Guide to buying vintage clothes online

I don’t know about you, but I’ve really been missing my usual charity shop, vintage and thrifting fix during lockdown. There is nothing quite like the thrill of browsing rails of clothes and trying to find the hidden gems among them. 

For me, buying vintage clothing online will always be second best – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t excellent finds to be discovered, or bargains to be had. In fact, buying online connects you with a whole world of vintage!

But where do you start looking? And how can you be sure you’re getting a good deal?

From my *ahem* extensive experience in buying vintage online, I’ve put together this guide to help you get the most for your money when shopping online… illustrated with some outfits I’ve purchased online (not all during lockdown, I might add!)

Where to buy vintage clothes online

In the UK, the main places online to buy vintage clothing are eBay, Etsy, Depop and ASOS Marketplace. More informally, vintage clothes are traded widely on Instagram through posts and stories, and, to a lesser extent, on Facebook, with payments being made through PayPal.

Plenty of sellers also have shops on their own websites. These are harder to find cause they’re not all in one place, but follow enough vintage shops on Instagram and you’ll discover many more through recommendations. Instagram now also lets sellers add shopping links into their posts, so you can find individual shops and browse their stock that way too.

There is no hard and fast rule that means one of these is better than the other or you will get a better quality product. And you might find the same sellers across all platforms. 

Always check photos and descriptions carefully

Good sellers should describe their clothes well, giving information about the condition of the item, measurements and any faults.

Always read the description alongside the photos. For example, it might say “faults as pictured in photos” and if you hadn’t read that you wouldn’t zoom in to see that, why yes there is a big mark on the collar.

Also check the colours in the photo and description match. I recently very nearly bought something that looked black and white on the photos, but on reading the description discovered it was very dark brown and white. 

I’d also recommend checking out photos on a desktop/laptop as pictures often display in a lower resolution on smartphones so you can’t see as much detail.

A word on vintage sizing 

The clothes sizes we know today bear no resemblance to sizes of the past, and the further you go back the smaller clothes get. The best thing to do is to go off the measurements given in the description.

Some sellers will just quote the garment label, but many give measurements and an approximate modern size.

A lot of sellers measure garments laid flat, so they give the exact measurement of the garment, not necessarily the size of the person wearing it. Think about whether you would want the garment to be skin tight or have a bit of give. For example, I usually go up an inch or two in the waist for skirts and trousers because I like to be able to breathe and sit down, but I prefer a fitted top so will go a bit closer to my actual measurements for those.

Take your own measurements, and compare any given measurements with both these and the measurements of clothes you already own (and preferably enjoy wearing!)

Is it really vintage? 

Unfortunately in this trade there are people trying (either intentionally or not) pass-off modern clothing as vintage. 

Look out for giveaway terms like ‘retro’, ‘vintage style’ or ‘19XXs style’. Look for pictures of the original labels in photos or label information in the description. Get to know your vintage labels and do your research (there’s a good Huffpost article here on signs of vintage fakes, and the Vintage Fashion Guild’s label resource is a great tool). 

Be cautious of clothes that have vintage on the label and/or claim to be pre-1990s but are made in China. Also be wary of clothes that have had tags cut out (this happens and it doesn’t mean it’s not vintage, but there should be other tell-tale signs it’s true vintage).

Of course, not everything you buy has to be vintage – if you love something and it suits your style, go for it. But I’d hate for people to pay over the odds for something they believe to be genuine vintage only to discover it’s from Primark when it arrives. 

Ask questions

If you’ve read the description and examined the photos provided but you’ve still got unanswered questions, perhaps about the fabric or colour or fit, it’s definitely okay to ask them. 

I’d especially recommend this if you’re buying a high value item or a collector’s piece (definitely for a vintage wedding dress!) I think any decent seller should be happy to answer them.

Of course, if there are a lot of people interested it might get snapped up while you’re waiting for a response, but sometimes it’s better to be sure than to spend money on something that isn’t right for you. 

Bonus tip: It’s also worth asking, if you like a particular shop, if they have a regular time/day they post new stock OR if you’re looking for a particular thing, whether they have one/can look out for it… you never know they may be just about to list the thing you’re looking for.

Postage costs

When you’re looking at the price of vintage items, check whether postage and packaging (P&P) is included in the price or added on at checkout.

P&P should be minimal, unless you’re buying from abroad (in which case beware the dreaded import taxes!) but if you’re buying multiple small value items from different sellers it can soon rack up and you can get a nasty surprise at checkout. 

This is most important on eBay, where once you’ve won an auction you have committed to buy an item – so check the P&P before you bid.

Check ratings and reviews

All selling platforms (apart from social media) give users the opportunity to give feedback on their buying experience, so take a look at how others have found the seller. 

Do they have positive reviews and ratings or do they get a lot of complaints about slow postage and faulty items? Some people may have the odd bad review but show that they dealt with it in a positive way, so the odd dropped star might not always mean you shouldn’t buy from them – read the reviews and decide for yourself.

Check the item when you receive it

As soon as you receive your new clothes in the post, get them out and give them a good inspection. If there is anything wrong with the item, that wasn’t disclosed when you bought it, it’s best to raise it as quickly as possible. 

Many sellers state that they won’t provide refunds or returns, but if something isn’t as described or is faulty then you might still want to raise it (and the seller might appreciate the chance to put it right rather than get negative feedback). 

As an online buyer, you do have some rights (there’s a good article from Which here for UK readers) but these do depend on if you have bought from a business or an individual. A lot of vintage sellers tend to fall into the latter category, and if you’re not buying through a marketplace with a complaints procedure then you can have no fall back if you’re not happy with what you buy.

Remember, it’s not ASOS (or insert other online store here…)

And this is a fantastic thing, cause you’re buying a unique product from an actual person.

But if you’re new to vintage shopping it does mean you have to change your expectations a little. You won’t get the same next day delivery, packed-in-polythene, free returns experience you do with a big company.

A lot of sellers only post on certain days, or sometimes once a week if selling vintage isn’t their full-time gig, but they should usually mention this in item or shop descriptions.

I’ve had great experiences with all of the selling platforms I mentioned above… but I’ve also received goods that were crumpled, not washed and came packaged in bin bags – that’s not to say they’re not wearable, just that they needed a little TLC before I could show them off.

I hope these tips help you get started buying vintage – or find the vintage buy of your dreams.

Happy shopping!

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