Shopping For Old Stuff: How to spot vintage gold

Last year I found myself attending an event that required a "gown." At the mall I found a lot of cocktail dresses that are short on the short. Being long of femur, they barely covered my lady bits. The alternative long-dress options within my budget were mostly shapeless chiffon numbers which did nothing for me. Attracted to the tailored styles of days of yesteryear, I liked the idea of buying a vintage dress, but wasn't sure what to look for. My mother is an experienced sewer of clothes (by my standards), and could tell me what is and isn't an easy alteration. I walked away from the craft when I was 12 after an ambitious first project including a three-tiered peach skirt and "matching" blazer for easter Sunday. I'm sure mom did most of the work Saturday night. Unless you count tie-die and puff paint projects, I've never made anything since.

So aside from the limited knowledge required to wear them, I didn't really know how clothes worked. But I did a little homework a lot of shopping, and I've learned a few things about sorting the trash from the treasure.

Shopping for old stuff 101

Start reading labels. Not so much as an indicator of quality--many well-made dresses are custom designs and may have none. But checking the label is one way to familiarize yourself with different types of fabric and how to care for it. Also, know your measurements. Bust, waist, hips, and the length you prefer (measure from the top of your shoulder to where you would like the hem to hit). It's useful to find a dress you have that fits well and measure it flat. Many online retailers will measure clothes this way. Have a measuring tape with you when you're shopping (in case you can't try on a dress) so you can compare it to the measurements you know work for you. Number sizing has changed significantly over the years. Plus, vintage clothing has been worn and laundered. The number on the label tells you nothing.

Too big vs. too small  

Taking in a dress is a relatively easy task, but making a dress larger is tricky. If a dress is on the small side, check to see how much of a seam allowance there is. Sometimes panels can be added to a bodice and a skirt lengthened with trim, but it can be difficult to match fabric or find someone with the expertise to pull this off well.

Stains & Discoloration

Today's cleaning products are too harsh to risk using on old fabric. A pro will know how to brighten old fabric safely, remove most stains, and take care of rust. Be on the lookout for perspiration and mold (dark gray or black spots). They might be impossible to remove.

Holes and other wear

Tears are no big thing if they're along the seam and the fabric is in decent shape. Tears elsewhere are a deal-breaker unless the fabric can be removed entirely. This goes for bad stains as well. Take a close look at the fabric over all. If the fabric is pulling apart or fraying it might be too fragile to wear and better off as the inspiration for a custom design.

Sleeves and necklines

Changes to sleeves are usually easy to pull off. They can be removed, shortened, or length can be added if you can find a fabric or trim that works. As long as the bodice is fairly simple (boning and multiple layers of fabric complicate things), a good seamstress will be able to change the neckline as well.

Hardware, etc.

If the fabric is in decent shape, broken hardware should be an easy fix. A tailor can replace a broken zipper or other type of closure. You can find vintage or vintage-style buttons and other notions to complement the style of the dress. Missing beadwork, sequins, or decorative stitching might cost a bit more, but can also be restored by a professional.


Mustiness is usually easy to remedy. Hanging the garment outside for a few days will freshen it up. Body odor on the other hand is likely a lost cause. You may be contributing enough of your own on your wedding day and there's no need to recycle old sweat.

For more on vintage shopping, alterations, and all things budget-wedding-related, stop by Blue Collar Bride. Join the discussion & share your tips!


In order to comment on, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.