One of the most frequently asked questions that I receive is how one can can go about wearing vintage on a modest budget. As someone who lives on a strict budget myself, knows the value of a dollar something fierce, and believes deeply in making wise financial choices, this is a subject that's very near and dear to my heart. I've discussed it before in various posts over the years, such as 2012's Five ways to make your vintage wardrobe dollars go further, but with the tax season underway once more - a time when many of us tighten the reins on our spending significantly - now seemed like a great moment to delve into the topic again.
Though this question often comes from those who are just starting to wear vintage, or wear it on a more frequent basis, I believe that the following points will resonate deeply with most of us in the vintage fashion world, whether we're greenhorns or sourdoughs (to borrow one of my favourite terms from the Klondike gold rush days). Good financial advice and common sense serve us all well, no matter if we're on the budget of a humble student or a royal princess.
Before you spend a dime
First of all, you need to access your wardrobe in its current state, exactly as it is today. Is it chock-a-block full of nothing but trendy modern pieces? Are there some classic basics in the mix? Is it geared more towards spring summer/fall winter? Do you already own a certain amount of vintage, repro or vintage appropriate garments? (For tons of tips on how to get started with wearing and buying vintage appropriate clothes, be sure to see this post on the subject.)
Are you looking to transition your wardrobe into one comprised largely, or even entirely, of vintage pieces, or do you plan on keeping some modern ones as well? It's up to you and there's no right or wrong here. It grinds my gears something fierce that a certain attitude crops up sometimes in the vintage fashion world that says that if someone loves vintage fashion, they have to wear it all the time. It's not a uniform, it's a genre of clothing and you're free to wear it however often you want. If that means 24/7/365, awesome! If it means just on the weekends, when the mood strikes, the vast majority of the time, or any of other percentage of your days, that's absolutely a-okay as well.
Your wardrobe is not a job. It's not a burden, and goodness knows, it shouldn't cause you stress. It should be a joy - something that you wake up excited to greet when you through open the closet door in the morning, not a source of serious worry or pressure.
Whether you take all of your clothing out and lay it out to see, or just carefully study what's dangling on your hangers and folded in your drawers, write down or make a mental list of the pieces that you feel already work well for your own particular vintage style. Truly take a few moments with each piece, no matter how big (coats, dresses, pants, etc) or small (jewelry, scarves, hair accessories, etc), and examine it. How modern does it look? Conversely, how vintage is it or does it look? Could it be altered and/or styled to help give it a greater sense of the decade you're after?
Even if nothing, or almost nothing, that you currently own is vintage or looks the part, that doesn't mean you should donate the whole lot to Goodwill right this very moment by any means. This post is all about wearing vintage on a budget, and unless you're in a very good spot financially, chances are you won't be able to ditch one wardrobe and purchase another overnight. I would argue even if you did have the means to do so, you would miss out on a great deal of the fun that comes from shopping for vintage pieces and constructing a beloved wardrobe over time.
Let's assume for the sake of example, that you've gone over your current wardrobe with a fine tooth comb and have a few pieces that are either vintage, repro, or vintage appropriate already (and let's further assume that they fit you well, are in good shape, and that you love them). What are these pieces? Are they almost all variations of the same garment? Do some or all of them work together or are they hodgepodge of lovely pieces that don't really go with one another at all?
Next, think about the kind of lifestyle that you live and what types of clothing are best suited to it. Every gals needs at least a few fancy, extra special occasion pieces in her wardrobe, but if you're a stay-at-home mom, recently retired empty nester, active sportswomen or busy college student, it might not be too practical to stock your closet with little else but evening dresses and toweringly high heels, especially if you're just getting started with wearing vintage.
Do not confuse practicality with being boring, the two needn't ever be on in the same, if you shop for pieces that you love and which work well for your lifestyle. Think about the kinds of garments you wear most often, the colours you love best, what sort of climate you live in, if you travel often, if time consuming types of laundering or dry cleaning are going to be an issue for you, and if you plan to work towards a wardrobe that's all (or almost all) vintage/repro/vintage appropriate.
Once you've accessed your current wardrobe, thought about the types of garments need need (and which - and this is an important point - are becoming on you), and have a firm grasp on what decade (or decades) of vintage fashion you want to sport, you're ready to start shopping.
Show me the money!
First of all, let's take a moment to stop and determine what your current budget is. Most of us have at least a moderately fixed amount of income that pour in each month. It may be variable, but unless you've recently experienced some major life changes (job loss, new job, gone from a two income family to a single income one, inherited a sizable amount of money, etc), chances are you can at least ballpark how much you earn and what percentage of that money you'd like to put towards your wardrobe in a given month (or year, depending on your personal shopping habits).
This number is not set in stone for the rest of time. In all likelihood, it will fluctuate over the course of time, but whether it's $25, $100, $250, $500 or more per month, believe me when I say, knowing what you have to work with, instead of spending on the fly and hoping your purchase doesn't put you in the red, is such an important element of responsible money management, as well as long term wardrobe planning.
By thinking ahead to the amount of funds that you have not only in a given month, but for a season, half a year, or even a full year, you can better decide how you want to spend throughout the coming months. If you know that this is the year you're going to invest in a new vintage winter coat, it might be a good idea to put aside some or even all of your monthly clothing allowance for a while, until you've saved up the amount you need to make your purchase wisely, without having to rely on credit.
I'm not going to sit here and say I've never spent beyond my means in a given month, I have, but the older I get, the more I try very, very hard not to do so. I loath debt and love it when I can spend within my means and not have to stress about credit card bills, overdrafts, or if the money I spent on clothes should have gone towards something more urgent.
There may be times when spending beyond your monthly means makes sense, such as for an investment piece that you truly need, but try to only do so if you know for certain that you'll have the funds in your budget to pay off the item quickly in the coming weeks or months. Buying a $300 coat on your credit card today because it was on sale, may not end up being such a great deal in the long run if you incur $100, $200 or more in interest over time on it, because you bought it on credit.
When it comes to clothes shopping, as with all elements of life as an adult, you need to be your own accountant and banker. Ultimately, only you know what the right amount of money to set as your budget each month is, within the scope of what you and your family (if applicable) can comfortably afford. Do no sacrifice long term financial goals just to have a big wardrobe, it's not worth it for one red second, no matter how much you love fashion.
Once you have your budget in place, don't be afraid to look for ways to supplement it, if you feel it's on the particularly modest side. This could be selling/consigning some of your existing clothing, launching an etsy shop of any type that applies to your interest and talents, holding an annual yard sale, doing odd jobs on the side, dog walking, or any other (legal, of course!) way that you can think of generate a bit more income, if so desired.
There is no right or wrong budget for vintage clothing. Believe me, goodness, believe me when I say that I fully understand how, at times, it can seem like some of those in our circle are on almost non-stop shopping spree, whereas you're struggling to come up with $25 a month to spend on your wardrobe. It's easy to become disheartened with you're in the spot, but I encourage you to live for yourself and within your means.
You don't know the details of that other woman's life. She could be $30,000 in debt because of her spending. She may have a great job, live at home still, and have almost no bills (or debts) or other financial concerns to worry about. Maybe she buys, wears for a while, and quickly flips her clothing. She could be a professional vintage seller who has access to a large amount of yesteryear clothing and just keeps the pieces she finds for a song that she loves most for her own wardrobe. She might have been in your very shoes for many years and is just now able to start spending more because her circumstances changes. You truly never know. It's easy to judge or grow envious, but doing so gets you absolutely no where and isn't the healthiest or happiest of mindsets at all. Focus on yourself, your budget, your wardrobe and your life and you'll be on the right track.
Climb every mountain
In either case however, price is often an issue. Many brick and mortar vintage, secondhand, and antique stores are highly aware of the demand for the items they're offering and price accordingly, some go even further, specializing only (or nearly only) in high end items. For those who are looking to stretch their dollar, such shops can often feel discouraging or like a waste of time. Some may be beyond the scope of your current budget, but most will hold sales at least a couple of times of a year, and all are a great place to get a feel for what kinds of vintage items you may hope to find elsewhere, so don't turn your nose up at them immediately.
Certain vintage stores are more reasonably priced than others, both online (in the case of etsy and eBay shops) and off, and these are the ones you'll want to gravitate towards most of the time. Visit every vintage, secondhand, antique, consignment and used clothing store in your town and/or surrounding area, if applicable/feasible. Chat with the sales clerks, or if possible, the shop owner. Let them know that you love vintage clothing, what you're looking for, and that you're always open to scoring a great deal (aka, ask them when their next sale is going to be).
I have a business card for Chronically Vintage, which I leave with nearly all vintage and secondhand clothing sellers I encounter. I let people know that they contact me anytime if they have well priced items I might be interested in, and often maintain a rapport with such sellers throughout the year by visiting their shops, making purchases, and mentioning in some cases that I'm offering them free publicity on my blog by linking to them when I wear an item I bought from their shop in one of my vintage outfits (note: I do not, and would never, say this so as to try and entice someone to offer me a bargain, it's simply a friendly way of showing kindness in the hopes that it will in turn be shown to you one day).
As time goes on, mid-century vintage is getting harder and harder to find at reasonable prices both online and off. I fully acknowledge this point and know it all too well firsthand, but I can also attest to the fact that vintage bargains do still exist. Yard sales, flea markets, thrift (charity/op) shops, auctions, estate sales, clothing swaps, local classifieds (newspapers, Craigslist, Kijiji, etc) and eBay (and to a lesser extent, etsy and elsewhere online) can all still deliver a good deal sometimes. Patience, timing, using a wide range of search keywords (for more on how to make keywords really work for you, see this post), and a bit of luck will all go a long way towards helping you get the most bang for your hard earned buck.
Just as it never hurts to let those with applicable shops know who you are and what you're looking for, don't be afraid to let the people in your life know about your love of vintage clothing either. From relatives to friends, coworkers to classmates, members of your place of worship to your hairdresser, local junk dealer (yes, they still exist in some communities), elderly neighbours or those on your softball team, it’s a good idea to simply share that you love, and wear, vintage clothing with such folks. I have been blessed to receive several fantastic gifts, completely for free, over the years because someone either had vintage items they no longer wanted or knew someone else who did, and passed them along to me.
Many people who are not into vintage themselves and have no desire to try and sell items online, are often all too happy to give things away or sell them for pennies on the dollar, so long as they know they're going to a home where these pieces will be loved and appreciated. In some cases, you may even be doing someone a favour, as they might not have space to store the items, need to downsize, or are getting rid of things after a loved one passed away. If someone gives you something as a gift, be sure to thank them with a email, letter, or small present in turn for their thoughtful generosity.
I've said it before, but I'll say it again, when it comes to sourcing vintage clothing, leave no stone unturned, nor avenue unexplored. The world, thankfully, still houses a substantial amount of vintage items, and there are some well priced pieces out there just waiting for you to find them.
To the dressing room!
When you're new to vintage, it can be tempting - and all too easy - to just start buying anything from your favourite decade in your size, simply because it's old and will fit. I get this for sure, but shopping with a plan in place and a list of items you need to help your wardrobe blossom is a far smarter approach, and one that's likely to lead to much less buyer's remorse in the long run.
If you're looking for wardrobe basis, don't be afraid to explore vintage appropriate options. Many can do a stellar job of looking the part of vintage, but may cost you substantially less. I am not biased at all on this front, and believe firmly in the power of utilizing ever avenue your have at your disposal to build a wardrobe that allows you to put together vintage looks, whether all of the pieces included in them are true vintage or not.
Classic pieces aren't called classic for no reason. There are items on the market that are, in some cases, almost indistinguishable from the same versions of them that existed 50, 60, even 70 or more years ago. Five examples would be: traditionally styled pearl jewelry, saddle shoes, leather driving gloves, fitted cardigans, and pencil skirts that hit below the knee. I'm not saying they're dead ringers. Fabrics, styles, cuts and construction techniques can, and do, change over time, but the overall look of some of these kinds of pieces (and many other fashion classics) makes them no-brainers for the vintage lover on a budget.
When you find a vintage piece you love, but which is beyond your budget or what you're comfortable spending on one garment. Go searching (online and off) to see if you can find something similar for a fraction of the price. I've done this time and time again over the years and it has lead to some of my best bargains and most beloved items of clothing.
I know that there is a certain "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality in the vintage and repro world, much as there is (heavily) in the fashion realm as a whole, but remember that you don't have to break the bank to be stylish or happy.
One of the greatest joys of vintage clothing is that, often, it affords you the chance to build a wardrobe of pieces that are unlike those that anyone else is wearing today. Savour the individuality of vintage fashion and the fact that it gives you an incredible sartorial voice all your own.
It's totally okay to buy repro and popular vintage appropriate pieces (such as those on sites like Modcloth), but don't feel like you have to stock your wardrobe with nothing but repro or the same kinds of styles of vintage clothing that your favourite bloggers are wearing. Be your own muse, no matter your budget.
Seven quick tips for building a vintage wardrobe on a budget
-Mix genuine vintage with repro and vintage appropriate pieces. We've covered this above, but it warrants saying again, because I truly believe it's one of the most cost effective ways to build (and keep growing) your vintage wardrobe. Should you happen to sew and/or knit (which, unfortunately, I do not), be sure to include homemade garments into the mix, too. They're repro that you make at home yourself - talk about handy and awesome!
-Make the genuine vintage or repro piece you're wearing the star of the show in your outfit. Compliment it, if so desired, with vintage hair and make-up, to further create a period appropriate look, if that's what you're in the mood for.
-Host a clothing swap with your friends and/or relatives. Even if the people you invite aren't into vintage, they might have some vintage appropriate pieces amongst their offerings that would work wonders for your own wardrobe (while at the same time helping you unload some of the garments that you're no longer wearing).
-Accessories are your hard working, wardrobe expanding friends! Our foremothers know this well, and it's an approach to dressing that can help stretch your wardrobe something fierce. Think costume jewelry, scarves, shoe clips, gloves, hats, wraps, handbags, dress clips, stockings, and shoes themselves as a means of stretching the number of outfits you can get out of your vintage clothing.
-Ask for clothing (or gift certificates for places you love that sell clothing) for your birthday, holidays, or anytime someone wants to give you gift of your choosing. I do this each year for my birthday and Christmas with my parents, usually put the birthday money my dear maternal grandma gives me towards my wardrobe, and have long instilled in my sweet husband that clothes (or gift certificates for them) are always a winning, hugely appreciated presents for any occasion. I've been able to splurge on some of my favourite investment pieces over the years (such as my wonderful Jitterbuggin pinafore dress) because of thoughtful monetary gifts from loved ones.
-Embrace the fact that, like Rome, most vintage wardrobes are not built in a day. I completely get it. You want to have a super swoon-worthy vintage wardrobe right this very instant, but good things take time. My moderately sized wardrobe is rife with garments I love, that fit me well, are in good shape, and often coordinate well with one another, and it took years to get to this stage. I have spent more hours than I could ever count scouring eBay and etsy for deals, visiting thrift stores (and yard sales), and saving up funds, when needed, to purchase bigger ticket items only when I could do so in financially responsible way.
One's wardrobe is a never-ending work in progress, and there will always been pieces that I want or need to add to mine, and in each instance, I'll do so with my budget at the forefront of my mind. The thrill of the hunt - of finding a killer deal - is a ton of the fun of vintage shopping for me, as I know it for many others as well. Enjoy the process - you'll likely never start from scratch again (unless your weight shifts dramatically, and even then, you'll still be able to hold onto some items such as hats, jewelry and possibly shoes), so savour these formative days while they're here.
Though it can be (very!) hard to part with vintage clothing, if it just isn't right for you and you're not going to keep it as a display/collectors piece, it is better to pass it on to the next owner, who can hopefully give it just the kind of love it deserves. I've sold many vintage garments and accessories from my personal wardrobe over the years, and am certain I'll continue to as time goes on. Some pieces will remain in my closet, I believe, for the rest of my days, but others are shorter term visitors, whom I'll remember fondly, but am happy to see bring joy to another vintage fashion lover when I say good-bye to them.
Keep your wardrobe in good order. By this I mean, both well organized (no one wants to have to buy a third basic black skirt because you couldn't find the two they already own) and in tip-top shape from a mending and tailoring standpoint. Small issues such as loose buttons, dropped hems, or tiny holes can often be remedied in just a few minutes for little to no cost at home. By nipping such problems in the bud as they occur, your garments will last longer, thus cutting down the number of new pieces you need to buy, thereby saving you money in the long run.
As time goes on, and your wardrobe blossoms, you may find you need to shop for a smaller number of pieces each year. You might also notice, that if such is the case, you have more money to spend on the individual items that you do buy, and can then start looking more towards some of the vintage investment pieces you've been daydreaming about for quite some time now.
Your personal style and your wardrobe will likely always continue to expand over time. You may be crazy for the fifties for a few years then decide that you're all about the 1930s for the next two, before heading into a phase where it's all sixties, all the time. Some items will see you through multiple decades that you enjoy wearing, others will work best in the context of their respective time frame, but all will be a magnificent part of your collective vintage wardrobe that you built with love, forethought and sound budgeting. With a bit time and effort, before you know it, you'll have the kind vintage wardrobe that inspires others who see you to want to start their own.