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Fabulous Vintage: 8 Simple Rules

Finding beauty and value in a stranger’s castoffs doesn’t come easily to everyone, but for those dedicated foragers who know where—and how—to look, turning up vintage treasures is not only inspiring but addictive. We should know—as a collective, we spend our weekends and vacations happily plundering estate sales, seeking out dusty flea markets and prowling thrift shops for the crème de la crème of pre-loved items.

Thankfully, a return to conscious, thoughtful consumption means that vintage and secondhand finds have as much appeal as contemporary goods—which can be intimidating for the uninitiated vintage shopper, who might not know how much to spend on a gently used dress or a pair of broken-in boots. That’s where we come in—here are eight rules to live by if you want to score great, high-quality vintage:

Be a label-lover—in a good way.

You can tell a lot about a garment just by examining the label. An old-fashioned font or a highly detailed, info-laden label is a dead giveaway that your garment has some history, even if you don’t recognize the brand. Pendleton and Woolrich labels great examples of this. Make that smartphone work overtime and do a quick search if you don’t recognize a brand name—if you turn up dozens of eBay results, you’ve probably stumbled upon a good thing.

Pay close attention to the “made in” information.

If you can find garments made in European countries or the United States, you can bet that they’re quality items, since most of these countries started outsourcing production decades ago. Also, think about the relationship of country and product: A vintage wool sweater made in Ireland is a better find than, say, a wool sweater made in Asia, since wool was a major Irish export.

Go straight to the source.

The accomplished thrifter knows that the best vintage finds come from places where the economy was booming back in the day—which is why historic industry towns like Pittsburgh and Nashville have such excellent examples of ’40s and ’50s vintage, because disposable income (and, therefore, shopping) was at a high point during those eras.

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The imogene + willie store in Nashville, Tenn., offers new and vintage denim for serious collectors

Quantity is good…

Enormous, warehouse-style thrift stores can be fantastic for scoring lots of different types of vintage, from clothing and accessories to housewares, furniture, artwork and records. Instead of trying to scour the entire store, however, find your sweet spots—whether you love dresses, can’t resist shoes or have a handbag addiction—and tackle those first.

…But quality is better.

With vintage, items that weren’t worn very often are usually in the best condition—think cocktail dresses, coats and special-occasion accessories like clutches and statement jewelry. You’ll luck out in terms of condition and quality with these pieces, so if they fit with your lifestyle, add them to your shopping list.

Study the merchandise.

When you think you’ve found a great vintage piece, turn it inside out. Are the seams neatly finished? Does the stitching look like it was done by hand? This attention to detail is what makes a vintage garment great, whether it’s a mass-produced designer piece or a simple dress that was lovingly made at home.

Weigh the price.

“Vintage can get pricey, because in many cases, you’re buying a one-of-a-kind piece that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else,” says Betsy Lowther, vintage collector and blogger at Fashion Is Spinach. “In exclusivity, it’s as close to couture as a lot of us will probably get. And dealers know if you love it, you’re not going to be able to comparison-shop (unless you scour eBay or—and also that you’ll likely buy it then and there, because if you don’t, it will soon be gone.” For boutique shoppers, one strategy is to weigh what you’d pay for a similar new item, taking into consideration the cachet and scarcity of the brand. For example, shelling out $50 for a new pair of black pants seems reasonable; add the prestige of a major fashion house, and you can expect the price to jump by as much as $100. Whether that is a good investment depends on if the brand is significant to you, and if the garment fits perfectly.

Know what works for your body—and your lifestyle.

Decades-old sizing systems can be confusing and frustrating to decipher, so if you have trouble finding new pants that fit, you’ll want to save yourself some time and skip the vintage versions—at least at first. With enough practice, you’ll be able to eyeball a vintage piece and get an idea whether it will fit, but in the beginning, start with the type of garments that look best on you, whether it’s sheath dresses, pencil skirts or flannel shirts. And remember: With vintage, a special piece that reflects something about you as an individual is the ultimate prize. “Vintage items that look like they came from H&M don’t stand out—and I want true standouts,” Lowther says. “Look for pieces that have innate timelessness—they were amazing 50 years ago, and they’re just as amazing today.”