From the mailbox this week, Nancy writes:
I am interested in collecting vintage. I love 1920s and 1930s. I would love to ask for some pointers on buying vintage. I went down a google worm hole trying to find auction houses and then I drank another glass of wine and paid to much for a dress that when I tried it on the thread came apart the thread was so brittle. Now I have to spend as much as I paid to fix it and it is covid and work has slowed down, so i need a bargain. The adventure begins. I just want a little bit from the 1920s and 1930s that doesn’t fall apart and i can wear. I feel like I am developing an obsession. Any leads, tips, links or just a hello.
Hi Nancy, hello! I feel your pain. Many of us love the ’20s and ’30s fashions for their elegance and glamour but the reality is that the real deal is almost a hundred years old now and often is fragile.
How well it has held up, depends on a few things: the quality and type of fabric it was made of, and how well it’s been cared for since then. Wearing, washing and storage can wreck havoc on textiles and a lot of the delicate materials these styles are made of just weren’t expected to last a century. And then there’s inherent vice.
1920s and 1930s fashion pre-dates the invention of synthetic fibres, which are a lot more robust, so we’re looking at natural fibres (cotton, silk, wool, fur, leather etc) and man-made (rayon: a reconstituted fibre made from cotton and/or wood pulp – some of the qualities of natural fibres but none of the strength). So lovely to wear, but subject to deterioration risks.
Then you add the thread, which was sometimes silk but more often cotton. From experience I can confirm that cotton thread becomes brittle with age and can snap easily. I once wore a ’40s dress to a wedding and found the whole back of the dress come away during the ceremony! (thankfully I had a ’50s velvet opera coat to cover my embarrassment). Ever since then, I’ve always tested the strength of cotton thread and taken nothing for granted. Here’s a late ’30s dress in my collection that needed every seam re-stitched before featuring in my book ‘Love Vintage’.
In the ’50s they started putting polyester into cotton thread, so it’s stronger and in modern times it’s even stronger as most are 100% synthetic. So the thread issue only affects pre ’50s garments (although home seamstresses have been known to use older haberdashery so it’s not a foolproof rule). And you can still buy cotton threads, but they’ll be strong for many decades yet.
Most condition issues, however, affect the fabric not the thread, so let’s look at some of the potential issues:
1 – Wearing: Damage to underarms from perspiration, seam stress from incorrect size or vigorous use. Heel holes in skirt from dancing or sitting, holes from brooches. Rips and tears. Stitches that have come undone.
2 – Laundering: incorrect treatment for fabric (eg washing a dry clean only fabric), too hot water, wrong detergent, soaking fabrics that should not be soaked (eg. tailored garments, wool or silk). Hanging in the sun and colour fading, textiles weakened. Strain from hanging wet. Shrinkage.
3 – Storage: putting away dirty garments, insect infestations (eg clothes moths, silverfish and carpet beetles), mould from humidity (including dry rot), exposure to light (sun fade), air or temperature variation. Inability to breathe (stored in plastic bags or tubs). Hanging unsupported.
4 – Inherent vice: time bomb issues that can affect textiles at some point after their creation, usually from environmental exposure. Include silk shattering, iron mordant and malignant plastics (eg, devil dust).
So all in all, it’s amazing that so many vintage and antique garments make it through – but you can see why it’s rare to find ’20s and ’30s in good shape.
So what to do?
There are still lots of options. You can buy vintage that’s in good condition. For this, I recommend either developing your own skill so you can confidently identify it when you see it, or buy from trusted vendors. Preferably both.
Unfortunately it’s rare to find bargains this way, although with skill, you can find good buys in unexpected places: one lady snaffled a $50 beaded ’20s dress driving past a Wodonga op shop and one was hanging (briefly, I hope) in the window. One of my favourite scores was the beaded ’20s dress picked up for a dollar in a scrap bin at Camberwell markets.
You could also look for petticoats, that are often glamorous enough and easy to style up, but more robust that the dresses they were designed to be worn beneath.
Another option is to choose more robust materials like cotton or silk knit. Here’s a ‘deadstock’ silk cardigan. Never worn and like new all these years later. I still have a few of these in my collection.
Cotton ’20s are surprisingly hard to find (I guess they didn’t make it through the Great Depression and WW2) and aren’t immune to condition issues. This dress had staining and some small rips but the integrity of the fabric is still strong. And a decent floral is good at hiding flaws.
Another option is to go for garments from other eras, that have been inspired by your preferred time. This ’80s dress is heavily encrusted with beads and sequins and is very wearable and was much cheaper than a real ’20s. They can be easily styled into a ’20s look. More tips on that here.
Or you could go for reproduction fashion. There are many labels that recreate styles from previous eras. Here’s a dress that was made for a film set in the ’30s, it’s a very wearable dress for today. Perhaps with a slip.
If you’re good with a needle and thread, you could make your own ’20s styles – the Vintage Pattern Wiki has ideas, you could either seek out patterns you like, or find a dressmaker to make them for you. ’20s fashions are easy to make, very unstructured and ’30s are beautiful but the opposite I guess. The ‘One hour dress’ was a popular ’20s option, see pattern here.
But for those of us who want authenticity, who appreciate the genuine article and will only be happy with the real deal, the answer is simple: if you want wearable garments from these early decades, develop your knowledge, keep your eyes peeled, ask questions, inspect carefully and buy from reputable vendors. Watch out for fakes and ensure sellers have good returns policies. And when you find what you’re looking for, treat it nicely. It helps that you know what to look for now.
Happy hunting, the clothes from these eras can be spectacular and with care, will delight you for many years to come.