We all know that today’s “fast fashion,” the trendy clothing mass-produced in sometimes unsavory working conditions, can negatively impact the people who make it and the planet. Shopping at vintage boutiques instead of hitting the mall checks the “good” box for this reason and lots of others. For instance, investing in well-made vintage clothing instead of cheap new pieces likely saves money in the long run, because “quality construction was a way of life pre-1980s,” says Doris Raymond, the historical clothing expert behind The Way We Wore, Inc., in Los Angeles and the central figure in the TV documentary series L.A. Frock Stars. Wearing looks from a bygone era declares your individuality and separates you from the H&M-clad crowd, too.
But for timid fashionistas, there’s a rub: A vintage outfit can be a lot of look. Some of us seem born to rock it, showing up for junior high picture day in an old wedding dress and red cowboy boots. Others, like me, were grateful for the banal school uniform. I’m creative and brave in my career, but not so much when it comes to dressing. I’d love to be a canvas for a silk turban or a beaded flapper gown, but I'm afraid to look like a character actor or—even worse—like I'm asking for attention.
If you’re drawn to historical gems but share my wallflower ways, read on for some fashion therapy. With help from Raymond, together we just might get comfortable stepping back in time and slipping into sequin showstoppers.
Start small. “Starting with accessories would be an easy entrée into the wonderful world of vintage,” Raymond suggests. For example, try adding a graphic scarf and chunky Bakelite bangle to a simple outfit you already love. If you get self-conscious about the bold add-ons, you can stash them in your bag.
Find your decade. Are you tall with a long waist? Short with an ample tush? Generally speaking, there’s a decade for that. The clothing cuts popular in certain eras fit and flatter women differently. “Every body type has a silhouette that can work best,” Raymond says. “For example, I am a full-figured woman, and I find that fit and flare styles from the 1950s and certain types of 1970s patterns can work best for me. If there is a vintage store in your area that carries a few decades, in the privacy of your dressing room, try on different pieces. You may surprise yourself and discover a new you.”
Visit a seamstress. Spend a little extra to have vintage finds tailored to your body. “That makes the purchase look custom made and amps up the perception of quality and value,” Raymond says. “Finding a fabulous dress is not enough if the cut of the sleeves has way too much fabric and it looks awkward. Having the sleeves tapered to make it more relevant in today's world (and a better fit) is a simple step.” However, she cautions against altering a collectible, iconic item, because doing so would slash the value.
Remember, fashion should be fun. “If your environment, job, and/or life allows you the freedom to be playful and explore different sides of your personality, run with it,” Raymond says.
I needed these final lighthearted words, simple as they are, because deciding what to wear has been frustrating me since the first day my mom let me choose. It’s a constant struggle between getting noticed and being invisible. I’m not sure I can “run” with statement-making vintage fashion just yet, but this spring I plan to walk out of the apartment in a daring new dress: a 1960s floor-length number with a painterly print that signals my love of modern art. One small step at a time, this wallflower will move toward the sunlight.
top photo: Carol
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Jeanée Ledoux is a lifestyle writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn with her photographer husband and the world’s sweetest blind mutt. You can follow her tame adventures, mostly in the world of words, on her Instagram account @finely_crafted.