Vintage Fashion Defined

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According to the Vintage Fashion Guild,  vintage fashion is an article of clothing or accessory that’s 20 years of age or older. This translates to anything made in 1992 or earlier being technically vintage.

Antique is defined as anything at least 100 years of age or older, or dating from approximately 1912 or earlier.

Retro is a term used by many to describe garments from the 1970s and 1980s eras. The term was adopted by a subset of the vintage community who believe that the quality and characteristics of garments prior to the ‘70s fits vintage standards, while the later eras are considered “retro” considering proximity of time between then and today.

Secondhand is the catch-all term for all garments and accessories which have been previously owned. Thus, you are the “second hand” to own it.

While vintage garments are technically secondhand, it’s not a term used often in the industry to refer to a vintage garment. Sellers and buyers of vintage look for the highest quality garments which are cleaned and cared for as if they were purchased from a contemporary store, and so prefer qualifying their merchandise as vintage to differentiate it as a special category of clothing in the secondhand clothing market.

Who Wears Vintage Fashion

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Everyone and anyone wears vintage fashion, from the average man or woman on the street to celebrities in the public eye.

First Lady Michelle Obama famously wore a vintage dress from New York Vintage for a 2011 White House Christmas photo and for the 2012 Oscars, Natalie Portman wore a 1950s Christian Dior gown from Decade’s Vintage on the red carpet. Even the most international of stars have been seen in vintage, including Lady Gaga whose been spotted wearing vintage sunglasses from stores like Fabulous Fannies, a vintage boutique in New York City’s East Village.

Celebrity or not, wearing vintage fashion is the best reason to celebrate personal style and fashion sustainability. You can wear vintage to stand apart from the pack or even channel pieces that inspired the trends of today, so it appears you’re wearing something brand new from the racks. How you wear it is up to you, but what connects us all (celebrity or not) is that anyone, anywhere can wear vintage fashion.

The History of Vintage Fashion

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The history of the secondhand market can arguably be traced to the beginning of fashion’s history, as the passing on of garments from a previous owner to a new one is not a modern idea.

According to Elizabeth Hine, the owner of HinesiteVintage in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and vintage fashion expert with 30-plus years experience, the term “rags and bones” was Victorian street-language for secondhand items and garments.

Interested buyers would walk the streets singing, “Sell me your rags, sell me your bones” to alert the public they were looking to buy for resale at the town “flea” market. Markets were named as such because back then, you really did have to worry about accidentally purchasing a garment with actual fleas.

Fast forward to the 1960s when wearing secondhand became trendy amongst the politically charged “hippie” counter culture of the Western world.

In an attempt to differentiate themselves from Western world homogeneity, the 1960s hippie began wearing vintage clothing purchased from thrift stores, church shops and local flea markets. The Rolling Stones’ Edwardian look seen in the late ‘60s (also known as the “peacock” look for its characteristics of gentlemen vanity) was sourced from Edwardian garments found in the stalls of London’s famous Portobello Road flea market.

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The first vintage stores opened in the 1960s with many more opening in the 1970s, after the “underground” movement of buying clothing from thrifty sources became inspiration to curate best-of collections of trendy, valuable and historical garments under one roof. In other words: The cat was out of the bag regarding the resell value of vintage garments, particularly as made by notable vintage designers or hard-to-find collectible textiles and designs.

Where to Buy Vintage Fashion

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Vintage fashion is available to purchase around the world both at physical locations and online marketplaces like eBay Etsy, 1st Dibs, Rubylane, Market Publique and independently run e-commerce sites.

To find a vintage boutique near you, use Yelp.com to search for “vintage clothing store” in your area. Brick and mortar store settings are the most conducive for vintage shopping success because they’ve been curated and organized by an owner with a discerning eye for vintage treasures of the past both timeless and trendy for today.

Try your luck rummaging the stalls at a local flea market or the racks of a thrift store for cheap vintage fashion finds, but for top quality garments you’re better off shopping in store or from an established online seller.

Ideas for Vintage Fashion Outfit

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You don’t have to dress like a vintage costume or even vintage head-to-toe when wearing vintage clothing, but if you’re interested in looking “the vintage part” you most certainly can!

I suggest wearing vintage clothing that’s similar in style to the contemporary pieces you already own. If you like sweaters and leggings for winter warmth, look for 1980s fashions like oversize funky knits and leggings in bold colors and wild patterns. Or if you find yourself channeling 1970s fashion icons when playing dress up at a vintage store, get hippie-trippie in silk kimonos, leather mini skirts and ‘70s style vintage Frye boots.

The opportunities to wear vintage fashion are limitless considering the scope of nearly 8 eras, each encompassing a unique set of trends that can be worn in a modern way today.

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1920s fashion was all about the wild and free flapper look of short skirts and sassy fringe, while 1930s  fashion is remembered for romantic and mysterious Hollywood-inspired styles of glamour and romanticism.

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1940s fashion offered sharp silhouettes made from less fabric to preserve material for wartime efforts.

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1950s fashion introduced Christian Dior’s “New Look” of rounded shoulders, a fitted waist and fully flared A-line skirt strongly emphasizing the figure of a lady.

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1960s fashion began to defy the norm and birthed Mary Quant’s and Andre Courrege’s shared invention of the miniskirt. Psychedelic prints, mod fashion trends, the rise of denim for leisurewear and the pantsuit for women were among other trends born in an era of social, political and cultural change.

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1970s fashion was heavily influenced by the Far East, especially India, Asia and Morocco.

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Patterned jumpsuits, maxi dresses and colorful pantsuits were all the rage for the ‘70s lady, while eveningwear took a bedazzled turn with the disco craze of the late ‘70s inspiring slits, sequins and lots of shiny polyester.

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1980s fashion is perhaps the least favorite of vintage fashion decades, but without it we wouldn’t have stonewash denim, power suits for women, batwing sleeves, leg warmers, denim jumpsuits and other unique trends born in the ‘80s.

In the words of Yves Saint Laurent, “Fashions fade, but style is eternal.” Make incorporating vintage clothing a part of your daily routine, and you’ll find inspiration in the most timeless and thoughtful of ways to create personal style without having to wear something anyone else owns.

Where to Buy Cheap Vintage Fashion

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While there are beautiful garments to be found for an appropriate price in vintage clothing stores and online, shopping vintage flea markets, thrift stores and wholesale vintage sources will provide you with opportunities to purchase vintage clothing for less than standard market value. 

While the highest quality, designer-level garments are most easily purchased through a store or reputable online seller, finding hidden gems for less is possible with a good eye and time spent digging in alternative secondhand sources.

To purchase cheap vintage fashion online, check out wholesale vintage sites like Raghouse to purchase bulk “lots” of vintage, which consist of multiple pieces of a vintage clothing garment for a set discounted price.

Or, visit a wholesale vintage dealer in person. Discover one near you by Googling for “vintage wholesale clothing [insert location].” Some of my personal favorites are Bulk Vintage Clothing in Philadelphia, LAVintage in Los Angeles and DonnaLand in St. Louis.

Other ideas are shopping your parent’s or grandparent’s closet for wardrobes of their past, attending a style swap event, visiting a “by the pound” thrift store (like Goodwill), shopping estate sales, garage sales or costume shop sales and even checking Craigslist for a lucky deal.

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Wearing vintage fashion inspires a personal style that is only worn by you. Because garments which are vintage aren’t available new in stores, chances you’re wearing the same thing as your peers are slim to none.

Because vintage fashion is technically secondhand, you’re recycling pre-existing materials on the planet and reducing your carbon footprint by refusing to buy new fashions produced abroad. Buying vintage fashion in flea markets and brick and mortar stores is a practice of local shopping similar to how you would buy your produce from a local farmer. In a way, vintage and secondhand is like the organic food movement.

The experience of finding and wearing vintage fashion creatively charges you in a way that new fashion cannot. Because you are discovering the styles you want to wear through alternative means, the hunt for your treasure stretches your imagination to think outside of the box. You don’t just follow the trends, but you re-invent the trends of the past in a way that feels right for today.

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I believe that vintage lovers are a special community of people who love sharing the discovery of their vintage finds the most. It’s this connection which I value most and no matter the goods, is the most valuable of reasons why vintage fashion rocks: Because it brings us together in a positive way through history and our inter-connectedness.

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Sammy Davis is a vintage fashion expert with a decade of experience buying, wearing and selling vintage style of the past. Find her at Sammydvintage.com where you can join her community of ‚Äúspreading vintage love, her mission to connect vintage enthusiasts old and new with vintage sellers to make vintage fashion more accessible for the contemporary woman.  Buy her e-book on vintage shopping online,  "The 100 Best Vintage Shops Online."

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