Four collectors of vintage fashions and lingerie share their tips on what to look for when collecting vintage fashions.
The experts are:
Vintage lingerie collector Layla L’obatti, who is the designer behind Between The Sheets Lingerie.
Theda Bara of Theda Bara’s Vintage Lingerie, a shop that specializes in selling vintage lingerie from the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. (She also has a blog, Theda Bara Vintage.)
Wink of Tiddleywink Vintage, a shop which contains mostly clothing focused on the late ’40s through early ’60s, but also dabbles in the occasional later-era clothing. (She also blogs at Shoes and Pie.)
The conversation is led by Slip of a Girl, a self-described “lingerie nut,” who runs, A Slip Of A Girl, a blog devoted to all things lingerie, especially vintage lingerie.
Slip: Collecting means different things to different people… Not only does everyone have a unique reason for collecting, a different aesthetic, and, therefore, a collection specialized to their own tastes, but when it comes to vintage garments, many of us also wear what we collect — or, in cases of the talented, like Layla, use the pieces as inspiration for our fashion designs.
In fact, many of us do not even call ourselves “collectors” — we’re just vintage fashion lovers!
Layla: What you are looking for in vintage clothing depends on your purpose. If you are a crafter or designer who loves to take inspiration from sewing techniques, vintage pieces are a wealth of knowledge… But if you’re a model, photographer, or vintage lover who wishes to wear these pieces, you’re looking for wearable conditions.
Slip: In any case, you’re going to want to know it’s authentic vintage; so, let’s start there.
Theda: When shopping for vintage lingerie, make sure it is genuinely vintage by following some of these tips:
Fabrics. Rayon satins and silks where mainly used before 1941; after-wards, the use of nylon and nylon blends became very popular.
Registered Number (RN). Starting in 1959 and still currently in use. If your garment has no RN number, it most likely is made before 1959.
Care of garment labels. In 1971, the FTC required that textile manufacturers list the garment care instructions on labels. The labels must have washing, drying, bleaching, ironing, and/or dry cleaning instructions. If your garment has care instructions it is most likely created after 1971.
Placement of the label. Most labels will be on the side seam. During the 80’s, they started placing the labels on the inside of the neckline.
Union label. Union labels are often datable by union history. Among the many different unions, ILGWU, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, was one of the most prevalent and powerful, and the first major union to have mostly women members. Here’s an excellent guide to union labels, with photos of the labels.
Layla: Look for labels. When there’s a label, a label tells you where and very often when a piece is from. Be careful of fraudulent vintage with labels that look too new — unless it’s new old stock, but even then if its “designer” be careful.
However, if you are in the Midwest don’t be surprised by the prevalence of designer labels! Often times these pieces stay hidden in thrift shops and second hand stores in the Midwest, whereas on the west and east coasts these stores are a lot more picked through and finding these pieces at reasonable prices is rare.
Wink: Of course, not everything has a label, so…
Study. If you’re willing to spend the money regardless of the era, that’s fine. But if you’re going to be embarrassed when you show off your “bombshell vintage 40s/50s” swimsuit to your gal pals and one whispers to you that it’s actually more likely from the late ’60s, you have only yourself (and a mistaken or unscrupulous vendor) to blame.
Read. While this can fall under the category of Study, it can be a lot more fun! I have a large stash of vintage magazines that I love to reference, for the period photography, the articles, and the ads. You can learn not only what fashions were in style precisely when, but also how to set your hair, what nail polish colors were popular, and amusing dating tips! Which Hollywood star was dating who? How can you use up leftover luncheon loaf? How can you wash your gloves to get them sparkling white? Some tips are still relevant, and some are just fun to look at from a modern perspective.
Slip: Let’s talk about some of the flaws to look for…
Layla: Look for New Old Stock (NOS). These are pieces that for some reason were not sold, or hid in the back of a store or closet, and are in unused and unworn condition.
Slip: These often have paper sales tags still attached. But if there are no tags, if the item is not in the original sales package, what flaws should you be looking for? Which ones can be fixed?
Layla: I’d say that if you are buying for inspiration then the flaws are part of the detail; they show you how a piece has worn and how durable certain details are in the wear and tear of life. (Good to know when figuring out what will wear &/or age well.)
If you are buying to wear, show, exhibit then know that rips in fabric or lace are not easily repaired without revealing the patchwork.
If it were denim or tweed you could use iron on interfacing to keep the tear from opening more and, in some cases, this can completely hide behind the fabric (like the time I accidentally merrowed a hole in my finished term garment at the Fashion Institute of Technology… horror, then solution!) But this technique would not work on a sheer or lightweight fabric as well because the interfacing could be seen.
Lace can be hand stitched into place, but thread color, lighting, and quality of stitching could stand out — so the success of this technique depends on your ability to find a matching color, stitch properly so that it blends in, and the integrity of the remaining fabric you are reapplying the lace to.
If the fabric is shredded and fibers worn away too much the thread will not hold for long, and it will really not be suitable for wearing.
Popped seams can be mended from the inside pretty easily, but again if you are looking to “blend” the fix with the original piece you’ll need to have the proper machinery and thread; but these would be the easiest to fix barring major fabric ripping around the affected area.
Slip: This is why so many vintage fashion collectors also collect vintage sewing notions, thread, bits of lace etc. *wink* What else should we be looking for?
Layla: This is a good time to mention that when buying online you can never know things such as smell, flaws, discoloration, even odors such as smoke from the seller’s home. Make sure to look at seller’s ratings, the price, and ask for additional information or images if you are not sure.
Slip: And what things should we be looking for and asking about?
Silk and cotton are natural fibers and so they are more susceptible to absorbing our natural odors; you would be surprised how much you sweat while you sleep! That sweat and shedding of skin cells accumulates heavily in these two natural fibers, so worn items are very difficult to recover to like new condition.
Dry cleaning can help but also jeopardizes the integrity of the garment, as natural fibers deteriorate quickly when these methods of cleaning are employed. (If you do need to clean something take it to a cleaner you trust and who uses “green” cleaning methods, these tend to be less harsh and stringent on the fibers.)
Slip: You don’t have to watch Mad Men to know that people used to do a lot of smoking in the past; so look items over for cigarette burns and holes. Oh, the number of vintage chiffon gowns and peignoirs which have been ruined by pinkie-tip sized holes with charred edges! Look carefully in the voluminous folds and use your fingers to feel for blemishes.
If there’s a flaw or two, and this is for your own personal use, I recommend using appliques &/or dying the garment to disguise them. If you are intending to resell vintage or invest in the garment, do not do this; pass on the item. If you are a crafty person who likes to save such things and sell them, clearly state how the vintage garment has been upcycled.
Layla: Vintage furs are generally quite valuable; people would rather buy vintage fur than new fur (my personal feelings on this are quite mixed).
If you do decide to buy a vintage fur piece, peel back the fur to see the condition of the skin beneath. This is really important because real fur dries, and when it is compromised it will deteriorate quickly and begin to shed.
Another issue is mold and smell, but this you should avoid in all purchases — it’s more work than it is worth.
Slip: Now for the matter of fit…
Wink: Size. This seems obvious, but I became a reseller in part because I had a closet full of beautiful vintage that was too big, and that I realized I’d never “get around” to having taken in!
(Secret: I still have at least two dresses that I will make fit, one way or another. Someday.)
Layla: A skirt can be shortened, a jacket fitted, and small issues repaired; however…
If you are looking to wear bias pieces the fit cannot be altered easily; this is very difficult to do without creating puckering and killing a garments original drape and beauty. I would actually highly discourage trying to alter a piece on the bias.
I would also discourage fitting any shapewear, girdle, brassiere, or corset pieces — again the seaming can be complicated and the surface detail can be distorted when taking seams in. Unless you are a seamstress and are not concerned about the original integrity of the piece, then I’d say leave it be.
Slip: Any parting thoughts?
Theda: Vintage lingerie is something that is desired by many women today. Today’s lingerie can’t hold a candle to the soft and subtle materials of the eras gone by. Try to find soft nylon satins and rayon in your local store — they aren’t there!
Wink: Look for flattering cuts. “Just because it zips, doesn’t mean it fits.” Know your figure, and know what works for you. Women have come in all shapes and sizes for all time, and you can find “your” best look within any era. Really!
Layla: Trust your instinct, buy what you think is beautiful! In giving these pieces a second life you will be bringing back a little piece of history!
Slip: I couldn’t agree more!
Thanks to all for participating!
This post is © Slip of a Girl.
Image Credits (in order of appearance):
Vintage peach silk full slip dress, circa 1920s, from Theda Bara Vintage.
Vintage Union Label, 1955-1963, from poprocksnsodapopvintage; via the Union Label History Guide.
Vintage blue and white swimsuit by Robby Len Swimfashions, circa 1960’s, from TiddleyWink Vintage.
Vintage nightgown and bed jacket from the vintage lingerie collector Layla L’obatti, the designer behind Between The Sheets Lingerie.
Close-up of delicate chiffon and stitching on Between The Sheets lingerie to illustrate fine details in stitches and delicate fabrics, courtesy of designer Layla L’obatti.
Upcycled hand-dyed pink vintage Vanity Fair nylon full-slip via Theda Bara Vintage.
Vintage princess pink silk party dress from the 1950’s via TiddleyWink Vintage.
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