Vintage Clothing Secrets From A Thrift Store Volunteer
By Ron Winter, the vintage volunteer extraordinaire at Community Thrift Store in San Francisco.
What Do These 3 Outstanding Garments Have in Common?
- An impossibly diaphanous Pucci designer negligee
- An eye-twirling psychedelic shirt wormholing you back to swinging ‘60s London
- A buttery cashmere sweater from the long-departed City of Paris department store in San Francisco
You win! But besides their vintage pedigrees, these garments were all recently (re)discovered at Community Thrift Store!
The veritable tonnage of vintage clothes that pass through our store each year are virtually wearable history. Arriving in boxes and bags from our loyal donors, these offerings are combed for the treasures that often lurk within, like – you saw it coming – vintage clothes.
Why Vintage is Better
So why the heck are these clothes still around when today’s clothes fade or fall apart after a few washings? Yes, old clothes indeed linger at the back of grandparents’ (or hipsters’) closets, undisturbed for years, and hopefully immune to ravenous moths. But when actively worn today, clothes of a certain vintage are often more durable and better made than today’s clothes. Superior even to some of those uber-expensive contemporary designer duds. After all, with those, you’re really just paying for the name.
Remember that vintage clothes were once new—the surviving pieces often being the clothes of the middle and working classes of the time—that managed to pull off style, quality and affordability. If you’ve never donned a vintage cotton shirt, for instance, be prepared for a bracingly cool treat. Dressed in old wool, you’ll never be warmer. Cotton blend or even synthetic clothes of the past have a lovely slinky quality. Polyester print shirts from the ‘70s are seductively sexy to the touch (but be warned: never light a match nor freebase in double-knit poly). So yes, clothes of the past were often achingly tactile, stylish, cheap, goofy, or fun—and of course, sometimes even ugly. But fun ugly.
Ron’s Top Tips for Vintage Shopping at CTS in San Francisco
At Community Thrift Store, we liberally define vintage as pre-1990 and our lucky shoppers can find a full range of decades and styles. Here is everything you need to know to become a vintage maven of the highest expertise:
- We maintain a small, dedicated rack of men’s and women’s vintage near the front of the store. But note, your mileage may vary – vintage clothes are often plucked up as soon as they’re put out. Come back as often as possible for your find!
- You may discover vintage mixed among the regular clothes, as our busy staff’s keen eyes sometimes miss items while pricing. Vintage also ‘mysteriously’ seems to migrate within the store. Conversely, regular clothes find themselves on the vintage rack. Take the time to comb through the racks for the best rewards.
- Look to the back wall above the clothing racks. We display unique or more expensive items there, sometimes including vintage. This also goes for the racks of locked clothes. Think real fur coats. Don’t shriek! These animals died for fashion decades ago.
- You can often find vintage accessories as well in their various departments—ties, hats, shoes, and scarves. I once found a heap of hand-painted ties beamed directly from the 1940s.
- We attempt to price our vintage clothes at competitive thrift store prices, except for rare items, which are priced accordingly. The cost is still just a fraction of what you’d pay on etsy or in one of those fancy vintage boutiques.
- The Golden Rule of vintage clothes shopping: don’t trust size labels. First off, sizes of the past were often smaller than today’s sizes. Plus, keep shrinkage in mind. For example, I can’t count the times I’ve found a vintage wool Pendleton shirt labeled Large that someone silly had run through the dryer, rendering it Extra Small.
- Speaking of wool, old wool is sometimes scratchy. But if you just love the garment, either suffer for your look, or wear an undergarment.
- Labels: while a miniscule amount of clothing is still ‘Made in U.S.A.,’ this label signifier almost exclusively belongs to the past. Old labels are often rectangular and stitched with lovely cursive fonts. Also, look for union labels. Remember unions? Some late-period vintage clothes were manufactured in Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan. Get more vintage label tips here.
- Remember that what we now call vintage clothes were usually mass-produced. But since relatively few survived the consequences of time, or incautious Burners (see below), you’ve probably just scored a pretty darned unique item in the brave world of today!
- Tackle old stains and odors: OxiClean is our bestest friend forever, as are plain ol’ baking soda and lemon juice. Get more advice for cleaning up vintage clothing.
- You can easily unshrink shrunken vintage clothes (like the tragic aforementioned Pendleton shirt), especially if they are made of natural fibers, like wool. Here’s my method: fill a sink with lukewarm water and swish around some added baby shampoo or hair conditioner. This helps the clothing fibers relax. Soak your garment for 30 minutes. Drain and squeeze garment, but don’t wring! Roll up garment in a towel and press out as much water as possible. Lay garment flat and stretch to desired dimensions. Or do what I do—tack the wet garment to a board with pushpins to get the exact dimensions you desire. Let dry. Now that former belly sweater will be the perfect length, like it was tailored just for you!
- While rare, you’ll sometimes come across a NOS garment i.e. New Old Stock, which basically means a vintage item that was never worn due to being a discontinued line, hence is magically new and old at the same time.
- Don’t sweat too much about being pegged a dork while wearing that loud shirt with the pointy collar, or the Peter Max-inspired poly maxi dress. Vintage clothes often pop, refusing to inspire yawns like today’s clothes. Let your freak flag fly already!
- A kind note to Burners: while letting your freak flags fly, please don’t trash and discard your vintage finds on the playa as you skimboard on your substance of choice. These clothes have lasted decades longer than you’ve been alive. They’ll always be older than you. Allow them to go on living!
Put Your New Thrift Knowledge Into Action!
Now go shop at Community Thrift Store with impunity. And always remember, your purchases and donations help a boatload of charities! Learn more about our 200+ Bay Area Charity Partners!