Vintage fashion buying patterns change, but client loyalty is always in style

The definition of “vintage clothing” varies from expert to expert. Alison and Melissa Houtte, authors of Alligators, Old Mink & New Money (Avon Books, 2006), state that “in the industry, people say that 20 years or older is ‘vintage.’ However, television programs like ‘Sex and the City’ have started a whole new trend of buying ‘newer’ vintage fashion to a generation of sophisticated women who want to stand out from the crowd, like Carrie Bradshaw, to make a true fashion statement.”

Valuable vintage does not necessarily have to be expensive to be fresh, carefree and sleek. If you are in the market for tomorrow’s vintage fashion today, look for design that breaks the rules, and has classic staying power with a distinctive, singular trademark style. Check out regional designers in your own locale, rather than the off-the-rack regulars.

Boutiques, like Hooti Couture in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Resurrection in New York and California; rummage and estate sales; flea markets; and online auctions are all wonderful sources of vintage fashion if you want to stand out at any party. The “hip” gal of today is not afraid to mix new with vintage, bringing a little whimsy, fun and touch of glam to her wardrobe. She can create miles of look on a minimal budget by adding a vintage beaded or sequined jacket or top over a smart skirt, slacks or jeans with a great pair of Manolos, and voila!

My longtime friend and colleague, Linda Putman, vintage fashion dealer and owner of When I Was a Kid, of Eton Rapids, Mich., shared these observations:

“Recently I have experienced a significant change in the manner that our clients have determined the purchases that they make. As our clientele is comprised of collectors, fashion design houses, movie costumers and other dealers, their acquisition patterns are extremely varied.”

The Collector: Those who are avid collectors of vintage attire and accessories continue to make the purchase, and are not discouraged by the price for rare and incredibly gorgeous items.

Fashion Design Houses: These buyers are and always have been looking for the unusual and exceptionally styled item. Although this group has become a bit more selective relative to an item’s rarity, fashion houses will make the purchase for sheer glitz and glamour, and pay the fair price.

Movie Costumers: Since early 2009, there has been a noticeable uptick in purchases from this group of buyers. Perhaps as a result of an increase in the number of films scheduled for completion, a “restocking” phenomenon has occurred, and an increase in period fashion purchases from this sector.

The Dealer: The buying pattern of this segment of the vintage fashion community varies regionally. Dealers on the West Coast, particularly California, continue to be very strong buyers, focusing on the high end of designer pieces. Sales comprised of East Coast and Midwestern dealers tend to be more value oriented.

Putnam astutely observed, “at this point in our economy, the vintage fashion business is no different than any other retail or wholesale business … client loyalty is crucial, and one must be flexible to retain that loyalty and client base going forward.” ?


Caring for vintage clothing

• Wash your hands thoroughly before handling fine vintage garments.

• Use white cotton gloves when handling vintage fabric; soiled gloves may transfer dirt.

• Before handling textiles, remove any sharp jewelry that could snag or pull delicate threads.

• Do not smoke, drink or eat near your garments. Accidents may result in stains on textiles, and food attracts insects.

• Avoid prolonged exposure of textiles to direct sunlight as it can weaken fibers.

• Roll fabrics — do not fold them — as creases can weaken fibers and cause them to become brittle and crack.

• Resist cleaning. It is best to clean fabric with a hand vacuum.

• Check periodically for mildew and insect damage.

• Whenever possible, do not wear makeup when putting on or trying on a valuable vintage garment.

• Do not use mothballs or crystals to protect your garment from insects. They are extremely toxic and leave a permanent odor.


Textile Terms

Brocade: Rich silk fabric with raised patterns.

Soft, twilled fabric made of goat’s wool.

Chantilly (pronounced shan-tee-yee): Bobbin lace most commonly found in black.

Velvety silk, wool or cotton fabric, with a protruding pile.

Glazed, printed cotton fabric.

Fabric made “lacy” by cutting away and binding edges with satin or buttonhole stitches. It is not needle lace, but rather cutwork embroidery. Also known as embroidered lace.

Fine, lustrous fabric with flat patterns and a satin weave.

Denim: Firm and durable twilled cotton.

Lace that combines a number of embroidery techniques including satin stitch, tambour (chain stitch) and pulled stitches to create a lace-like surface. Also known as white work.

Closely woven cotton or wool twill.

Thin silk.

Gingham: Yarn-dyed cotton cloth woven in stripes, checks or plaids.

Grosgrain: Heavy, close-woven corded silk.

Hairpin Lace: Lace that is formed over a U-shaped wire frame called a hairpin, with the help of a crochet hook. Also known as Portuguese lace.

Haute Couture: The term “haute couture” is French. Haute means “high” or “elegant.” Couture literally means “sewing” or “tailoring,” but has come to indicate the business of creating, designing and selling high-fashion women’s clothes. Haute couture originated in the 19th century by Charles Frederick Worth. Made from scratch for each customer, it usually takes from 100 to 400 hours to make one dress.

Jacquard: Name of the mechanism invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801. A term used to describe coverlets with complex floral and pictorial designs; most typical period from 1830s-1860s.

Moiré: Watered silk.

Nylon: First synthetic fiber, invented in 1935.

Fine, translucent cotton.

Organza: Transparent, thin silk or nylon.

Stiff, durable, corded fabric or cotton, rayon or silk.

Satin: Closely woven silk with lustrous face.

Shantung: Plain, rough silk or cotton.

Stevengraphs: Colorful silk pictures invented by Thomas Stevens, beginning in the 1860s, and also produced by other English makers. Collectors seek examples in original mats with all labels complete.

Taffeta: Thin glossy silk.

Tatting: Fine lace made with a shuttle and distinguished by rings of knots.

Ticking: Strong cotton or linen fabric used for pillowcases and mattresses.

Tulle: Sheer and delicate silk.

Vintage Fashion Storage Tips

• Use acid-free textile storage containers. Avoid storing textiles in brown cardboard boxes, as they release acids.

• Use acid-free buffered tissue for cottons, linens and synthetics.

• Use acid-free, un-buffered tissue for wool, silk and leather.

• Hang garments on padded wood hangers.

• Avoid storing vintage garments in a damp basement or hot attic.

• Store fabrics in unbleached muslin. Avoid plastic bags, as they hold moisture and can release chemicals.

Enjoy your vintage piece! With the proper care, you will have it to treasure for many years to come and perhaps pass in on to another family member.

Caroline Ashleigh owns Birmingham, Mich.-based Caroline Ashleigh Associates LLC. She is a graduate of New York University in Appraisal Studies in Fine and Decorative Arts and is a board-certified senior member of the Appraisers Association of America. Ashleigh is an internationally known appraiser and regularly appears on the PBS program “Antiques Roadshow.” Caroline Ashleigh Associates conducts fully catalogued online auctions. Visit or



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