How to shop for vintage more mindfully and sustainably

Waaaay back, at the end of 2011, I started questioning my clothes-buying habits. Like many 20-something women, I was caught up in the world of ‘fast fashion’, buying cheap clothing just because I could. It was there, I was bored, and I could get five new dresses for less than £50!

But in the back of my mind, I knew that this must come at a higher price somewhere (reading this book confirmed it).

I also realised that this cycle of consumption left me feeling kind of empty – I had no connection to these belongings at all – and that whenever I came to clear out my wardrobe, what I was getting rid of was often unworn.

At the same time, I wanted to learn to make and alter my own clothes, so I took some night classes and got more confident reading patterns and using my sewing machine.

In January 2012, I made a resolution to stop buying any newly-made clothes. My rather ambitious plan was to make all my own clothes from scratch, but 12 months later, despite not buying any new clothes, I’d only made a grand total of two things.

Turns out that cutting and sewing your own clothes – while incredibly rewarding – takes LOADS of time. It gave me a new-found admiration for the skilled people who do this every day for next to nothing!

Thrifty finds

I’d like to say that I’m the kind of person who could go on never buying any clothes, but as someone who has a vintage fashion blog this is blatantly untrue. So instead, I chose to focus on another way to shop – second hand.

As long as I’ve had my own money to spend, I’ve been a fan of charity shops and thrift shops. But now, without my usual outlet of the high street and ASOS, I got obsessive about scouring shops, vintage fairs and eBay for hours on end, in search of the perfect dress at a bargain price… or old clothes that I could fix up using my new-found sewing skills and make my own.

Is vintage shopping any more sustainable?

After a couple of years of this, I realised that while swapping new for old was technically more sustainable – the more we re-use, the less goes into landfill – and economical for me, it wasn’t really addressing my personal issue of consumption. I’d just swapped one kind of cheap clothing fix for another, albeit largely greener, kind.

Of course vintage and secondhand is better for the environment; less goes into landfill and the need for new fibers to be created (a polluting process) is reduced. But something still didn’t quite sit right; I saw a lot of the same dresses again and again in vintage shops (not so unique), huge retro warehouses started popping up all over town FULL to the brim with old clothes.

All of a sudden the vintage rag trade was big business and my beloved vintage had started resembling fast fashion; the higher demand gets for vintage fashion, the more larger companies will start to churn it out like £3 t-shirts (there is concern over the ethical practices around the sorting of second hand clothes overseas, and the fact that the trade spans the globe means that your vintage garms suddenly doesn’t seem so green).

So is there a more mindful, sustainable way to buy vintage and second hand?

Tips for more sustainable vintage shopping

These may not be perfect or realistic for everybody, but here are a few things I’ve worked into my life and business in order to be a more sustainable consumer and seller of clothes:

  • Buy only what you love – I’ve really had to work on perfecting this, but if I can’t stand in front of a changing room mirror and say that I 100% love something, will be able to get lots of wear out of it and will regret it forever if I don’t buy it, then I have to let it go. I don’t have the room or bank balance to buy things I’m not sure about.

    It is ok to leave a shop empty handed!

    Take a picture to remember it by, but know that you were probably never going to wear it anyway and there is someone else out there who will.

  • Keep it moving – Where once I used to hoard away clothes, my wardrobe is now in a constant state of renewal and I observe a one-in, one-out policy. If you’re tired of something or it doesn’t suit you anymore, give it to charity, sell it, or swap it with a friend. There are so many items of clothing out there in the world, it’s just a matter of finding them, and helping others to find them too.
  • Get handy with a needle and thread – There are so many unloved threads that just need a bit of TLC to give them a second chance. Completely reworking a dress takes time, skill and patience, but there a lot of simple things you can do to fix up and personalise your wardrobe. Learning to take up (or let down) a hem can tailor a skirt to your height, and even learning to sew in a bit of elastic into a dress nips in the waist in no time.

    It’s often about being able to see the potential in things you wouldn’t usually look twice at and giving them a new lease of life. If you haven’t got a sewing machine, even sewing an embellishment on by hand can completely transform a piece of clothing.

    I also found that learning to make and alter clothes gave me a better appreciation of the work that goes into creating them, and my clothes actually meant more to me cause I’d been involved in (re)creating them too.

  • Go shopping with a wishlist, and a budget – Knowing what you like can stop you from buying something you regret later. Know what colours, patterns, details and era (if buying vintage) you like/suits you, and keep your eyes peeled for only these. It can stop you getting completely overwhelmed when hunting through rails of clothes.

    For example, I know that I like big bold colours and pastels, but not yellows. I love denim. I prefer sleeveless tops and dresses, and things that I can layer up. I adore unusual patterns that I know I can pair with a simple pair of jeans or a plain tee I already own.

  • Get to know where your vintage comes from – a lot of the vintage I buy bears the Made in England/UK label (which generally means it was made more than 20 years ago), or is obviously handmade. And I often know, because I buy it from private sellers or local charity shops I have good relationships with, where it came from. I’m curious about this stuff.

    One of the things I LOVE about vintage are the little stories that come with items of clothing. You don’t always get to find out these gems, but when you do it makes them extra special. I like knowing that these garments have been keeping people clothed as long – if not longer – than I’ve been on this planet.

  • Take the ‘nose to tail’ approach – Yep, like the butchery term, I’m obsessed with getting every last little bit out of a garment. Whether that’s making fabric jewellery from the offcuts of dresses, recycling a jumper into accessories, reusing the buttons from a shirt, or using fabric scraps as dusters.
  • Shop your own wardrobe – Hands up if you’re guilty of forgetting what you own already. The new is much more interesting! Take the time to go through your wardrobe occassionally and rediscover the hidden gems in there. It will stop you from buying similar clothes you don’t need, and also helps you to know what you’ve got that you could pair with any new vintage find to make multiple outfit combinations.

    Knowing how you will wear something is a great first step towards actually wearing and appreciating what you’ve bought.

Obviously this is not a definitive list (please feel free to add to it in the comments below) and clothes make up just one part of a much bigger picture.

I’ll caveat all of this by saying that eight years on from my ‘no new clothes’ experiment, I do buy new, but my purchases are better thought-out and made for longevity, not because I just need a quick pick-me-up. To give you an idea, roughly 70% of my wardrobe is now vintage, 20% secondhand and 10% bought new. I don’t expect that everyone can or would want to live that way, though.

Ultimately, there is no one ‘perfect answer’, but being more conscious of what and how we buy clothes is a great place to start if you’re looking for ways to be more sustainable.

Further reading: Fashion Revolution – An ethical decision: fast fashion vs. vintage fashion

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