Vintage clothing has never been more in fashion. Chic, unique, and often cheaper than its modern-day counterparts, what’s not to like? Hollywood A-listers such Kirsten Dunst, Reese Witherspoon and Sienna Miller often delve into the thrift shop when they want a glamour hit on the red carpet, but you don’t need an A-list budget to work the vintage look.
When it comes to vintage fashion, there are two types of collector. The first are style mavens who are looking for something that nobody else will be wearing. The second, and less common, type are those who buy to collect. But whatever the reason for collecting, the pleasure of finding a one-of-a-kind design is oh-so rewarding.
1920s & 1930s
Some of the most collectable looks of the 20th century include the beaded flapper dresses of the Twenties and the sensuous bias-cut silk gowns of the 1930s. Naturally, designs from the 1920s are hardest to find, as they were often made from delicate fabrics that damage very easily and have often not stood the test of time. Knee-length gowns were de rigeur, when women were encouraged to bind their busts in order to attain a boyish figure. Simple drop-waisted shift dresses from the Twenties can still be bought. Expect to pay around £400, or even more, for a Twenties piece in good condition. For a pristine beaded flapper evening dress though, expect to pay in excess of £1,000. It is possible to have garments restored, but can prove costly. Take the advice of the dealer if in doubt.
Moving on to the 1930s hemlines dropped to the floor and womanly curves were shown off in bias-cut fabrics. Eveningwear featured stunning silk and satins, covered buttons, the glitter of lurex and built-up shoulders – think of Hollywood stars such as Greta Garbo. Thirties frocks are much easier to find – you can pick up a Thirties evening gown for around £300 (a couture piece may cost at least £1,000). Daywear is more low-key and affordable, with cotton dresses in softly draping fabrics in sweet floral prints. Expect to pay upwards of £60. As with all vintage clothing, store items in acid-free paper to avoid damage.
1940s and 1950s
There is a wide range of Forties styles on the market, as dealers often travel to the US to buy pieces. American womenswear was more colourful and glamorous than British fashion, which was restricted by wartime rationing, so it’s possible to find some stunning imported outfits. Wool skirt suits with tailored jackets and smart pencil skirts can be found for around £200, while a day dress can cost from as little as £40.
‘I predict that 1940s skirt suits will be the next big thing, as there were so many modern versions in the designers’ autumn collections,’ says Samaya Ling, a Bristol-based vintage clothing dealer.
‘The Forties and Fifties are great for women with curves,’ says Jane Appleby-Deen, a vintage clothing specialist in London. ‘ The nipped-in waist, defined shoulders and full skirts create a beautiful hourglass shape.’ But, as she adds, ‘there is a decade for every figure.’
‘This summer, 1950s printed cotton day dresses were very popular,’ says Samaya. ‘Summery day dresses can still be worn in the winter when teamed with boots or thick tights.’
Look out for dresses bearing the Horrockses label. During the 1950s, this Preston-based firm produced floral print dresses that are timelessly stylish and of the best quality. If you’re lucky, you can find one for upwards of £90, although they can go into the hundreds.
Unattributed Fifties day dresses can be found for £50-£60. Evening dresses from the period can be bought for a couple of hundred pounds. Even a Christian Dior ready-to-wear dress is surprisingly affordable. If you went into a boutique and bought a new Dior evening dress it could cost you thousands, but you can pick up a vintage piece for £400-£500.
Bold colours and simple lines sum up 1960s fashion, evident in both daytime fashions and eveningwear. Modern man-made fabrics in blocks of colour such as red, orange and pink still look up-to-date. Necklines embellished with crystals and coloured glass add interest. When buying, avoid examples with stones missing unless you’re prepared to have them restored.
Fashion from the 1960s is largely undervalued, perhaps because it requires an adventurous wearer. Unattributed 1960s styles can be found for under £50. Key Sixties pieces include colourful, cropped jackets, collarless coats and sleeveless dresses (look out for Pucci, Cardin and Courreges, which would cost upwards of £200).
With so much choice, you’ve almost got to think twice about buying something new these days. If you look, you can get a better made original, with quality fabric, for less money than you’d pay for new. You won’t bump into anyone else wearing the same piece either. Next time you have a special occasion to attend, why not take the vintage option?
It’s all in the details
Bags are an easy and inexpensive way to introduce a bit of vintage glamour into your wardrobe. A well-made leather handbag can be snapped up for as little as £40. If you want a vintage designer bag, try looking at auction. Christie’s regularly include labels such as Hermes in its sales. Although some have estimates in the £200-£300 bracket, iconic bags can fetch tens of thousands of pounds. Shoes are a tricky area for the ‘buy to wear’ collector. With this autumn’s trend for block heels, look out for 1960s and 1970s shoes (from £50) that are fairly easy to find in good condition – they’re very wearable, too.
What is vintage?
There’s a great deal of debate over what’s vintage and antique. Put simply, vintage fashion is clothing, shoes, bags and other wearable accessories from the 1920s or later. Prior to that date, we fall into the realms of antique textiles and ‘period’ clothing.
Couture garments were made to fit the measurements and requirements of a specific client. One couture dress could take three weeks to produce and would have been as beautifully finished on the inside as it was on the outside.
Ready-to-wear items, otherwise known as pret-a-porter, were mass-produced and reflected the designer’s key trends each season. They were bought off the peg and were therefore far more affordable. These days, vintage ready-to-wear dresses can be found from as little as £40, depending on condition.
If you want to buy a garment by a designer, you could pay £1,000 or even more. Ossie Clark’s 1970s styles, for example, were propelled to new levels and prices after an exhibition at the V&A in 2004, and prices are still strong. Rare, immaculate examples of couture can fetch four figure sums.
How to buy
Couture items should have an inventory number, hand-written on a cotton tag attached inside. Like a barcode, it means you could find out exactly when the garment was made and who for.
Condition is vital
Look under the arms for staining – it’s not easy to clean and get out.
Find a specialist cleaner Seek out a dry cleaner who deals with wedding gowns, as they often have the expertise needed to deal with vintage clothing.
Store vintage clothing in a garment bag made from a material that will allow it breathe, such as cotton, and protect it from dust.
Where to buy
Vintage Fashion Fairs
London Vintage Fashion, Textiles and Accessories Fair (020 8543 5075)
Blind Lemon Vintage (0117 971 2241)
Ashley Hall Vintage Fashion Fairs (07809 764210)
Frock Me! (020 7254 4054)
Websites & dealers’ shops
Where to see
Fashion Museum, Bath (01225 477173)
The V&A Museum, London SW7 (0870 906 3883) Grace Kelly's spectacular wardrobe is on show here from 17th April-26th September.
London Fashion and Textile Museum (020 7407 8664) 'Horrockses Fashions: Off the Peg Style in the 40s and 50s' is on from 9th July-24th October
What to read
Shopping for Vintage: by Funmi Odulate (Quadrille Publications)
Appleby Vintage, 95 Westbourne Park Villas, London W2 (020 7229 7772); Circa Vintage, 64 Fulham High Street, London SW6 (020 7736 5038); Samaya Ling Vintage Collections, Bristol (0117 330 8200 / 07877 057082); Still, 61d Lancaster Road, London W11 (020 7243 2932); The Lacquer Chest (020 7938 2070); Clobber, 920 Christchurch Road, Bournemouth (01202 433330); Vintage Secret; The Real McCoy, 21 The Fore Street Centre, Exeter (01392 410481)
Styling: Jo Barnes
Photographs: Uli Schade
Feature: Jan Waldron