How to buy the best vintage fashion

Whenever we imagine ourselves in vintage clothing, the image we conjure up has us looking like Jayne Mansfield, wearing a body-hugging frock that showcases some va-va-voom curves (with perfectly coiffed hair to boot). But when we actually try to buy vintage clothes, our retro pin-up fantasy starts fading, fast: Why does nothing seem to fit right? Eww – are those moth holes? And, is this even really from the 1920s (or is it the high street's version of Art Deco from a couple of years ago?)

Since we love the idea of scoring some vintage loot so much – and channelling a screen siren in the process - we tracked down Jade Stavri, the owner of one of London's premier vintage boutiques, Scarlet Rage Vintage, the go-to Crouch End destination for those looking for a slice of Gatsby glamour or Fifties bombshell style. She gave us her expert tips on how to buy the best vintage, from finding the best fit to taking care of our new (old) clothes. Move over Marilyn, here we come…

Do your homework

When you first enter a vintage shop, the bevy of merchandise from different eras on display can be a little overwhelming, especially if you don't know what you're looking for or what might suit you. Jade recommends choosing decades that work best for your body shape. Long and lean? Try 1920s-1930s, since those shapes will elongate your figure. Hourglass shapes look great in 1940s and 1950s silhouettes – think nipped-in waists and outfits that balance out your body shape, while pears suit 1950s wiggle dresses and 1960s shifts. Familiarising yourself with labels past at online directory Vintage Fashion Guild is another (fun) way to get in the mood for retro-clothes scouring.

Try before you buy

Vintage sizing is craaaazy. Since many pieces were tailored to individual proportions, it's not surprising to find a garment that's a size 8 on top and a 12 on the hips – and some items might not have sizes at all. Fear not, says Jade. “When you walk into a vintage shop, do not be surprised or worried if the clothes don't have sizes on them. This is because our modern-day high street sizes just aren't the same as vintage sizes. All reputable vintage shops should be able to know their stock and be able to measure your waist, bust and hips and help you find pieces in your size.”

Customisation is your friend

One of the reasons vintage looks so good when done right is because of its impeccable fit – so, if you love a piece and it mostly fits, don't despair. Just get it tweaked. According to Jade, most vintage shops offer on-site alteration services, but if not, find someone yourself. “You may think this may be a costly expense but you'll be surprised; afterwards, the piece will be adapted just for you,” Jade says. “When looking for a vintage seamstress, you want them to understand vintage cuts and fabrics so you know your piece is in safe hands. You want to be able to put the piece on and for the tailor to fit it to your body so you know exactly what is being done. Ask them how long it's going to take and what is the price. Then you know what you're dealing with.”

The real deal

If you're preparing to shell out for a vintage gem, know your fashion and fabric history to make sure that what you're buying is authentic. Twenties styles – which are becoming increasingly harder to find – are mostly made in silk, chiffon and crepe, with fastenings like covered buttons or hooks and eyes. Metal zips became popular in the late 1940s and 1950s. “So check the zips and make sure that they aren't plastic,” says Jade. “As this could mean the piece is not genuine. Also, look at the stitching: if there is an overlock stitch, then this piece has either been adapted or is not true to that era. Manmade fabrics did come in during the late Fifties, but most women of that period used cottons, chiffons and taffeta.” Eighties styles, with their extensive beading, can sometimes be passed off as 1920s pieces but the giveaway is in the beadwork – if it's from the 1920s, embellishments will be made of glass, not plastic.

Check the condition 

Don't expect your vintage to be in perfect shape, especially if you're looking at pieces from the 1920s to the 1950s. When looking at 1920s silhouettes, make sure the colour is still vibrant and the chiffon or silk isn't splitting and that the beadwork isn't falling off. Jade recommends checking the shoulders (that's where 1920s pieces tend to rip, from the weight of the beadwork). Alarm-bell ringing warning signs that you should ditch the garment you're holding? Weak material and excessive armpit staining – so make sure to check under the arms. Insider tip from Jade: “If you do have a piece that has light staining on the armpits, try Napisan. It may take some of the staining away, but always do some research on the fabric.”

Take Care 

Vintage gems have lived a life before they met you, and they're only going to be around in the future if you take good care of them. This means defending your wardrobe against vintage-loving moths, who love cottons, wools and even crepe. Jade recommends buying plastic boxes for your growing vintage collection: put your pieces in tissue paper and slip in some cedar wood balls (they smell better and work better than moth balls). “You can also put a Bounce sheet in there just to keep the clothes smelling even fresher if you wish.” If you're into draping yourself in vintage furs, Jade warns against storing them in plastic (fur tends to sweat, making it the perfect breeding ground for flies) and recommends avoiding sunlight so they don't discolour. To get rid of any musty smells, put them in a black bin bag liner, squeeze the air out of the bag and freeze it for a week, before giving your furs a cold run in the tumble drier.

Invest in the future

Vintage shopping can be about finding that perfect, unusual, unexpected frock, or it can be about collecting exciting and rare pieces – and never knowing what gems you'll unearth makes it part of the fun. When it comes to designer labels that will continue to appreciate with time, Jade cites Ossie Clark – his glamorous, style-defining pieces – and German 1940s designer Lilli Ann as must-haves. Other collectable items include Lucite, in its many forms (Confetti, Moonglow) and incarnations, like bangles and bags.

Speaking of handbags, vintage Chanel – especially the iconic 2.55 bags – are always worth snapping up, says Jade. “What you may not know is that Chanel and Louis Vuitton are the only brands of that item that stamped numbers or had numbered authenticity cards - to this day, you can call up Chanel or Vuitton with that number and make sure that you have a real piece or determine if it's a fake.”

Fall in love

You can do all the research in the world, find an item that fits beautifully, is in good nick and a total bargain, but when it comes down to buying vintage, it's about whether or not your heart's in it. “Make sure you love your item,” says Jade. “They've been around for a long time so make sure you treat them with the respect they deserve. Get them professionally dry cleaned and they'll be with you forever.”