Style

How to Make Your Vintage Wardrobe Last a Lifetime

Preserve your treasures from the past and they’ll look just as great in the future.

All illustrations by a href="http://rookiemag.com/author/chloewise/">Chloe.

All illustrations by Chloe.

I’ve been wearing vintage clothing for almost a decade now, and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it…except for the times when I destroyed several exquisite pieces simply because I didn’t know how to look after them. I’ve ripped seams irreparably, let old leather dry up, crack, and mildew, and ruined silks with hot irons. As a result of missteps like these, I eventually learned to take better care of old garments, which, in a way, are similar to old people: They’re fragile and sometimes temperamental, but often come with utterly fascinating histories. So now I’d like to pass my methods on to you so that you can protect your own thrifted treasures! Here’s everything you’ll want to keep in mind to make your vintage last forever.

Materials

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The first thing to figure out about any piece of vintage clothing is what it’s made of, because that will tell you how delicate or temperamental it is. New clothes generally announce their makeup on their labels, but those tags are often missing from vintage stuff. If you’re not sure what material a particular piece consists of, try asking your local tailor or dry cleaner or another professional in the know. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common fabrics you’ll come across in your thrifting:

Polyester: This thick knit, which first became popular in the 1960s, is one of the sturdiest fabrics around—I own quite a few ’60s scooter dresses, and all of them are virtually indestructible. Go ahead and wear the fuck out of your poly-knitted pieces, because they’ll last forever no matter how frequently you wear them. Polyester is built to last!

Natural fibers like wool, cotton, and silk: If your tastes are more inclined toward pre-1960s loveliness, keeping your vintage wardrobe in tip-top shape is going to be a little harder. Most clothing from the first half of the 20th century is made from natural textiles that become increasingly delicate with age and therefore require careful maintenance. Look for pieces blended with rayon—they’ll be sturdier than 100% natural fibers. But even the most perfectly preserved deadstock from the ’50s and earlier isn’t likely to withstand everyday use, so be careful when choosing when to wear these treasures.

Vinyl or PVC: It’s possible to find wearable vinyl if you’re willing to search, but don’t buy anything that’s cracked, sticky, or flaky. After a vinyl or PVC piece has started to deteriorate, nothing will slow its speedy demise. When I discovered the glorious world of eBay, I happened upon a collection of deadstock vinyl Golo boots. The seller had issued a very clear warning that the vinyl had cracked, making them unwearable, but I was so taken by the idea of owning a pair of original Golos that I bought them anyway. Predictably, my dreams of mod authenticity were dashed when they arrived in the mail and then promptly fell apart. The moral of this sad story is that we should all heed warnings on eBay! To ignore them is to invite heartbreak—especially with irreparable materials like these.

Leather: There’s a fine line between “worn” and “beyond redemption.” A bit of wear looks great on vintage leather, especially leather jackets, boots, and brogues, but if the piece in question is visibly withered or dry or otherwise looks like the last good day it saw was decades before you were born, it’s best to move on.

Fit

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If you buy a cotton T-shirt one size down from your regular size, it will be tight, but maybe that’s what you’re going for, and the T-shirt won’t mind. But if a vintage piece in a delicate fabric is tight on you, the tension at the seams and across the fabric might be too much for it to withstand. Vintage seams can be very fragile, especially in natural-fiber pieces. Once they rip, it’s very hard to repair them.Depending on the era and the country of origin of a vintage piece, I can go up five or six sizes from my normal modern-day one—and the older a piece is, the smaller it will be in relation to the number on the label. This is why you should always try things on before buying, to see if you’re able to move freely in that dress or those hotpants.

If you’re buying online and can’t try something on, knowing your measurements will help you tremendously. or a long time, I couldn’t buy anything larger than a specific number without triggering all my fat-girl insecurities, so I’d end up with a lot of vintage clothes that almost fit me. Soon enough, the seams would start to fray, and I’d know the dress or whatever was a goner. Since then, I’ve realized that neither my body’s real size nor my self-confidence are in any way affected by my dress size, so now I always add an inch to my real measurements when I’m considering buying a piece online. Better a garment be a little too big—you can always get it taken in by a tailor—than too tight.

Here’s a handy guide to taking your own measurements.

Washing

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Putting your wardrobe through the spin cycle is handy if you’re into indestructible and easily replaceable clothing, but that can spell death for older or more delicate finds. Hand-washing extends the life of older clothing exponentially. Here’s how to do it:

First, soak your clothing in warm water (one exception: silk can’t handle anything hotter than room temperature). Then add detergent or, if you’re working with natural fibers, shampoo. This is gentler on very delicate materials, many of which (silk and wool, for example) came from living things. You wouldn’t use Tide on your hair, would you? Don’t use it on wool, either. Once you’ve added your cleanser, leave the clothing to soak for a good long while—extended baths are great for getting funny smells out and make stains much easier to remove—do the latter by spot-treating the blemishes with a cleanser or stain remover tested beforehand on a hidden part of the garment to make sure it won’t damage the material. Then dab that product on the stain and let it dry completely before washing the whole piece. Rinse everything with two loads of fresh water, then squeeze the excess moisture each garment gently. Handling wet clothing roughly can damage it, so never, ever wring it out—and if the clothing you’re washing is particularly old and frail, forego the squeezing altogether. Finally, hang your freshly clean vintage out to dry anywhere you want. Just make sure it’s a safe distance from radiators or other any other source of direct heat, which can damage your lovingly cared for garments.

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22 Comments

  • taratwinkle December 19th, 2013 8:31 PM

    I have a beautiful cashmere sweater which is white and green…. It’s very special as it belonged to my great grandma…. BUT IT HAS AN AWFUL GREY STAIN! Any ideas, lovely Rookies???

    • Ragini December 20th, 2013 3:07 AM

      Oh noes, so sorry to hear that! If the stain is somewhere you can pin a brooch on, that’s the easiest way to hide it. Cashmere is really delicate, so stain remover would hurt it. I’d recommend it having it looked over professionally by a drycleaner who specialises in cleaning vintage clothes. The last option would be to dye the sweater if you are not hopelessly attached to the colour it has right now! These are just things I can think off the top of my head but I hope you can find something that works for you. Good luck!

  • AnaRuiz December 19th, 2013 8:39 PM

    Perfect timing for the beaut Levi’s I found last Saturday. :)

    http://anaruizwriting.blogspot.com

  • lauraunicorns December 19th, 2013 9:24 PM

    Really helpful! I love vintage, but I haven’t found much around where I live beyond the 80s. If any Rookies have suggestions for online places or good Etsy shops, I’d appreciate it!

    http://lauraunicorns.tumblr.com

    • Ragini December 20th, 2013 3:19 AM

      I’m currently obsessed with the Deargolden store on Etsy but they are pri-cey! Fabgabs and Dalena Vintage have been old favourites for a long time :)

      • lauraunicorns December 20th, 2013 10:47 PM

        Thank you! I’ll check them out!

    • wallflower152 December 20th, 2013 11:28 PM

      RivalryRetro.etsy.com

      #ShamelessSelfPromotion #UsingHashtagsOutOfTwitter

      I just listed some really cute lace collars.

  • Hecticglow December 19th, 2013 9:28 PM

    any advice on vintage furs?

  • kittyweasel December 19th, 2013 9:36 PM

    This is so helpful and the illustrations are darling!!

  • julalondon December 19th, 2013 11:17 PM

    I wear A LOT of vintage so this is really useful! Thank you!!=)

  • December 20th, 2013 4:46 AM

    I bought a (new) silk dress recently, but wore it to a ball and spilt red wine on it, so I decided to risk it and handwash it (I’m a poor student) The stain didn’t really come out, which I don’t mind that much, but the silk shrank a couple of inches, while the synthetic layer underneath didn’t, any tried and tested tips on how to deal with this? I’m a rookie when it comes to silk!

    • kendallpanda December 27th, 2013 8:03 PM

      Not certain about silk-specific things, but they say white wine helps get rid of the red wine stain! That might be pre-wash though? Sorry I’m not more helpful :) good luck
      xox

  • Jane-Eyre December 20th, 2013 5:27 AM

    Thanks so much, this is really helpful! And judging by your pictures I’d love to raid your wardrobe.. :)

  • Emmie December 20th, 2013 9:03 AM

    Thanks Ragini! As usual, you rock xoxoxo!!!

  • elliecp December 20th, 2013 11:00 AM

    this is actually really helpful! <3 thankyou :)

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • mangointhesky December 20th, 2013 2:49 PM

    I wasn’t a vintage person until I read this. Now, my wardrobe feels like it has to be re-created over the holidays!

    http://thebluepapaya.blogspot.com

  • Roothford December 20th, 2013 9:24 PM

    I live in a high humidity environment right off the coast & have found out that plastic garment storage is simply not an option. If you can’t afford garment bags, another plastic-free solution is to find an extra pillow case (100% cotton is best) and cut a small hole in the top seam for the hanger. I have a vintage dress that I’ve been storing in two pillow cases sewn together & it’s been working fabulously. If you live in a place with a significant amount of humidity, storing clothing in plastic over the years can discolor & age it even quicker.

    Also, I completely agree with the fact that synthetics like polyester are very durable, but I’ve found on too many occasions how badly synthetic fabric responds to high heat in dryers. I’ve gotten in the habit of never putting polyester rayon, etc. in the dryer on anything but low, or even better, hang drying always works.

    As I’ve found more & more wonderful vintage clothing over the years, I’ve also learned the value of hand washing & hang drying — I couldn’t agree more with Ragini’s reccommendation to do as such. I’ve found that the more I keep my favorite clothes away from machines, fabric softener, hot irons all while using gentle soaps & detergents, they won’t last forever, but they will certainly last much longer.

  • RubyintheRain December 21st, 2013 4:29 PM

    This is so useful and helpful! Thank you! x

    Ruby
    http://rubys-eyes.blogspot.com

  • shayelea December 21st, 2013 5:19 PM

    I’ve nearly ruined more than one vintage piece by hand washing in lukewarm water. Even fibers like rayon and polyester (!!!) can shrink if they are old and delicate enough. (I’m talking poly crepe, not jersey, because I agree that stuff is indestructible!) The rayon piece I was able to salvage by gently pulling it back into shape and size the entire time it was drying, and then eventually putting it on (!!!) and wearing it while it dried. (It sucked, I don’t recommend it.) The polyester piece, however, did not respond to such ministrations and is now simply quite short and a little smaller overall, which sucks because it used to fit me quite well and is now just a tetch tight.

    The moral of the story is that it’s often best to wash as infrequently as possible. I recommend dress shields (absorbent pads you stick in the armpits) and large napkins. :)

  • nocturnem December 22nd, 2013 2:53 PM

    I would avoid washing vintage in warm or lukewarm water unless the garment was very very filthy and one was a 100% sure that the fabric can stand it, otherwise there’s a risk the colors will bleed and the fabric will shrink. I handwash all my vintage in cold water with a mild soap for delicate clothing (like woolite), then hang dry or dry flat. If a dress is very, very wet, I’ll put it on top of a towel, roll the towel, and press. It doesn’t damage the clothes yet it works like wringing! Fabrics like taffeta, rayon, certain wools and silks, very delicate fabrics or beaded pieces are best sent to dry cleaners you trust or who have experience cleaning vintage. Also, some skirts and dresses from the early 60s and earlier have linings made of acetate, which will most likely shrink if you try washing it (I know that from experience…), so even if the outside fabric is washable, send it to the dry cleaners!

  • Raissomat December 23rd, 2013 10:32 AM

    I am surprised to admit the vintage part of my wardrobe is constantly growing. Wearing a long dark blue polka dot dress and a vintage marine Cacharel sweater right now. The sweater is all cotton but knitted and still fragile so I Wash it cold in a bra baggie (the ones that zip up and protect your garment). Tonight I will wear my mums 70′ suede pants, witch are very delicate and I take to the dry cleaners once a year. I have special leather spot cleaning tissues for other little accidents. Man do I love my vintage stuff..