What to do when your collection needs rehoming?

It’s a common problem and one I’m often asked about: the vintage clothing collection that has come to the end of its life. Maybe you can no longer manage it, maybe the resources need to be freed up for something else but when you care about historical fashion and no longer want it, you have many options about where it can go.

Let’s have a look at it – but first, a photo of Clare St Clare in a bright ’60s maxi dress (now in the wardrobe of my lovely friend Kate) because it’s always nice to be reminded of why we’re here.

So, the first thing to ask yourself is what you’re after: the best home for the garments or the best price to recoup your investment? Your answer will depend on how you feel about the pieces, and your personal situation. Let’s look at best home first.

Best home is somewhere the pieces will be appreciated, understood and well cared for. Textiles are not easy collectables: you probably already know this and how they need to be protected, so if you want them to be looked after in their new home, you need somewhere that understands this and will use them for good – a new collector or collecting organisation. Here are some options:

  • Public museum or art gallery
  • Historical society
  • Private collector

All of these have limited resources: resources to store, conserve and display and so your piece(s) will need to fit their acquisition policy. To increase the likelihood that they’ll want your piece(s), you can check out their existing catalogue and speak to them: they might want to add to an existing sub-collection or fill gaps. For example, the Powerhouse have a nice collection of Sydney label ‘House of Merivale’. They might want more of it, especially if it’s different to what they currently have.

Acquisitions also usually need to fit criteria of significance and provenance (documented history) – so the NGV are probably more likely to want the Dior cocktail dress the lady mayoress wore to meet the Queen in 1954, than that gorgeous but anonymous ballgown your aunt found in the op shop.

Historical societies particularly appreciate donations connected to the location, for example if your grandmother ran a Fitzroy knitting mill and left you some of the 1920s hosiery samples, the local historical society might be keen if they collect textiles.

Private collectors are free agents and vary enormously but like organisations, we all prefer to collect some things more than others.

Collectors and collecting organisations prefer donations, as acquisition budgets are usually limited or non-existent but on the upside, they will continue your legacy and your piece is hopefully shared with the world and researchers.

Here are some organisations that have significant historical clothing collections:

Victoria – the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Trust (Vic), Museums Victoria, Benalla Costume and Ned Kelly museum, the Museum of Vehicle Evolution Shepparton, Brighton Historical Society, Kew Historical Society.

NSW – the Powerhouse Museum, the Museum of Clothing, the Cavalcade of Fashion.

But what if you’d like to sell your clothes and get the best price? Ask yourself: how much work do you want to put in? The more work, the better the return.

To get the best price, sell directly to customers in a nice venue: one on one in a brick and mortar shop. It’s the best way I know and done well, it’s a very nice way to rehome vintage. You get to meet the new owners, advise them, maybe help them accessorise and put an outfit together, even make lifelong friends. I found it incredibly satisfying and over fifteen years I rehomed thousands of garments.

Here’s a pic Broadsheet took back in the day: I loved having my own vintage shop, it really was great and I highly recommend it.

But the overheads can be high and the hours long – and there’s unfun issues like shoplifting and vandals. So for most, there are better options. You don’t have to work that hard. Unless you want to.

An easier option is to open an online shop or sell through a web platform like etsy, depop or facebook – which also broadens your customer base so you’re not limited to those who can walk in your front door. Big bonus! Photograph every item in detail, measure and research and be available to respond to queries, pack up and send out and make sure you’re complying with the legalities in your location (eg, returns policies etc).

Downside: you might wait a while for someone to come along and purchase your treasures. Confession: when I closed my webshop during the pandemic, there were some dresses that had been listed for twelve years! It’s a long time to wait to sell something.

Want something quicker? Auctions. You have a choice of specialist clothing auctions for designer or antique clothing (Kerry Taylor in London, Augusta Auctions in the USA) and also many estate auctioneers that include clothing from time to time, especially of the luxury variety (eg, Leonard Joel’s will sell your alligator Birkin but The Collector in Moorabbin will take your everyday fashion). There’s also ebay but that’s mostly a bargain-hunters paradise these days unless you have something particularly sought after, in which case you probably have better options anyway.

If you’d like something even easier, sell as a lot wholesale to someone who will resell: a vintage clothing shop owner or consignment shop either B&M or online. That way you pass on most of the work in return for less money. And you don’t need to store it for twelve years!

The home of last resort is the op shop – who are happy to accept your treasures but appreciate when your donations in clean and good condition. Damaged or dirty can still be of use to them but will likely end in the rag bag for exporting and destruction. So best to clean and repair before sending them their way, both for the good of the garment and money raised for the charity.

The easiest option of all is to offer them on free online giveaway groups like Freecycle: someone will come and want them and it keeps them out of landfill. Have I covered everything?

The tl/dr version:

Best home: donate to collecting organisation or collector.

Best price: sell yourself or sell to someone wholesale. The more work you do, the more money you make.

Last resort: give away, don’t throw away.

Lastly, lastly…I should probably mention that if you need help with this process, someone to sort the wheat from the chaff, help identify the diamonds from the diamantés, then I’m at your service and if you do want to donate something significant to a public organisation, the federal government offers tax incentives through the cultural gifts program, and I’m an authorised valuer for clothing and textiles. Just get in touch.

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