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Buying vintage online

With all the detailed advice I've given about buying vintage clothing offline, you might assume that buying vintage pieces online is fraught with dangers - you can't try on the garment, you can't inspect it inside and out, you can't sniff it!

I suppose the honest answer is yes, it can be fraught with dangers.  You are entirely reliant on the vendor to do most of that work for you.  And the good ones ALWAYS do.

So the first step is to assess the vendor:
  • Do they provide thorough descriptions which inspire confidence that they know what they're talking about?
  • Do they provide plenty of good, clear photographs of all aspects of the piece, and the label (if there is one)?
  • Is the piece dated accurately?  You'll have to use your own good judgement and experience on this, but its sadly quite common to see, for example, 50s-style dresses from the 1980s dated and sold as 1950s.
  • Are all the pertinent measurements provided?
  • Are any flaws or damage clearly detailed and shown in the pictures?
  • If the vendor is selling on a site such as Ebay or Etsy, don't forget to check their customer feedback.  Sometimes vendors with a slightly less than 100% feedback record made a few mistakes early on, but learned fast! - if any negative feedback is from a long while ago and all subsequent feedback is uniformly positive, its probably ok taking a chance on them.
  • Scan through the vendor's other listings - if there are numerous duplicates, or the same garment available in various sizes, chances are the items are not vintage at all but modern reproductions.  (Be aware that sometimes vendors can acquire bulk lots of unworn old shop stock which is genuine vintage - shots of the labels are essential here in determining the approximate age of the pieces).
  • Check their policies - first of all, they should have them and its a warning sign if they don't!  Its worth knowing if they accept returns before you take the plunge, for example, then at least you are making an informed decision.

In short, do you feel that you can trust this vintage seller?  If so, continue on to the next stage.

As a potential buyer, you need to do your homework about the specific item you want to buy too: 
  • Make sure you read the description and inspect all the photographs thoroughly so you know exactly what you are buying.  Its easy to miss important details, especially if you've found something great and you're excited about it.  Take your time and absorb it all.
  • If you need more information or photographs, ask for them.  Reputable vintage vendors are happy to provide any additional information you might need.  You are, after all, a very interested potential buyer!
  • Check the measurements provided and be realistic.  If your actual body measurements precisely match the garment measurements it will be too small!  Remember to allow at least an inch (2.5 cm) or two for ease of fit on the width measurements (bust, waist, hip) and a bit more for outer garments such as jackets and coats.  The best method is to measure a similar garment that fits you well and compare its measurements to those of the item you are considering buying.
  • Check everything over again, before you reach for the credit card!  If you want to return an item because of your mistake - not checking the size, not noting a flaw that was mentioned clearly in the description - the seller has no obligation to accept it back (did you read their return policy?!)  And if he or she does accept it, you will usually have to cover the cost of returning it, and your refund may not include the original shipping cost either.

Don't let that put you off though!  There are so many wonderful, trustworthy vintage vendors online, offering an unimaginable variety of garments, accessories and other items of all eras from right across the world.  They have done the legwork for you - sourcing, preparing and sorting the best vintage they can find, so that you can find exactly what you want in an instant.

By exercising some judicious critical judgement you can avoid many of the pitfalls of buying "sight unseen."

Whilst it can't be denied that there are some unscrupulous and/or ill-informed sellers out there, the best vendors are in it for the long haul.  They are committed to offering an impeccable service and sustaining their hard-won good reputation.  You can't build up a reputable business without it.

Additional information and further reading

One good sign to look for is membership of the Vintage Fashion Guild.  Members have to satisfy rigourous criteria to qualify for membership which ensures that they are reputable sellers committed to following the VFG Code of Practise.  Of course, there are plenty of equally reliable vintage sellers who aren't VFG members, I'm just saying that its a good indicator that the vendor is trustworthy and reasonably well-informed!

You can also register for free on the VFG public forum, where you can pick the brains of the incredibly knowledgeable members who are happy to offer advice and information about all aspects of vintage clothing and accessories.  And their label resource is great for checking on company histories and also ascertaining approximate dates from the labels of well-known companies that have been trading for a long time.

You must read this article from The Vintage Traveler blog offering more invaluable advice about buying vintage clothing online.

Mary Kincaid of Zuburbia has some further pearls of wisdom about shopping vintage online.

This article is actually intended as advice to vintage sellers, but its worth reading because it offers in detail all the things that vendors should do, with some very useful information along the way.

A Vintage Ramble provides some essential reading on additional measurements that you definitely should take into account when buying vintage gear online.

Marge of Born Too Late Vintage has some interesting thoughts about what exactly you are paying for when you buy a vintage garment online.

Next: a few tips on how to care for your vintage garments.