Sometimes I’m embarrassed to tell people where I got my shoes or jacket or any of the other 60 percent of my wardrobe that I’ve purchased on Etsy, the only place you’ll find vintage Alaïa capelettes sold alongside hot-glued hair accessories for toddlers. It’s a strange, confusing place, that Etsy, but it is more palatable than the mess that is eBay’s women’s clothing selection. Neither are very chic in design, and they don’t come with some cute shop boy offering sparkling water while you sort through cabinets of Chanel (shout out to James at What Goes Around), but there are treasures waiting to be discovered, and deals to be had on said treasures. A lot of my friends are too intimidated to buy anything, or had a bad experience and have sworn off vintage E-tail entirely. Rather than try to convince these people individually, I’ve compiled a list of some of my more helpful findings over my many years of buying cool people’s used clothing online:
Assume final sale. Most eBay and Etsy sellers are small one-person operations and accepting returns could effectively put them out of business. Unless they provided untrue information on the condition of the item or item details, don’t ask to return or exchange your purchase unless their shop policies say that they accept returns (mini tip: read the shop policies before purchase). This goes even if the item doesn’t fit, which brings me to my next piece of advice…
Know your size —in inches and centimeters. But don’t bother with trying to measure your actual body, chances are you don’t have a fabric tape measure lying around, and even if you did, it’s easy to measure incorrectly. Instead, find and item that you already own and fits well that’s a similar cut to the one you’re looking to buy, lay it flat, and measure that for comparison. Even if it’s a high-waisted skirt you’re looking to buy, you can measure the waistband on your favorite pair of high-waisted jeans to see if it will work for you.
Pay attention to fabric content. Lots of clothes today are made nice and stretchy, especially bottoms. We’ve gotten too comfortable. Don’t assume that any pair of pants made before the year 2000 will contain elastane, and buy to your true, comfortable size or larger, and get the piece tailored.
Know what’s not fixable. I caution against buying anything you feel might be too small with the assumption that you can let it out. You can, however, take things in. Leather will usually cost more to tailor and fur coats will cost way more. I was once quoted $800 to take in the shoulders of a vintage fox, an extra $400 to make it shorter. Embellished pieces—sequins, beading, studs, cutouts, grommets—might be both expensive and impossible to tailor correctly, so keep that in mind before purchasing. If you buy something with elastic banding that’s gone…flaccid(?) this is an easy repair for your average seamstress. Too-small shoes are more likely to cause permanent damage to your bone structure than stretch out over time, so consider it money saved if an amazing shoe is not your size. (Why are vintage shoes always so tiny? Were people smaller? Did these sizes just never sell? Does having small feet correlate with better shoe maintenance?)
Ask for more details. If the seller didn’t provide measurements, or all the measurements you need—ask! Keep in mind that vintage sizes and contemporary sizes are not the same. If you’re a size 6 in today’s sizing, you will probably find that a size 6 dress from 40 years ago is way too small. I usually have to ask for shoulder-to-shoulder measurements on jackets and rise measurements on pants after buying too many low-slung pants with a 26-inch “waist”band.
Ask for more photos, too. If you’re unsure about what the seller means by vague descriptions like “average vintage condition,” ask for detail photos of any areas that they wouldn’t consider pristine. If they didn’t provide it, request photos of the linings on jackets and the condition of the wrist openings—especially with furs.
Go silk or go home. Lots of blouses and dresses from the '70s, '80s, and '90s photograph beautifully, but chances are they’re made of some disgusting flammable polyester that you wouldn’t even use to sop up spilled coffee. Read the fabric description—some sellers include a “silk blouse” tag on the item so that you can find it in search, even though the material is listed as polyester. That’s not to say that there aren’t troves of immaculate, chic silk blouses and dresses to be had on Etsy and eBay—they’re my favorite things to buy. See also:
YSL Mary Janes. I can’t believe I’m blowing up my own spot here, but eBay has so many amazing YSL Mary Janes and '90s Manolos. Just remember to:
Repair vintage shoes before wearing them. If you buy vintage heels, take them in to have the heel cap replaced—even if they’ve never been worn. If you’re dealing with any sort of platform situation, especially non-leather soles, have the sole detached and glued back in place as a preemptive measure or rue the day you’re left stomping around Soho in the rain with the sole of your left shoe flopping loose. Twenty-year-old shoe glue is not to be trusted.
Sign up for eBay alerts on items you know you’re interested in because nobody has time to regularly sift through page after page of random postings—and you want first dibs when a great item is posted. For me, it’s “vintage Vivienne Westwood,” in the off chance that the platforms Kate and Naomi were wearing in that photo on the stairs will surface. Or that shearling. Oh God, that glorious oversized shearling.
Search misspellings —I learned this one from a throwback Sea Of Shoes post. You might never find anything this way, but you also might find an early Norma Komali (née Kamali) silk satin jumpsuit for $34.
Etsy is for immediate purchases, eBay is for patience —that is unless the eBay seller is offering the “Buy it now” option. Set an alert on your phone to remind you to bid on an eBay item you want shortly (like 20 minutes) before the auction ends rather than get into a bidding war before that time, driving up the price. A few years ago eBay added a “max bid” feature that will allow you to enter the highest price you’re willing to bid on an item without automatically bidding that full amount. If another bidder tries to cop your Mugler while you’re gone, eBay will automatically outbid them for you until another bidder bests you, in which case you’ve got to bow out or cough up more money. For an endangered species (such as Mugler), it’s usually worth it to up the ante.
Visit the seller’s shop page to check for promo codes. Many Etsy shops will offer sales that coordinate with major holidays and end of seasons, but the only real place to advertise that without going through and editing each of their listings is at the top of their main shop page. Chances are you found their listing through searching something like “cyber punk marabou” and won’t know that they observe Presidents' Day with a 20 percent discount.
Keep obsessively checking Instagram. It seems that all the great vintage shops, both online and brick-and-mortar, are now on Instagram. Some only exist on Instagram, like Stacey Nishimoto’s the _corner _store (I died a little the day I missed out on the Albert Nipon minidress). Every shop has its own special rules for playing their Insta-game—something along the lines of commenting “sold,” calling the shop, or just checking out their Etsy. It’s a dangerous game when buying vintage becomes as easy and gratifying as playing Candy Crush, but here we are, and here I am with a leather leotard and four old sweaters scattered around the country waiting for me to make shipping and pick-up arrangements. Fast fashion this is not.
And I’m all out for now. Surely I’ve missed something or am entirely unaware of something else that will make my online vintage shopping experience exponentially easier—help me out in comments.
Photos by ITG.