From bargains to investments, the secret to buying vintage clothes


And how to get rid of that musty smell for good… (Picture: Deborah Ellis)

When Primark launches a vintage clothing concession, you know pre-loved has gone mainstream.

There was a time when, if you got something at the charity shop, you either dodged the question or admitted it was secondhand in hushed tones.

Since we’ve become more aware of fashion’s impact on the environment, however, buying pieces that have had a long life before you has never been more in style.

The question is, though, where do you start if you’re new to thrifting?

Deborah Ellis founded Madam Popoff Vintage, a clothes and accessories store in Margate, Kent, ten years ago but began selling vintage clothes in 1998 as a single mum to make ends meet.

Having gone from jumbles, newspaper small ads and car boot sales to a chic store selling – among other things – precious vintage Ossie Clark, Deborah has a host of tips on how to shop for vintage and what to avoid.

Know your sizes

Deborah Ellis founded Madam Popoff Vintage, a clothes and accessories store in Margate, Kent 10 years ago Modelled by India Cuthbert

Work it (Picture: Deborah Ellis)

‘Sizing is the most important thing about successfully shopping for vintage,’ says Deborah.

‘Clothes from the 1950s and 1960s were designed for people who grew up on rations and were a lot smaller then than we are now – everywhere from the size of their ribcages to their feet.’

Deborah also cautions that buying things without stretch is risky without knowing your measurements.

She adds: ‘I’ve got a skirt from the 1960s which is marked as a size 12 but it’s got a 24in waist… so buying by size is not foolproof [nowadays, a size 12 waist would be cut at about 29 to 30 inches].

‘You need waist measurements, hip, inside leg, bust, rib cage – as many as you can find – and then find if something will fit by what it says on the tape measure.’

Consider how you’ll care for it

Deborah Ellis founded Madam Popoff Vintage, a clothes and accessories store in Margate, Kent 10 years ago Modelled by India Cuthbert

Know your fabrics (Picture: Deborah Ellis)

‘Some fabrics don’t age as well as others,’ says Deborah.

‘Old silks and lace are prone to shatter, especially if they are older than from the 1940s. They become fragile and rot, so you have to be very careful. Cotton and natural fibres are usually a safe bet. Polyester you can just stick in the washing machine.’

If something has an odour, the vintage expert says you can use neat vodka to get rid of it.

‘Leaving cat litter or bicarbonate of soda in vintage bags can help absorb any lingering musty smells,’ she adds.

‘Anything you think could have moth eggs in it, put in the freezer because that kills them.’

Shoes can be tricky

Head over heels (Picture: Deborah Ellis)

Our feet have got longer and wider over the decades, so sizing up doesn’t guarantee that shoes will fit.

‘Leather can deteriorate and peel and crack, and it’s the same with heels that can be damaged or become fragile with age,’ says Deborah. ‘Often these are prohibitively expensive to repair.’

Glasses are a great vintage buy

Rose-tinted spectacles (Picture: Deborah Ellis)

‘Accessories are usually a good buy and there are some cool vintage sunglasses around now,’ says Deborah, whose store features racks of vintage eyewear.

She adds: ‘A lot of the time, the lenses won’t offer as much UV protection as modern sunglasses, simply because technology has moved on, but if you choose a known brand name or designer, you can be pretty sure they’ll be of good quality. The 1970s and 1980s Dior and YSL sunglasses are really good.’

If you’re worried about the lenses or you fall in love with frames that have damaged lenses, companies can pop the old lenses out and have modern ones put in, advises Deborah.

Remember the 40-year cycle

Deborah Ellis founded Madam Popoff Vintage, a clothes and accessories store in Margate, Kent 10 years ago Modelled by India Cuthbert

Spot the trends (Picture: Deborah Ellis)

Whether it’s ‘cottagecore’, ‘fairycore’ or 1990s/Y2K, vintage clothing also has trends.

Deborah says: ‘Depop [the clothes resale site] has been doing a roaring trade in Miss Sixty and things like that, which were popular in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s,’

‘Then there’s huge demand for Laura Ashley dresses and big collars – the Princess Diana styles and prairie dresses.

‘The 1970s vintage Gucci look is also popular following the film House Of Gucci – we often find that things come back into fashion on a 40-year cycle.

‘Meanwhile, 1960s designer Ossie Clark is like antique furniture – getting more rare and more valuable.’

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