Buying vintage pieces is a cheap and rewarding way to augment your wardrobe, allowing you to build an individual look and a unique personal style. However, vintage shopping is not for everyone.

If you are not someone with the time and patience to sift through loads of someone else's cast-offs or if you are not someone who is able to catch a glimpse of fabric and know that it is something worth looking at, then it's an arduous process, one that often doesn't seem to be worth the hassle.

But there are ways to make it slightly easier, and there are some helpful hints that I can give the novices that will make vintage shopping in SA a little less stressful.

Second-hand versus vintage?

It's really only in the last five years, since vintage clothing has reached mainstream popularity that we have started to distinguish between vintage and second-hand clothing. Unlike furniture, clothing actually reaches the stage of vintage in only 20 years.

Currently anything from the 1980s or before is considered vintage and is therefore more desirable, collectable and expensive.

While you can still achieve the objective of augmenting your wardrobe with individual and inexpensive signature pieces from your average charity second-hand shop on the corner, it is much, much easier to come across the real quality finds in a store that is specialist in authentic vintage clothes and accessories.

Why is vintage shopping so difficult?

There are a few key reasons why it is so much more difficult to acquire a great piece at a vintage store:

  • People were generally much smaller in the mid-century, meaning for anyone average sized or larger, it is very rare to find clothing that fits today.
  • Vintage stores only really stock one-off pieces, so a search for what you want means looking at every individual item in the store. Often stores are very crowded, with packed rails and shelves, making it even harder to search.
  • Most people in the mid-century used to wear their clothes until they wore out, rather than replacing most of their wardrobe every year to two, so there are far less garments in circulation than what we are used to.
  • Clothing from the '40s and '50s has been collectable for many years now, so the best of these was purchased in the '70s and '80s and are now the treasured components of someone else's wardrobe.

What is good to buy?

There are a few items that will be easier than others to acquire in a vintage store. These are also items that really can work as worn-in pieces.

Great jeans age like fine wine, often improving with age and wear. Before the classic American denim began to be mass manufactured, the looming process in the US allowed for a much higher quality of fabric. Therefore old jeans are simply better jeans. If you do buy vintage denim, I would strongly advise that you dry clean it to preserve the cotton-based fabric.

A beautiful beaded cardigan will fit most sizes even today so it is a great key piece to search for. It can make a ladies outfit very feminine and a little boho, especially when worn with the tea-dresses that are available in store these days. Chaps should also look for good-quality wool cardigans from the '70s and before.

Bags and accessories
Ladies can find some of the most beautiful beaded evening bags and clutches in the vintage stores. Prepare yourself to pay more for them, but they will be totally worth it and last you for the rest of your life. Look out for '50s hair clips, art deco brooches and shoe clips and '60s evening shawls to use as scarves.

Gents with vintage you can find a really good-quality waistcoat that will last for ages and really smarten up a casual outfit in quite a rock 'n roll way.

Leather belts and bags
Leather ages well too, so look for your classic gents' belt in a vintage store rather than trying to get the same quality brand new. Be careful that the wear and tear is able to be buffed away with some elbow grease and polish. Ladies fringe bags from the '70s are big news again for SS09 so head to your vintage store to find a great individual piece.

Designer classics
Keep your eye out at all times for the classics that will last a lifetime, including Chanel and handbags and suits, Dior evening wear, Halston disco clothing and Hermes scarves and handbags. You just never know what you will find.

Top tips in-store

There are some general guidelines that make the actual process of sifting through all the goodies in the vintage stores more bearable.

  • Make friends with the store owner and manager. This will allow you to ask for special favours — and they are more likely to alert you when a specific item that you are looking for, comes into the store.
  • Give yourself plenty of time. This is not a speed process; it requires patience and diligence so that you don't miss anything in your search. Stick with it and remain interested and excited about all the items you are uncovering as you never know what will really transform your particular wardrobe.
  • Make sure that the garment is clean and does not smell too badly of moth balls. It is also sometimes very difficult to get out old swear stains and smells, so choose your vintage wisely and ask about a returns policy.
  • Check your fabric labels. You want excellent quality items, in natural fabrics. Fabric engineering and technology 50 years ago was not as advanced as it is today, so stick with the natural fibres and you can't go wrong.
  • Make sure that the garment fits you. It sounds obvious, but it is unlikely that you are ever going to wear it if it doesn't fit comfortably in the store. Match your body shape to a time in history when clothing was designed for it, for example, tall thin ladies should be looking for '60s mod clothing and ladies with curves are more likely to find what they are looking for in the '50s section.
  • Ask the shop manager or owner about the history of the garment you are interested in. Ask when it was from and how it would have been worn in those days. This will allow you to tell its story when people compliment you on your item.
  • Trust word of mouth for your choice of vintage store. Ask around and people will tell you where the best store is, one that you can trust to stock authentic vintage and with helpful and interested staff.

Vintage is a great way to express your own personal style while referencing your ancestors, so don't forget to start at the source. Often the best vintage shopping is your very own parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or crazy godmother's wardrobe. It is as good a place as any for your entry point into vintage.

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