Most people now purchase new clothing without an exacting fit—the one exceptional time might be around a wedding, when there is a scramble to find an alterations expert. In our parents’ and grandparents’ times, alterations were done routinely, almost nothing was a perfect fit right off the rack. One might have the skills herself, or have a relative or friend to do the work, otherwise it was off to the seamstress or tailor, with whom one might develop a strong bond. She would know what worked best for her individual clients and make astute suggestions.
Since vintage clothing is often more fitted than modern clothing, the alterations expert is still absolutely an invaluable resource...and more than just for weddings!
My colleagues at the Vintage Fashion Guild unanimously agreed that altering vintage clothing for personal wear is fine, so long as it doesn't change the integrity of the original design permanently. Keep in mind, probably 20%+ of vintage clothing has been altered, most likely to fit the original owner.
A few caveats: 1. If possible, leave all the extra fabric inseams and hem in an alteration so that the piece can be altered back again. 2. The fewer changes you need made, the less expensive will be the alteration, so if economy is important to you, choose something that just needs one or maybe two changes. 3. A terribly rare or extremely valuable item is probably best to preserve as it is. 4. It is easier (and usually less expensive) to make something a bit smaller than a bit larger.
Another thing that the alterations person can do is mend and fix if needed. A new zipper, a torn buttonhole, a hem restored...if these are not skills you possess, you need to find a seamstress.
How do you find a skilled seamstress? What should she cost?
These are hard questions to answer in any concrete way, because your town may differ from Paris or New York or Charlotte or Fargo. If you have any vintage clothing shops in your area you might try asking if they have any recommendations (some even have alterations people who come in regularly). If you know anyone who wears vintage, ask if she has a recommendation. If you have a trusted dry cleaner, inquire there. Look on your local craigslist, in your phone book, online. Ask on Facebook or Twitter. When you have someone in mind, take a test item, one that you wouldn't cry if you lost. If it comes out great, and you liked the seamstress, feel safe taking more items. I especially appreciate a seamstress who loves and respects vintage clothing. So often they do, because they are interested in the fine points of clothing construction.
Next: Value and quality
Next: Value and quality