Vintage is cheap, but not easy

Vintage clothing turns yesterday’s trash into today’s treasures

What’ll I Wear specializes in one of a kind, over-the-top vintage clothing and accessories.
What’ll I Wear specializes in one of a kind, over-the-top vintage clothing and accessories.

I’ve always done the bulk of my shopping in second-hand stores, whether to find a unique knit cardigan to add to my collection, or simply from a lack of cash.

Something that I’m not an expert on is vintage clothing—second-hand clothes that have been preserved for decades, and which, more than newer used clothing, have become a relic of a time past.

When I bought my ticket to Tainted Love, Lighthouse Wire magazine’s spin on the former His ’n’ Hers annual Fake Prom shindig, I realized finding an ’80s-style prom dress might be more of an art than I was used to. More familiar with t-shirt dollar bins and smelly Value Village stores than pleated leather and sequins, I turned to Kingston’s resident expert on vintage clothing.

Janet Strong owns What’ll I Wear (328 Princess St.), a funky store filled with eclectic and brightly coloured vintage clothing, jewelry and shoes, as well as new costume accessories, hats and makeup.

Strong has been working with vintage clothing since she was 16, when she first got a part-time job in a consignment store. Since then, she has spent her life pursuing the perfect piece.

Vintage clothing has been gaining popularity since the 1960s and ’70s, in an effort to get away from the mass-produced, “off the rack” styles that had everyone looking the same. Since then, vintage has been seen as a way to imitate the retro looks being adopted by current designers without paying the designer price.

While vintage may carry some of the stigma that still haunts second-hand clothing, such as issues associated with cleanliness and associations with poverty; both vintage and second-hand clothing can be a great way to find cheaper, good quality clothes that are also good for the earth—remember, one of “the three Rs” is reuse.

Recent papparazi shots of celebrities like Haylie and Hilary Duff, Nicole Richie and the Hilton sisters thrift-shopping prove that vintage is finally being recognized as a viable option for serious fashionistas.

Strong, who said most of her own clothes are second-hand or vintage, has a particular passion for older clothing. However, as time goes by, she said the availability of good quality vintage clothing is dwindling.

“It is harder to find [vintage clothing]. My personal favourites are dresses from the ’40s and ’50s—they’re hard to come by now,” she said. “Now a lot of the retro stuff is from the ’80s, so that’s easy enough, it’s only twenty-odd years ago.”

There doesn’t seem to be much hope for the future of vintage clothes, either, according to Strong, due to the changes that have taken place in the clothing manufacturing industry.

“The quality for older clothing generally is a lot better than what you’d buy nowadays. The care, especially in tailored suits from the ’40s and ’50s, there’s just so much more care and time and effort put into it,” Strong said. “Now things are just whipped off and whipped out. Even the fabrics they’re made of, you know, nylon and knit fabrics, they run, so you snag something and you get a hole in it right away.”

Strong said the only way to buy quality, modern-day clothing is to “pay a lot of money for it.”

When looking for vintage clothes for the store, Strong said she has a few goals in mind.

“I like to get unusual things in here. The clothing is vintage for the most part in here, that’s what I like to specialize in. I prefer natural fabrics, nature fibres like cottons and wools,” she said. “I look at the style of something: is it timeless, is it something that can translate into today’s fashions, or at the other extreme, [is it] completely vintage like a crazy ’60s thing.”

Vintage clothing, while often cheaper than a new item, can be relatively pricey for what’s considered used clothing. In my hunt for a Fake Prom outfit, most of the dresses I saw at a variety of vintage clothing stores in Kingston ranged from $20 to $30—a lot to spend on a one-night costume.

Knowing where and how to shop can be half the battle. Looking for quality, wearable clothing that will lend itself to long-term use increases the value of whatever you spend, and hunting for bargains in unlikely places (including the bargain bins at Value Village) can make vintage a viable economic alternative. Strong said one of the favourite pieces she has collected over the years was a clear Lucite handbag from the 1950s, which she keeps at home in her personal collection.

“I got it for a dollar and I’ve seen others like it in New York City 10 to 20 years ago for $250,” she said.

Rumours I’d heard about vintage clothing generally being smaller had me nervous about fitting my 2007 body into a tiny-waisted gown from the days of yore. But Strong said this is pretty much unfounded.

“They had larger people back then as well. But also too, women in particular, used to wear body armour underneath—girdles to keep their curves where they should be, so you don’t really see that as much anymore. We let it all hang out,” she said. “Usually I find that, to find things that haven’t been worn very much, you have to find them very small or very large. Medium sizes are harder to come by.”

Strong said she does much of the shopping for her store outside of Kingston, in smaller towns and cities in the area. In Kingston, there are a number of vintage clothing outlets, including What’ll I Wear, Phase II and ERA Modern Vintage, all of which are within walking distance of campus.

In the end, my search for a Fake Prom dress has lead me to break one of the cardinal rules of vintage shopping—indecision. I’m stuck deliberating between a yellow silk number with a fiddly zipper and a lacy red number with a massive bow on the waist, which costs $10 more. The dresses are at two different stores, safely hidden (I hope) in the middle of a couple of daunting racks of dresses, until I make up my mind.

Tainted Love is this Saturday at Alfie’s. Tickets can be purchased at Destinations for $5.

5 Tips to Make Vintage Shopping a Success:

1. Wear comfortable clothes: Not only will it be easy for you to take ’em off to try on stuff, but your tight jeans and heels won’t slow you down.

2. Shop with a full tummy: Believe me, sifting through clothes is more digestible this way.

3. If they offer a cart, take it: This is important to make vintage shopping manageable. Especially in a bigger store like Value Village, your arms will soon cease to hold your loot.

4. Don’t hesitate: As soon as you see something you like, grab it. Make bigger decisions in the change room.

5. Be realistic: If it’s heavily stained or ripped, push your cart on. If you think you can alter it to make it more wearable, make sure you have the time and skill to do so. There’s no point in letting the clothing collect dust in your closet.

—By Janet Shulist

Overheard in Kingston

Guy #1: “It’s like the voice of God!”
Guy #2: “Since when does God have a British accent?”
Guy #1: “Since when does God not have a British accent?”
—Walking by the CFRC loudspeaker

Girl: “So … That was a bus?”
—Waiting at a Division Street bus stop, as a city bus rolls by.

Girl on cellphone: Well I didn’t think he was that ugly. Maybe a little bit. Like Jake Gyllenhaal’s uglier cousin. Or maybe more like [his sister] Maggie?
—In line in Leonard Cafeteria

Guy: “So did you ever figure out what that tapping sound was, or are we still going with the haunted house theory?”
Friend: “No, I swear it’s haunted, but only in that one room. Do you think that’s grounds for a Golden Cockroach?”
—Living room of the haunted house

Guy: “I was so depressed the other day that I tried on my ex-girlfriend’s jeans. Then I was even more depressed because they actually fit.”
—Sitting in class

Have you overheard something super-sweet? Email that sugar to

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