There’s nothing like finding that perfect vintage dress that also happens to be genuinely old. Most thrifters now qualify anything pre-1995 as “vintage” but dresses from pre-1960’s have a particular magic about them. Maybe it’s the survival through the decades or the myriad of bodies that have filled up its shape, but these vintage clothes always seem to have a soul. There’s something about their age that makes them feel both ghostly and archival. It’s not an exaggeration to call them living history.
But finding a vintage dress with a real pedigree that’s also weathered the decades without major damage and happens to fit in with a modern (re: not costume) wardrobe? It’s a challenge, even for thrifters and vintage enthusiasts. When I tried on this 1950’s taffeta party dress, a dress that is over 60 years old, I knew I had found a true vintage gem for a functional and contemporary wardrobe. So here’s what to look for when you’re thinking of buying some true vintage but want to get a little more regular wear out of it:
First, look for a classic shape. This dress has a strong waist but minimal “poof” and its just above the knee. A longer skirt would make the dress more formal so a shorter skirt is always a good bet for a dress you want to wear out regularly. Then chose a color like black, red or blue and keep it solid (no period patterns like paisley or gingham). The only detail–a lovely ribbon stitched across the shoulders (accordion style)–is minimal but eye catching. You can easily imagine the same kind of stitching on a cardigan or dress at H&M. The sleeves are short and lack any of the typical vintage flourishes of period clothing (shoulder pad, puffed sleeve, etc). Wear heels and it’s perfect for dinner. Switch to flats and it’s perfect for Sunday brunch.
Vintage taffeta sometimes suffers from fading or holes (you can see a bit of that in the picture above) but generally speaking, it’s a strong fabric (in contrast to silk or chiffon) so it’s a solid investment choice. Do watch out for the zipper. Most pieces from this era have metal zippers so be sure to test it in store and if it needs repair, take it in right away. And of course, no throwing this treasure in the wash machine. Take it to a reputable dry cleaner and be sure to emphasize that it is a vintage piece of considerable age.
Keep in mind that a piece like this doesn’t turn up everyday but if you head to your local vintage shop with these ideas in hand–good shape, solid color, minimal details–you’ll find the right dress soon enough. And of course, should you find a outrageously unwearable dress in a bold pattern that’s all drama? Buy the hell out of it. There’s room enough in all our closets for both wearables and collectables. Happy Thrifting!
Vintage taffeta dress: Tandem Vintage (13 5th Ave NE, Minneapolis)
Shoes: Luisa Beccaria velvet heels (Mona Williams Consignment, Minneapolis)
Photo Credits: Vanessa Cambier
Scene of the Crime: Seward, Minneapolis