Wherever you live, you never know what you might find at those outdoor flea markets. / Shannon Fagan/CORBIS
If Mad Men reruns are not satisfying your vintage-fashion fix, then get ready: Summer is the ideal time to hunt for one-of-a-kind retro finds. “Outdoor flea markets are incredibly democratic when it comes to finding vintage pieces. It doesn’t matter where you live — you never know what you are going to find,” says Cameron Silver, author of Decades and founder of the renowned vintage-clothing store in Los Angeles of the same name. But before you start haggling over a Pucci jumpsuit, we asked Silver to share some vintage-shopping secrets to help take the mystery (and the moths) out of buying a dress old enough to be your mother.
Accessorize on the cheap: For shoppers who are new to buying old clothes, Cameron suggests you start with inexpensive accessories. “If you get a fun beaded necklace for $3.99, chances are you won’t regret it if you never end up wearing it,” Silver says. He also applies that rule to buying accessories through eBay, which can be a backup plan if bad weather turns a weekend flea-market trip into a washout. “If your purchase price is less than the shipping cost, you won’t feel that guilty,” he says.
Inspect the quality: Often things that look OK in a booth or shop won’t survive a trip to the dry cleaner, where chemicals and heat can cause fabric to fray and worsen holes that were too small for you to see. “If it’s something like a loose button, it’s OK. But if there are armpit stains, it really smells terrible or there is reweaving from moth holes, don’t buy it. Quite often the cost of the repairs will exceed the value of the garment,” Silver says.
Keep it current: “The danger with vintage is that when people want to look retro, they wear it head-to-toe, and it becomes a costume,” he says. The trick is to wear a Mad Men shift with a shoe that’s popular now, like a fun summer wedge rather than a vintage heel. “The beauty of vintage worn well is that it can make you look modern as well as distinctive,” Silver says.
Buy by body type: One of the most striking differences between vintage and current clothes is fit. “There’s no doubt that people were smaller-boned, weighed less and were even shorter,” Silver says. Certain decades work best for certain figures. Women with slim hips can wear the flapper dresses of the ’20s. If you are narrow-shouldered, Silver suggests you opt for the extra heft of ’40s shoulder pads. Curvy figures will be flattered by ’50s fashion, and small-chested women can take advantage of the slinky tops and halters that ruled the ’70s.
Safeguard your closet: A great vintage find can enhance your wardrobe — as long as it doesn’t bring any moths along with it. Silver suggests that whenever you buy a new item, particularly wool and cashmere, put your sweater in the freezer for a few hours. This will kill moths and other fabric-munching insects that may have hitched a ride. Afterward, hand-wash the item in a gentle laundry detergent. Silver prefers all-natural detergents from a store that specializes in organic products, such as Whole Foods.
Bring cash: In the world of vintage, the popular eras may change, Silver says, but there is one constant: “Cash is king.”