Not as described

Hi all,

It pains me to write this, but if you buy vintage clothing online, you’ll know that one of the biggest risks to watch out for is the piece that arrives “not as described”.

There are risks in buying anything that is second-hand: clothing that has been worn and washed is more likely to feature damage of some sort, as a result of ill-care or poor storage, and this is especially so when it comes to items that are decades old. Those of us who like clothing older than us, older even than our mothers will sooner or later experience this hazard. Which is why it’s important to inspect before purchase. But when you’re buying online, you’re at the mercy of the information provided by the seller: you hope that she’s experienced, and can correctly identify what she’s looking at and also that she passes on pertinent information to you, her customer.

Unfortunately, the wonderful world of vintage appears to be full of enthusiastic amateurs. Those who love vintage and are well-meaning, but can’t necessarily tell the difference between a natural or synthetic fibre, or the “easy repair” and fabric that has lost its integrity and will disintegrate the first time you wear it. The mark that will “brush off” and the stain that will never budge. It’s not just the hobbyists we need to be wary of, of course: I regret to advise you that there are some very successful and otherwise professional sellers who likewise fall down in this area.

Which is why I wash everything I sell: because I need to be able to tell you how to care for it safely, so you can enjoy it for many years, and also because I personally only want to send you nice things that you can wear immediately. However I’m in the minority: it’s common to sell unwashed vintage clothing. Some of this is fine and some of it, well, how fine is determined by the seller and how she feels about it and what she wishes to share with you.

I’ve been collecting, buying and selling vintage for 38 years and have made all the mistakes. As a retailer, I’ve absorbed the costs of my mistakes, chalked them up to experience: these things happen. But now that I’m a student, I no longer have the funds or the patience to support other people’s mistakes. I now buy rarely, for my own wardrobe and am happy to repair but as always – the price needs to reflect the condition.

Recently I received a ’50s swing jacket from a US seller. It needed a little stitching and was accordingly well priced but arrived, not as described. It didn’t help that it was in the plastic packaging for many more weeks than it should have been, due to my absence Castling in the UK, and the airless sojourn resulted in an amplification of the mildewing it was afflicted with (indeed, it was soggy with it). There was also a lot more damage than described, seam rips and fabric tears requiring the lining to be replaced as it had become brittle, something that is not uncommon with aged acetate linings.

Unfortunately the listing that I purchased it from had been deleted, so I was unable to confirm that all the damage and said mildew was identified, but as an asthmatic, I would not have bought it had I known. My first impulse was to bin it. The seller confirmed that she was unaware of its condition.

So: what to do to prevent ugly situations like this?
Firstly – understand that there is always a risk with buying damaged vintage online. Damaged items should always be priced according to their current condition, not the condition that you hope to restore it to. It’s hard to know how much work fixing rips and tears will entail unless you’re buying from someone who has supplied very reliable and clear information and photos. A risk will always remain. It’s easy to make something look nice in a photo (especially with photo editing software) or “lie by omission” by not mentioning damage. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so it may be that the seller didn’t inspect the garment thoroughly, lacked the skills to identify a problem or underestimated an issue: it doesn’t matter. If you bought it, it’s your problem now.

I suggest that if you’re not confident at repairing and stain removal techniques, and care about these things, limit yourself to buying garments that do not require work. Another option is to be relaxed about flaws – I’ve worn many, many damaged dresses over the years and there are ways to work with damage too. It’s part of its history and story, and shows its lived a life.

So I would suggest buying from people you are confident are reliable and knowledgeable. I’ve bought from hundreds of sellers at all levels of professionalism and almost always, the experience is positive. Vintage sellers are usually passionate about vintage, and we love what we do and sharing nice things.

If you have an issue, the best thing to do is sort it out with the seller – options range from an acknowledgement, to partial refund to full refund where the seller covers the cost of the return shipping. Legally, these options are backed by government consumer affairs policies and (depending on how you paid) by your credit card terms, which might offer you a refund, to Paypal which might do likewise. Online marketplaces like ebay and etsy also offer protections and can help in disputes. I hope this helps.


  1. Yes, I have had this experience with even the very best online vintage shops, and the seller did give me a full refund. I bought a 1920s silk lace dress and jacket, with “a few small holes.” It arrived with the shoulders totally shredded and about 100 holes – in my opinion a “for research or display” piece and not wearable. She said she knew there were issues, but thought that it presented well. She was very apologetic and didn’t even ask me to return the piece for a full refund, which was great. As vintage wearers, it’s a bit subjective about what is acceptable wear, I guess, which is why I believe a seller needs to thoroughly list all imperfections. No one likes a nasty surprise, especially when they have paid international shipping and lost out on our currently terrible exchange rate. So, I say buy from Australian sellers who are happy to accept returns.

  2. Also – Look for items from members of the Vintage Fashion Guild. A good lot of people 🙂 But for sure, I steer away from folks who do not accept returns and from the “should wash out easily” comments.

  3. Sorry to hear about your experience but glad to hear your seller did the right thing, Joanne. I adore ’20s-30s silk lace dresses and have about twenty of them but the beautiful fabric is fragile and once it starts getting holes, there are a lot more ahead.

  4. Agreed Amanda: you’re right. VFG sellers have been vetted and abide by a code of conduct. It’s a stamp of professionalism. You’re right too, that sellers should accept returns. I do, for any reason and it gives you peace of mind as a buyer. If, as a seller, you want your customer to be happy, it’s nice to be able to offer them that protection.

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