Librarians have nostalgic and romantic tendencies, along with a love of history. I suspect this is why so many of us dress in vintage fashions.
There are a few additional reasons as to why I wear vintage dresses every day for work:
- You don’t have to pick anything to match. Just throw on a black cardigan and INSTANT OUTFIT.
- Vintage dresses are generally made well, from good quality fabrics, and are in better shape than most new clothing.
- They are often cheaper than buying new clothes.
- Sweatshop labour free. And in light of the news recently, this is an especially good thing.
- Contributes to sustainable practices.
- I would probably wear jeans more but my library has a business casual dress code.
- Patterns and colours! My goodness, they just don’t make them any more like they used to.
Here are a few tips to finding vintage clothing and making it work for you. I’ve tried to throw in examples where I can, as is my wont.
Figure Out What Style Works for You
For me, polyester ’50s-’70s dresses are my go to. They are so vibrant and crazily patterned. Can be thrown in the wash. Don’t wrinkle throughout the day. The material is easy to work with if I need to make alterations. If I lived in a hotter climate, they wouldn’t work so well and sometimes it can be a little extra sweaty on my bike ride into work but overall, this doesn’t bother me too much.
This time period also works for me because I find silhouettes with a more fitted top and a fuller skirt are more flattering for my body type and also riding my bike to work does not lend itself well to wiggle dresses and pencil skirts.
I’m trying to get more into tops and skirts recently, as my boss pointed out they are better for travelling since washing/changing a sweaty top is quicker than a sweaty dress.
Esme & the Laneway has a great post on the topic of finding your vintage style too.
Where to Get Vintage Clothes
1) Clothing Swaps
I have gotten so many amazing clothes from librarian clothing swaps! Also, it is just plain fun to hang out with a bunch of librarian ladies and drink wine and try on clothes.
Once you know your measurements, this is easy! Take a dress or top that fits you well, lay it flat, and measure it. Lots of eBay and Etsy ads provide the “lying flat” measurements. Other ads give body measurements for pieces so get your tailor or a room mate/partner to take these (they’re hard to do accurately on your own). When I’ve bought an item from an ad that fits well, I like to save the ad so that I can just refer to those measurements when I’m considering items later on.
Sometimes, I search for items that are just in my city. Most sellers are happy to meet you at a coffee shop or somewhere nearby so that you can save on shipping and just pick up the item.
Some examples: I’ve bought one dress from this seller. Usually her items are a little out of my price range ($100 +) and are on the fancier side. But it’s one example of how there are beautiful, fairly reasonable pieces out there. And I’ve bought cheaper items ($20 +) from this local vintage seller.
3) Small Towns/Cities
I never bother shopping at vintage/thrift stores in Vancouver (and most big cities). However, I used to work at a vintage store in a small town and years later, I still have so many beautiful and functional pieces from my time there. Places like Victoria are perfect because they have a large older population who are getting rid of these items and not as many people are around to scoop them up! A Victoria vintage haul (new bathing suit):
4) $10 (or less) Racks Outside Vintage Stores
Generally, the only time I will shop for vintage clothing in Vancouver is to quickly stop at the $10 or less racks outside of the stores. Most items on this rack haven’t sold because there is something weird about them, in which case, it may be worth buying and altering. If it doesn’t work out, well, it’s only $10! Some of my favourite items are from racks like this. For example, I got this amazing vintage wool skirt for $1 last week simply because it’s the wrong season for that item and the store wanted to get rid of it. And I didn’t even have to alter it!
5) Consignment Stores
Lots of consignment stores have vintage items. But most people don’t go to consignment stores for vintage items. Thus, since consignment stores don’t specifically cater towards people looking for vintage, you can often find gems that would’ve been marked up and sold right away in a vintage store.
What to Ask Yourself Before Purchasing a Vintage Item
Things to check when buying vintage (I will talk about alterations in the next section):
- stains: are they removable/noticeable?
- material: is it in good shape? are any of the seams pulling? is the material thinning in some areas? are there any holes? (if there is a hole along a seam, it may be easy to fix)
- does this item really work for me?
If an item is noticeably stained, I don’t buy it. It’s generally not worth the effort and heartache.
I have bought items before where the material isn’t in good shape and it’s sad! An exceptional item can be worth it, like this pretty grey dress I bought on Etsy last year that I only wear to weddings or formal occasions. It has a few small holes and the material is a very delicate cotton voile, but hopefully by wearing it sparingly, it will last for some time.
Sometimes I really have to come to terms with the fact that a dress is too small, short, etc. Both were the case with this pretty dress, which I sadly left behind at the store:
Don’t spend a lot of money on an item that will need alterations. Unless, it’s a very simple alteration, such as raising a hemline and you are 99% sure that the item will be amazing once you do this alteration.
If you see a cheap item (I would say $20 and under) ask yourself, would this item look amazing if:
- the hemline was shorter?
- the sleeves were removed?
- it was taken in at the sides?
- it had the zipper fixed?
- I just put a slip under it?
- I ripped off the top of the dress and wore it as a skirt?
- the shoulder pads were taken out?
I alter most of my dresses/tops myself. Most commonly, I take in the sides and remove sleeves. If I have more complicated work, such as raising a hemline, I take it to a tailor. Example, I bought a beautiful black cocktail dress for $25 that was too large for me. It’s some sort of crepe-y material with multiple layers and has bust darts (eek!) and so I had to bring it to a tailor. She charged me $40. So in total, the dress was still only $65. I know it sounds like a big hassle and lots of money, but for items in good condition that need a little bit of work, it’s so worth it!
An eye for potential and achievable modifications is developed over time. Also, a good tailor will let you know beforehand if the modifications can be done and if so, how expensive they will be. If you’ve already bought an item and then realized it won’t work for you, you can always try to resell it.
I wish I had before and after pictures! Next time I modify an item, I’ll document the process.
While I don’t condone hoarding clothes, don’t worry whether you have anything that matches the item you’re buying. If it’s a weird top, it will match jeans or a plain skirt. If it’s a weird skirt, it will most likely match a white blouse or a neutral coloured sweater. If a piece is special enough, and flatters you, don’t question it!
Don’t go vintage shopping for something specific. If you’re looking for a broad category, such as skirts appropriate for work, or a cocktail dress, you may find something. But if you’re looking for a ’50s floral cotton summer dress – you will probably end up disappointed. Even if you’re a librarian and super good at searching. And part of the fun is finding something unexpected!
It doesn’t have to be vintage, but as fellow librarian Lindsay says, “erry librarian needs a cat shirt, yo.” Here is a polyester cat shirt that I have had for 11 years. I altered it by taking in the sides, and it is in as good of shape as the day I bought it for $10 at the Chilliwack Value Village: