October 3, 2022

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How to Wear Vintage Clothing Without Destroying It

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Photo: Marbury (Shutterstock)

Let’s say you’ve purchased the perfect vintage shirt at a flea market, or discovered a box of your parents’ or grandparents’ clothing in the attic and found something that actually fits. Then, after an initial assessment of the garment, you determine that it’s still got some life left in it, and decide to wear it. Of course you’re (probably) not going to don that vintage silk blouse before meeting friends for wing night, but there are some less obvious strategies for keeping it in good shape on the occasions where you do opt to wear it.

How to wear vintage clothing without ruining it

Given how drastically sizing, materials, and the fit of clothing has changed over the years, finding a vintage garment that actually fits you is a small miracle. (Especially if you’re not similarly proportioned to people from previous generations.) So if you find a piece that works for you, you’re going to want to make it last as long as possible. Here’s how to do that.

Inspect and repair before you wear

Before you leave your home wearing the item of vintage clothing, take the time to thoroughly inspect it (if you haven’t done so already). While some fixes are best left to professionals—like removing stains and repairing holes—others are simple enough that you may be able to do them at home.

First, check all the buttons on the garment to see if they’re securely attached. If not, reattach them using polyester thread—which is stronger than the cotton thread that was likely used to make the clothing in the first place, and has a tendency to break as it ages.

And don’t forget the seams, which may have fallen or become loose over the years. But unless you have the sewing skills required resew them, it may be best to take the garment to a professional to be repaired.

If the piece of clothing has a zipper, run a lead pencil over the teeth, and it should easily glide open and closed, and avoid getting stuck.

Get dressed carefully

Wash your hands before putting on a vintage garment. Also, remove any rings or other jewelry that could cause it to snag as you’re getting dressed.

Protect them from the inside

A lot of the vintage clothing made for women was designed with the assumption that it would be worn over the common undergarments of the day, like camisoles, and full- and half-slips. Then, those items—which created a barrier between the clothing and the wearer’s body—would be washed on a more regular basis.

Take the same approach when wearing your vintage clothing today. There’s no need to invest in period-appropriate undergarments, but wearing some type of undershirt or other easily-washed thin layer underneath the vintage item serves the same purpose today.

Another option is putting washable, removable sweat pads in the underarms of the item. But in this case, don’t use anything with an adhesive back, like menstrual pads or liners, as they could end up damaging the inside of the garment when removed.

Accessorize wisely

When wearing a vintage garment, choosing your accessories should have more to do with keeping it intact than fashion. Avoid any jewelry that could get caught on the clothing—and that includes handbags with a clasp, or a crossbody bag.

Wash sparingly

Each time you wash a vintage garment, its fibers break down a little, decreasing its lifespan. That’s why washing vintage clothing after each wear isn’t recommended. Of course, if it was stained, or you sweat a lot while wearing it, that’s a different story. But if you only had it on for a few hours and nothing happened to it, you’re probably better off airing it out.

Air the clothing out after wearing it

If you determine your item of clothing doesn’t need to be washed (or it’s something like a coat, that isn’t typically laundered after each wear anyway), you should still air it out.

Ideally, that would mean hanging them outside in the sun on a day with a breeze. But if/when that’s not possible, hanging it inside, out in the open (as opposed to inside a closet or wardrobe) in a room with natural light and a fan on does the trick.