A Timid Gal’s Guide To Wearing Vintage Fashion

by Jeanée Ledoux

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.

 MG 1055 0fc7950s floral applique lilac dress, available here. Photo courtesy of The Way We Wore

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.

2018 04 12 05.49.34 985c430s Czech glass amber necklace, available here. Photo courtesy of The Way We Wore

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.”

2018 04 12 05.39.13 5a333 REID 70s caftan, available here. Photo courtesy of The Way We Wore

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.

2018 04 12 06.01.53 15e7560s needlepoint A-frame purse, available here. Photo courtesy of Voguely Familiar

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

More from BUST

The History Of Pin-Up Girls

10 Online Retro Stores With Classic Style

This Vintage Subscription Service Brings The Best Of The Thrift Store To Your Door

You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.