Are You Too Old for Vintage?

I actually wrote this post for another blog almost a year ago.  For some reason that blogger never published it on her site, so I’m going to put it here.  It’s very different from my usual posts, so I hope you enjoy it.  I was reminded of this after reading Michelle’s post on striking a balance between dressing too young and too old.  And my apologies to the blogger for whom this was intended.  If you ever decide to publish this on your site I’ll be happy to remove it from mine.

I’ve been into vintage clothing for a very long time, and at 57 I got to wear a lot of the styles that are vintage favorites today back when they were the height of fashion. When I discovered vintage clothing in the late 1970s, the vintage “industry” was quite new.  Wearing vintage was not the popular clothing option it is today.  I was discovering lovely pieces of old clothing but I didn’t want to look like it was Halloween.  So instead of wearing a complete vintage outfit, I began incorporating vintage pieces into my modern wardrobe.  This is a system that I’ve continued to use throughout the years.

For young women today, wearing vintage clothing is a fun alternative to modern clothing.  But we older women sometimes are hesitant to go all out in a vintage ensemble.  Often fit is an issue with a middle-aged figure, and many times the best vintage styles are simply too young looking.

There’s an old adage that says if you wore a fashion the first time it was popular, then your time is over.  When it comes to vintage the “rule” might be that it is really hard to pull off a look that you remember wearing in years past.  I’m not so sure one has to always adhere to such a rule, especially when it comes to classic pieces, but the truth is that an older person who wears something that dates to her adult lifetime runs the risk of looking like she raided the back of her own closet.  This is not the image most of us want to put out there.  Vintage is fun, but looking like you have not been shopping in 30 years is anything but.

So instead of revisiting the 1980s, go back further in time, to the early 1960s perhaps.  I remember these clothes on the women in my childhood, but I was too young for the Jackie Kennedy look.  Maybe that is why I find the clothing from the early 60s to be especially appealing.

That’s me in the photo, circa 1985.  Clearly, my time for puffed sleeved sweaters has come and gone.

Forget looking for vintage that would be “age appropriate.” By that I mean don’t try to wear things a 55-year-old woman would have worn in 1965.  Do you remember Aunt Bee from the Andy Griffith Show? That’s how middle-aged women were expected to look, but you should be going for pretty or sophisticated – anything but dowdy.  A 25-year-old woman might be able to pull off your grandmother’s 1970 poly dress with the elastic waist, but you will just look like your grandmother.

Photo copyright CBS Paramount Television

Look for things that fit in with your sense of style. If you love plaids or stripes or blue or floral prints, use that love as a starting point in looking at vintage clothing. Buy things you would be comfortable wearing if they were new. One of the advantages of being older is that we generally know what we like and what suits us. I’m not saying to not be adventurous; I’m saying if it feels like someone else’s clothes you are not as likely to wear it.

I may not want to wear a 1980s puffed sleeve sweater, but this one from the 1940s fits my sense of style and love of the color blue.

Vintage dresses can be hard for the older woman to wear. Combine the fact that your waistline is likely a few inches larger than it was when you were 22 with the fact that until the late 1960s (and sometimes beyond) most women wore firm body shapers. You will probably find that most vintage dress shapes between 1930 and the mid 1960s are just too small in the waist.

If this is your concern, you might try these two dresses from the mid 1960s, the shirtdress and the shift. Contrary to common belief, not everyone in 1966 was running around in super-short minis. That was a few years later.

Look for clothing that was meant to have an easier fit like coats, jackets and sweaters.  Because they were designed to wear over other garments, the fit is not as precise as a dress or a slim skirt.  Most of the vintage I own that I actually wear is outerwear purely because it is easy to find things that fit.

Again, be careful regarding style.  You want to find the right balance between too young and too dowdy.  Many vintage coats were cut to fit over the big skirts of the 1950s and early 1960s, and these tend to look shapeless without something beneath to fill them out.  An a-line coat like my Pendleton above is flattering for many body shapes.

If you are not sure about vintage clothing, start out with an accessory.  The selection of vintage handbags is simply staggering, and the quality is often much better than in handbags available today.  Evening bags are an exceptionally good buy, along with vintage bags in shapes that designers still turn to today.

If you love scarves, they are another great vintage value, not only silk ones but also cashmere and fine wool.  Other accessories to consider are jewelry, belts, hats and even shoes.

I’d love to hear your tips for wearing vintage, regardless of your age.

22 Comments

Filed under Proper Clothing, Viewpoint

22 responses to “Are You Too Old for Vintage?

  1. thanks, lizzie, this article is super helpful and reassuring! as i approach 40, i wonder from time to time how i will wear certain dresses as i grow older. i have a fondness for many sundresses from the 1940s through the 1970s because they are so easy to wear and i love styles from the late 70s because they remind me of my mother. but i cannot see myself wearing anything from the 80s or – when it enters ‘true’ vintage age – the 90s! it reminds me way too much of high school :).

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  2. GREAT piece Lizzie. In the 70′s I only wore 40′s dresses – so slimming and pretty. With my 65 year old body now and white hair – not so much… Accessories are “where it’s at” with me these days. I have a favorite big tooled purse, some very fun vintage belts, and I tend to wear my vintage “brooches” in clusters. I also have some nice vintage sweaters – and one great red swing coat from the 30′s.

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  3. Wonderful post! At 43, I’m at that awkward stage in many ways. Some clothes and hair style might take 10 years off or look just right, but –wow– some things can add 10 years! Suddenly I AM Aunt Bee! There are fashions that are timeless, though, and when in doubt, go vintage with them, I think. My current favorites are shirt dresses, cardigans with sweater clips, knee- length pleated skirts. What’s out for me? Hats, 50s full skirts, maxi dresses and the like. Matronly! I have a great collection of outerwear, but at 80 degrees in winter (Texas), I don’t get to drag it out very often!

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  4. Really love your way of explaining how to wear vintage fashion today. I’ve also been collecting vintage since the 70′s, starting with accessories and coats, and love mixing in one or two fabulous vintage statement pieces with a modern outfit. My collection and love of vintage expanded so much through the years that I had to start selling, and I always share with my clients looking for special occasion pieces that vintage is the perfect choice for standing out in a crowd.
    Thanks for posting interesting, helpful and fun photos and stories!

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  5. This is such a great piece, Lizzie, and I’m so glad you published it! I do worry about looking like Aunt Bea (no offense to sweet Aunt Bea) in some of my favorite dresses than I wish. Looking matronly is something I want to avoid. I do like combining my vintage as much as possible with newer pieces (usually shoes) so that I don’t look too costume-y (not really an age related issue), And sometimes I’m just going to look like an eccentric granny, and that’s just too bad, because sometimes that’s my favorite look!

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  6. John Rogers

    NEVER too old for vintage! I am fascinated by men and women who dress both in ultra-comtemporay and historically accurate outfits. When I see 20-30s wearing Aunt Bee’s outfit, I am intrigued by their independence, artistic sense, and appreciation of the past. I’m 61 and just getting started, but my goal isn’t to wear the often fragile items, rather to preserve them and the memories they hold. I am aleady making arrangements to donate the few rare pieces to various museums. Would one really wear a pair of 1950s Dior / Vivier shoes with comma heels? Thanks for a thought provoking article!

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  7. Great post Lizzie and you’re so right about mixing vintage with modern.

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  8. Absolutely fabulous post, I set my limit at anything below 1950, that means I have never worn it as a young person. I am now incorporating aspects of 19th style into my 21st c look, shirtwaists, skirts, jackets.

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  9. As a woman in her ’50s who has always dabbled in vintage, I worry about wandering into Aunt Bea territory, too. Just think of Iris Apfel and her glorious interweaving of vintage & modern with colour, enhanced by vintage accessores.

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  10. How can you ever be too old for vintage? Those are lovely pieces, each and every one of them. I love the purse. You bring such a great ideas, love your blog.

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  11. I love your post! It’s a great overview for someone who has never tried vintage before. =)

    I suppose I am drawn to anything from the 70s and before since I was born in the 70s and didn’t ever really have the chance to wear those styles (yes, the 70s fabrics were awful but the stylelines were wonderful!). I look at so many of my mom’s old photos and wish she had kept some of her best outfits for me! I am most drawn to anything from the 40s-60s.

    When it comes to wearing actual vintage, I probably wear more vintage jewelry than anything because I inherited a lot wonderful pieces from my grandmother. I also love hats and have a couple that are truly vintage. My actual style is probably more “retro” than “vintage” simply because I can sew my own versions of the old – sometimes out of vintage fabric.

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  12. Thanks for the great post LIzzie. As someone who started wearing vintage in the 60′s (it was 20′s, 30′s & 40′s pieces back then), I now steer clear of a full vintage ‘costume’, opting for a more integrated look these days. My own ideal vintage style? A 40′s Lilli Ann jacket worn with jeans and boots.

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  13. Christina

    Head to toe vintage is hard to pull off. Statement pieces work in the way Jen O suggests. I can only add to that by suggesting a great printed crepe blouse over black tapered pants, jewellery heavier than what you would normally wear seen on self-coloured structured clothing. An interesting belt with detail and a printed silk square scarf can be great accessories. Hats can be tricky and I avoid them unless they are picture style 1950′s. Box shaped or slim square rather than round edged vintage handbags to me are cleaner and sharper. Menswear vintage styling doesn’t have so many restraints and head to toe can work really well. For women, keeping the body line simple, colours solid and then adding the statement is a good rule of thumb.

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  14. I’m truly surprised, and pleased with all the responses. I was afraid that people would think, “Why is *she* giving fashion advice?”

    Maybe because this is New York Fashion Week and my twitter feed is inundated with instagrams of people wearing silly shoes in the aftermath of a snowstorm, I’ve been thinking a lot about how clothing conveys messages about the wearer. That is a blog post for another day…

    I loved the mention of Iris Apfel. She obviously dresses to suit herself, and I think you just can’t do any better than that.

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  15. Mim

    That’s a really nice post. I totally agree on the ‘Don’t wear it if you wore it the first time round’ point. On the youthfulness front, I’ve simply embraced my inner frump. It can be quite liberating deliberately choosing a look other people will be indifferent to…

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  16. Ruth

    I’m 59 and I know what you mean about “if you wore it the first time around you shouldn’t wear it the second time around”, to paraphrase! I will never see hot pants on this body again unless I can trade it in on a younger version. When I was in my late 20′s I wore some of my grandmother’s rayon housedresses and got away with it, but I had only had two kids then and was still in good shape. Now I rely on vintage for inspiration in making my own fashions since very few pieces for larger ladies are wearable.

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  17. I love this one too. I think of the blue and white sweater as one of the “timeless” pieces. I love the Norwegian (or Scandinavian?) knitted sweaters. I also love the blue and white contrast.

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  18. A second note: My kids were recently exposed to the Andy Griffith show. We have been amused to see many currently-popular clothing hints worn by Aunt Bee!

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  19. Never too old! Never! But the trick is to wear it without looking like you are in costume.

    Your photo reminds me of a knit jacket in the 80s that had a similar pattern as your sweater. I don’t think those are coming back into fashion so I’m not worried about being tempted to wear one again!

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