Vintage clothing online
Virtually anything bought more than a few years ago can be classed as 'vintage' on Ebay - much of what's being sold online probably wouldn't be sold in a vintage shop, either because it isn't old enough or not in good enough condition. Hopefully, this should be able to help you be discerning and savvy when it comes to buying vintage online.
Know your era
The bulk of vintage on Ebay seems to be from the 70s and 80s, probably from people clearing out their wardrobes. On the positive side, this means that most items for sale will be in pretty good condition, as they won't be that old. However, the fact that fashion moves in cycles means that sometimes the age of a garment, if not already known, can be difficult to guess.
- pre-1920. The majority of things for sale from this period are either accessories, such as fans and scarves, or garments too worn/stained/small for wear, and therefore for study or preservation purposes. Things from this era will generally be wonderfully detailed with lace, beads and ribbons - made in a loving way that modern manufacture just doesn't seem able to emulate. Theatrical/fancy dress costumes may also be for sale under this heading.
- 1920s. Beware!!! Many of the dresses sold under this category are in fact 1920s style copies. Real 'flapper' dresses should have skirts that hit at least knee length, and the neckline shouldn't be incredibly low either. Look out for heavy beading, dropped waists, and layered or tiered skirts. Again, beware, as some things from this period may be too fragile to wear. 1920s styles suit the tall, and the not-very-curvy.
- 1930s. The cut to look out for in this period is slinky bias-cut. Great for hourglass figures, slim girls, just about any shape really! Watch for long evening dresses with fishtail skirts, chiffon sleeves and halternecks. Jackets are broad shouldered but small at the waist, and quite cropped as well. 1930s suits and jackets tend to be pretty durable, often in thick wool or tweed, either in autumnal colours (red, brown etc) or pretty pastels. Also look for surreal Schiapirelli-style patterns and details.
- 1940s. Depends on what half of the 1940s you're looking for. 1940-45 (war years) tends to produce a boxy 'utility' shape, with padded shoulders. All but the most expensive garments will be quite plain, due to cloth rationing (unless American, in which case more likely to be detailed). 1945-49 is more akin to the early 1950s with the introduction of the New Look by Dior. Padded shoulders stay but waists become very small, and skirts flare out very wide. Black and white are popular. 1940s shoes tend to be great clunky platforms, though not many survive from the war because of leather rationing (shoes were frequently made of wood and even cardboard).
- 1950s. An age of experimental shapes and classic cuts. Other than the continuation of the New Look with its wide skirts, Balenciaga's trapeze line (hanging straight out from the bust with no nipping in at the waist or hips) was also introduced around now, and is frequently seen on vintage 1950s coats. Lots of sweet cotton sundresses also survive from this era, as well as pencil skirts and knitted twinsets.
- 1960s. Now you begin to get the introduction of less durable fabrics (polyester etc.) as fashion becomes much more mass-produced and youth-oriented. 1960s vintage is split between a classic/mod style (shift dresses, high-necked knits, boxy jackets) and looser hippy/counterculture styles (maxi skirts, denim, velvet and suede garments, embroidered detailing etc.). Lots of 1960s vintage is homemade, particularly jumpers and dresses, which should be fine but check the quality with the seller first.
- 1970s. A lot of non-vintage 'vintage' tends to be categorised as 1970s. Real items from this era encompass a number of styles, which makes it all the more difficult to work out. Knits and dresses are the best things to go for from this era, as 70s trousers can sometimes look ridiculous to modern tastes, and are often made from sweaty, itchy polyester. The 70s is a great era for accessories, especially slouchy boots and bags. Popular 70s styles include a recycled 1930s 'Biba' look (velvet, big bows, balloon sleeves), or a trashy disco look (denim, rainbow bright colours, old-school t-shirts). 1970s colours and patterns tend to be bright and noticeable.
- 1980s. Again, a lot of Ebay vintage comes from the 1980s, probably from people clearing out their wardrobes from 15-20 years ago. Cinch belts, metallic lame tops and plastic costume jewellery are all popular. 80s dresses take a lot of careful searching, as much of what's on offer can, again, seem ridiculous to a modern taste. Try to avoid 80s suits, as the enormous shoulderpads and gold buttons just don't work any more. Stick to stuff that works well with a modern indie-scene look (think Debbie Harry, Halston and the last days of Studio 54).
Wearing vintage clothes is great fun, but if a garment is uncomfortable, all the fun goes out of it. Where possible, buy the highest quality fabric you can afford - leather instead of PVC, cotton or wool instead of synthetics, and so on. Aside from the fact that natural fabrics tend to last longer, they also hang better on the body, don't stain as easily and look more expensive. This is especially important when buying vintage from about 1960 onwards, as synthetic fabric becomes more popular.
Sizing and Fit
People were smaller in the past - fact! The shape of the average British woman has changed considerably over the last 50 years, from a size 12 hourglass to a size 14 pear-shape (bigger hips than bust). Vintage clothes will often be cut to accomodate the old average shape, as well as working to smaller size guides. So for example, a modern size 8 can wear a vintage size 10, a 14 can wear a 16 and so on. The best thing to do is measure you own waist/hips/bust and then ask a seller for specific garment measurements if they haven't already provided them.
Anyone hoping to buy vintage as an investment - i.e. hoping that the value of a garment increases as it gets older - needs to realise that this normally doesn't work. Clothes depreciate in value as more people own and use them, much like a car does. The only exceptions tend to be really rare or iconic designer pieces, such as the Yves Saint Laurent 'Le Smoking' suit or a piece of designer couture, or classic designer handbags such as a Hermes Birkin or a Chanel 2:55. If you think you have something that's really worth money, get it professionally valued before considering selling it.
Miscellaneous things to remember
- Don't be sucked in to thinking "oh, it's vintage, so I have to have it." Wear styles that suit you, and avoid anything that makes you look like a Mongolian herdsman, or indeed a Mongolian herdsman's tent! Just because it's vintage doesn't mean it's automatically better than something new.
- Buy vintage that looks just as stylish today as it did when it was first made, and mix things up a bit with new and high-street clothes. Wearing top-to-toe vintage every day is strictly for fancy dress purposes only.
- If there's something you're not sure of, always ask the seller about it.
- 'Vintage' doesn't necessarily mean 'old', so check your dates and facts.
- Finally, have loads of fun hunting down your next beautiful vintage item! Half the excitement is in the searching!