Shopping for Vintage Online 101

I was inspired to make this post by recent comments made here and elsewhere about the perils of online shopping.  These comments have got me to thinking about my own buying habits, and whether or not I could give any advice to people who feel buying online is a mine field.
First, I’ve been buying vintage clothing online for twelve and a half years.  In that time I’ve seen a lot of changes, but one thing has remained constant:  not all people selling vintage and antique clothing know what they are selling.
I’m stating this outright because there seems to be a perception that the clueless vintage seller is a recent phenomenon.  That’s not true at all.  The clueless have always been around; it’s just that there are so many more of them today.  The difference is that ten years ago the uneducated vintage seller didn’t have many ways to learn about his or her products, as opposed to today where there is vintage info overload on the web.  Sites like the VFG’s Label Resource have made it very easy for sellers to learn about what they have, so why are so many garments misidentified? Why are dresses from 2000 being sold as vintage from 1950 or 1970?

I guess there are as many answers to that question as there are sellers.  It could be laziness, or dishonestly, or greed, or simply just a lack of caring.  Many people who are buying vintage to wear care nothing about the age of the garment; they care only about the “look.”  The same can be said for sellers who are selling an image rather than a garment.


So what can you do to make sure the vintage you buy is what the seller says it is?
1.  Buy from sellers you know and trust.
If you have bought great items in the past, go back to your records to see who the sellers were.  Check to see where they are now selling.  Many wonderful ebay sellers are still there, but many now have their own sites or sell at places like etsy and Ruby Lane.  Find and bookmark their sites.  Build a list of sellers who you and people you know have actually shopped with successfully.
Shop with members of the Vintage Fashion Guild.  All members of VFG have to be approved for membership by showing they have a high level of standards and vintage knowledge, and these standards have to be maintained.  There are many super sellers who are not members, but checking for VFG membership does provide a measure of assurance that the seller is a professional.
Hint:  Most VFG members tag their etsy items with VFG.
2.  Ask questions before buying.
If you are not entirely sure about an item contact the seller to see if you can get your concerns addressed.  One thing I hate is when a seller does not include a label photo, so I will email and ask if they will send a photo of it to me.  Even if the label is an obscure one, a lot can be learned from it.  A 1950s label usually has a very different font from a modern one.   If there is not a label, ask to see a photo of where a seam meets the hem.  Learn to tell the difference between modern and vintage sewing construction.
A word about questions:  Please do not grill a seller about every little detail, especially if this info can be found in the item description.  And please, no questions about what the seller paid for the item.  Yes, people really do ask that question of sellers!
3.  Educate yourself about vintage styles and construction.
I know some sellers who can date any garment within a few years of its manufacture, but many times the seller is just guessing, especially if they are not very experienced.  Just because a seller thinks their item is a 1930s frock does not always make it so.  Do your homework.  Know what the styles were.  Most libraries will have books on fashion history and most cities have vintage clothing stores so take advantage of them to learn more.
4.  Read the entire listing carefully.
Some people seem to think it is alright to say in their item title that it is from the 1950s, but in the description itself, they will admit that it probably is later and just looks like it is from the 50s.  Read very carefully to make sure there is not such language hidden on the fine print!
It is also important to read carefully to see how the condition of the item is described.  If there is no indication of condition, see #2.
5.  Have a list of standards that sellers must meet and stick to it.
Sometimes it’s just best to avoid certain types of sellers entirely.  And the things I choose to avoid might be very different from those that are turn-offs for you.  It all depends on priorities and preferences.  For what it is worth, here is my list of actions that would keep me from buying from a seller:
A.  They operate a chop-shop.  Even if the item I like is not shortened, I won’t buy from someone who does not leave the decision to shorten to the buyer.
B.  They use spammy keywords in titles and tags.  There is no such thing as a “Mod, Rockabilly, Boho, Hippie, Emo, Flapper 1980s Sweater.”  Sellers who do this are saying they know or care nothing about vintage styles; they just want to sell that sweater.
C.  They don’t answer my emails.
D.  They answer emails but are defensive.
E.  They have a one sentence description but a 2000 word essay of rules and conditions the buyer must meet.
Over the past 12 years I’ve bought a lot of beautiful things online, and I’ve bought a few duds as well.  But for the most part I’ve been happy with what I buy because I am careful.  But sometimes temptation has nudged me to purchase something when I had doubts.  That’s when  the package arrives and I see that I should have listened to that little voice that said, “Yes, it looks like a great piece, BUT…”
All the pieces illustrated are from the great Tina Leser, all bought online:


Posted by Anonymous:

I have benefitted from buying pieces from an uninformed seller. That being said, I love when I am looking for something specific whether vintage clothing or other items, when I can be told the provenance of an item. That helps me to know a little more about the dates as long as the seller is honest. Where and from whom the item was acquired can be helpful. I laughed when you mentioned people asking the price the seller paid–hard to believe but true that it happens! The pix you posted with this informative piece are fabulous. Great advice for us vintofiles!

Thursday, July 8th 2010 @ 8:25 AM

Posted by Mod Betty / Retro Roadmap:

I pick up vintage when I’m thrifting and use it as everydaywear or special occasion wear, depending on the style- thanks so much for the link to the label resource! I have never bought anything online, probably b/c I don’t want to measure myself, but also sometimes things look good in pictures but as soon as you feel the fabric you know it isn’t for you. That being said, you’ve got some great tips here, maybe I will dip my toe into the pool! It sure would give me an easier (albeit more expensive) way to fill my closet with clothes I like!

Friday, July 9th 2010 @ 3:39 PM

Posted by Mod Betty / Retro Roadmap:

Lizzie- your post inspired me to document the tags of some of my summer tops, here’s a link to them on Facebook- thought you might enjoy!

The Lilly
Saturday, July 10th 2010 @ 10:54 AM

Posted by ttft:

thanks for sharing these valuable info!

Saturday, July 10th 2010 @ 11:16 AM

Posted by lizzie:

Mod Betty, I hate to be a “bad” influence, but I can tell by looking at those great labels that you have already been doing a bit of buying!

As for benefitting from an uninformed sell, I did consider mentioning that in my post, but decided to focus in keeping yourself from being taken. But the truth is an experienced eye can get some dandy deals on ebay and other sites. My favorite story involves a “mod 1960s” dress that I felt sure was 1920s. It was – an expertly hand embroidered linen frock with Egyptian inspired motifs! I got it for $10.

Monday, July 12th 2010 @ 7:24 PM

Posted by vintagevixxen:

Hi! Thanks for sharing the link to the label page. I have been buying and wearing vintage for years and once in a while a piece stumps me. Maybe that site can help. Thanks again!

Wednesday, July 14th 2010 @ 9:12 AM


Filed under Designers, Shopping

5 responses to “Shopping for Vintage Online 101

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  2. Tamsyn

    Thanks so much for this very informative post! As someone who’s only recently discovered an interest in vintage — and also currently trying to plan a vintage wedding and hunt for the right vintage dress — I have felt quite overwhelmed by the many sites out there and trying to sift the ones that seem genuinely knowledgeable from those just trying to make sales while simultaneously trying to learn some basics about vintage clothing, especially from the periods I’m most interested in.

    I’ve definitely come across some sellers who seem to be doing the description blitz you mentioned, or provided virtually no context or description. So your tips have definitely been a good reminder for an inexperienced vintage-buyer like me. I will definitely check out the site of the Vintage Fashion Guild as well. Thanks again for the information — it’s the first guide I’ve found yet on the web about things to keep in mind while trying to purchase vintage online.


    • Tamsyn, Thanks so much for the nice words.

      I’d like to suggest to you that you do a little local vintage shopping if there are any stores in your area. Trying on dresses will give you a better idea of which eras suit your body type best. And congratulations on the up-coming wedding!


      • Tamsyn

        Thank you for the tip … I actually did visit one shop that’s in Des Moines, not too far from where I live (Ames, IA). This shop (which I learned is a member of the VFG) has a fantastic selection online, but I think a lot of the owner’s inventory is just displayed online or by request because the items are some of the older or rarer and really good quality pieces. So what I found in the shop from the periods I’m most interested in (Edwardian to 1930’s, primarily) wasn’t really available to try on.

        I thought it might be rude to ask about trying on stuff that I had seen online but wasn’t displayed in the shop — especially since I imagine vintage shops get a lot of walk-ins who end up either not buying or perhaps not appreciating the care needed even for handling or trying on really special vintage pieces.

        From your experience, do vintage store owners tend to mind this… having people come in who are there more for research and trying on rather than buying?

        Thanks again for your advice.


        • Why don’t you call the owner and tell her you are seriously interested? I’m pretty sure I know of whom you speak, and she is a very nice lady.

          Of course vintage sellers want people who buy, but a wise seller is willing to take the time to help new vintage shoppers figure it out – especially if the new shopper shows a serious interest.


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