Vintage Fashion 101: 10 questions for Kyle

In recognition of Atlantique City’s vintage-fashion theme, we at Antique Trader thought it a good time to turn to our resident expert and vintage-clothing guru – as well as all-around fashion plate – Kyle Husfloen.

When it comes to vintage clothing, he may not have written the book, but Kyle has certainly edited it many times in the form of Antique Trader’s Vintage Clothing Price Guide. Kyle’s answers to the 10 questions we asked him will help broaden your knowledge base and put you on track to recognize that great piece of vintage clothing – and buy it when you find it.

Antique Trader (AT): Kyle, how can you tell if something is “vintage fashion,” or just old clothes?

Kyle Husfloen (KH): All clothing was just “old clothes” at some point; what makes a piece “vintage” is if it has survived the years in top condition, no damage, fading, etc. It also adds to the interest if the piece is a top example of the era when it was first worn … fine “Flapper” dresses of the 1920s, 1950s poodle skirts, 1960s-1970s mini-skirts, etc. Clothes worn by “everyday” folks can certainly have some value, but, of course, high-style couture examples will always bring a premium.

AT: When buying vintage fashion, are there any rules?

KH: As noted above, condition is of paramount importance. If a piece is truly exceptional it may be worth some restoration, but more common items need to be in near-mint condition to interest serious collectors.

AT: What is the state of the vintage fashion market right now?

KH: From what I have seen, this market remains strong, but probably most active in larger metropolitan areas where there are more collectors and many folks are especially fashion conscious. Some collectors may purchase pieces to wear occasionally, especially pieces from the 1950s onward, but there are also buyers who seek out rare, fragile earlier garments that are really only meant for display.

AT: It seems like there have been a tremendous amount of vintage-fashion auctions and shows of late, not to mention Atlantique City’s upcoming vintage-fashion theme and fashion show. Is the field growing, or is it just seasonal?

KH: Overall I would say the field is growing not only with more serious buyers, but also because younger collectors can also enjoy adding some vintage accents to their wardrobe. Generally the market is strongest among women since there are many more examples that have survived, and designs and styles have changed so often over the past 200 years. Older examples of men’s clothing are harder to find and the styles for things like suits haven’t changed dramatically over the past century. There are, however, some strong niche markets for men, such as vintage neckties.

AT: What do you see that people are drawn to right now in vintage fashion?

KH: There will always be the specialized collectors, but I think part of the appeal of this field is that nearly everyone can purchase an interesting, fun piece at a reasonable price. It’s a fun way to add a “retro” look to your wardrobe.

AT: Is vintage fashion relevant to today’s fashion?

KH: Yes, vintage fashion has been relevant to the fashion industry since, at least, the late 19th century, especially in women’s couture fashions. Around the 1880s, leading fashion houses started picking up some clothing details used back in the 18th century and in the early years of the 20th century many ladies’ fashion began to reflect the more streamlined look of fashions from the early 19th century. As early as the 1930s, fashions and fashion accessories, especially hats, reintroduced some Victorian styles from around the 1850s (recall the tremendous market influence of the novel Gone With The Wind and the movie that followed). On and off since World War II, most fashion designs have drawn inspiration from the past. Today I’ve heard people remarking about how the “70s Look” – the 1970s, that is – is reemerging. It’s an endless cycle.

AT: Given how the rest of the antiques market has seen high-end examples skyrocket in price, is it still possible to get good examples of vintage fashion and not go into debt?

KH: Yes, as I mentioned earlier, there are examples of vintage clothing that will fit nearly every budget. Sometimes at tag sales, yard sales and flea markets I know that great couture clothes have been discovered at good prices, but generally it will be the more mass-marketed clothing of the past that will be available.

AT: If I wanted to learn about vintage fashion, telling good from bad, where’s a good place to start?

KH: I’m sure there are some references out there on fashion history that will be helpful, but often they focus on the high-end garments by leading designers. It’s still important to study these works since they will get you familiar with the best of the best. You will also then learn how such fashions trickled down to the mass market. Just studying old magazines and department-store catalogs is another excellent way to gain insights into styles of that era.

As an example, I remember as a young man how amazed people were in the late 1960s when the standard man’s white dress shirt started to be replaced with pastel shades and even stripes. It seemed to shake things up for a while. However, just recently while antiquing, I happened to glance through a 1944 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog and, low and behold, the men’s section featured a wide variety of dress shirts in pastel shades and with pinstripes! I don’t know if the style never caught on because it was wartime, but it proves that everything old is new again.

AT: Is the Internet a good place to find vintage fashion? Can you talk about the influence of the Web on the vintage-fashion trade?

KH: It certainly may be possible to shop online for vintage clothing. However, I’d say it’s certainly better to deal with an established dealer who is honest and knows their stock. There are very likely Web sites for vintage clothing dealers who are well established and these could be a good place to start. Many buyers, of course, would prefer to see and touch a garment before laying out hard cash.

AT: What’s the best advice you would give a collector when it comes to vintage fashion?

KH: Decide what you want to collect (era, type of garment, designer, etc.) and learn everything you can about your specialty before you invest too heavily.

AT: Thanks, Kyle!

Kyle Husfloen, Antique Trader’s Editor at Large, will be appraising general-line antiques at the upcoming Atlantique City Show, Oct. 20- 21, at the Atlantic City, N.J., Convention Center.