3 above, but it gets easier with more practice. Vintage and thrift shopping is a really wonderful (and affordable) way to hone your style and find pieces that no one else will be wearing. And you can't argue that it's a sustainable practice to recycle the old rather than adding to the demand for the new.

I'm really excited to revisit some of my favorite vintage pieces that I've forgotten about and  figure out how to style them in new ways. It will help me stick to my resolve not to buy anything new this year, because who needs new when you have silk turquoise pants to wear?

4 comments on "My foolproof method for styling vintage clothing"
  1. Great article and wonderful tips! Thank you Colleen :-)
    I love looking for clothes and accessories in thrift stores and antique/flee markets, and I have had good success so far! It's most fun when you find a great piece with even greater price. Other than saving money, it's also a fun game :)

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    1. Thanks Echo! There are such amazing vintage stores in San Francisco, I bet you have a lot of great finds (would love to see them on IG ;-)...) You're totally right that it's a fun game and I like the thrill of the hunt without the cost!!

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  2. This dress looks so fantastic on you!!!! I love these tips; thrifting can be soooo much fun! Hugs, Kait
    http://makeminemaroon.com/

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    1. Thanks Kait! You're really close to my absolute favorite vintage shop - it's a little hole-in-the-wall place in Eastern Market a couple doors from Port City Java!

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