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How vintage clothing is priced

Why does this 1950s dress cost $49, this one $98 and that one $300? Ever wondered why the big differences?

I am sometimes asked if I can accept an offer of a lower price for an item I have for sale, and I don’t like to just bluntly refuse without an explanation. Sometimes I’m asked how to price a vintage item, or why an item I’m selling is a certain price. This post is to explain a little about the vintage clothing and accessories marketplace and the pricing one sees.

First, you need to know how vintage clothing is acquired by those who present it for resale. With the exception of some one-shot Ebay sellers, it is infrequently something from the seller’s own closet or family’s closets. Very infrequently it was given to the seller.

Usually, vintage sellers who have been around any length of time must find and purchase vintage fashions. They may get up very early to get in line for promising estate sales, garage sales, car boot sales and flea markets. They may put ads out for purchasing vintage clothing and go on buying trips to nearby (or far away) cities and towns. They may regularly scour the thrift, second-hand and antique markets. Auctions can also be sources. The seller has to make many good contacts, persevere and be resourceful.

What impacts a price

✔️ Location. In some areas there may be relatively more or less vintage available, and at more or less high prices. Just to sustain the business may take more income in some areas than others.

✔️ Scarcity. Vintage clothing and accessories that pre-date the 1980s are hard to find in many areas, and the older, the scarcer. One of the most rare things of all the 20th century seems to be a beaded silk dress from the mid 1920s in excellent condition. The amount of activity (think dancing the Charleston) that some of these dresses endured in their Roaring 20s heyday took a toll, and the combination of the delicate fabric and heavy decoration has made these dresses extremely ephemeral. With the popularity of 1920s styles over the past few years, many seek these dresses and are truly amazed at the prices...but what’s really amazing is that there is an authentic beaded silk dress from the 1920s left to sell!

Some other scarcity issues involve sizes (such as larger shoe and dress sizes) and types of items (generally trousers are more worn out and disposed of than skirts, menswear more than womenswear, swimsuits can take a beating, as can shoes...).

✔️ Condition. The example of a 1950s dress for $49, $98 or $300 may come even from the same shop, with the $49 dress being pretty but flawed, the $98 a simple dress in excellent condition and the $300 dress pristine and with a good label and great design. Condition means so much in valuing vintage because it really impacts the wearability, life expectancy of the garment, and acceptability for various occasions. Would you want to attend your friend’s wedding in a dress with an obvious and unremovable stain on the front? No, but you might wear the dress to a swing dance.

✔️ Quality. There is a reason why vintage haute couture is haute priced: It is the work of a great designer, skillfully and beautifully crafted with techniques that are becoming rarer and rarer. The materials will match the workmanship and the overall impression will be, most likely, breathtaking.

Unlabeled items can also be of great quality, and a good seller will take the trouble to explain the elements of an item’s quality. It is important to know that certain designers, labels, styles, eras, fabrics and embellishments can justifiably command high prices. Even color influences price. Would you pay more for an aqua blue dress or a similar dress in brown?

Dior in 1957
✔️ The seller. If a seller has a great reputation, with excellent references and knowledge, he or she can charge more for an item. Some excellent sellers don’t charge at the top of the spectrum, but many do. They also will stand by their sales, something that is not easy to do with vintage, each item being unique. If you enjoy the offerings of particular sellers, and you know you can trust those sellers, their finds will probably be worth more to you.

✔️ The selling venue. Are you walking into a posh Manhattan vintage shop or an antique mall in a small town? Which do you think will need to charge more for that vintage handbag? Right.

✔️ Provenance. If an item was worn by Marilyn Monroe (such as the dress she wore singing Happy Birthday Mr. President, which sold at auction in 1999 for $1,267,500), it is worth many times more than its weight in gold. Even if there is not a famous person tied to the vintage fashion item, a sweet or interesting story can push the value of the piece.

The famous gown worn by Marilyn Monroe in 1962

✔️ Going rates. Experienced vintage fashion sellers usually research before they price an item, working to find the right price for what they consider to be their place in the market, seeing how other sellers have priced. Sometimes a movie or show (Titanic, Mad Men and Downton Abbey immediately come to mind) will drive the interest in a style and the going rate will go up accordingly.

✔️ Work on the item. Some vintage items are ready to go as found, but usually they need washing or dry cleaning, often a bit of mending. In some cases a large amount of work goes into preparing a vintage garment or accessory for use. Some items are definitely worth the time, like one of those rare 1920s beaded silk dresses—if they are damaged but reparable, the repairs are often worthwhile for bringing such a beautiful piece of history back to life. Of course excellent work takes knowledge, skill and time.

✔️ Desirability. This is kind of a catch-all that overlaps the quality, scarcity, selling venue, seller...everything. Sometimes there is a certain je ne sais quoi about how the item is presented that makes it—and the seller—hot stuff. The same item may be almost worthless in other hands.

Do all these add up to a formula for how much that 1950s dress should cost? No, not at all. Pricing changes every day and it is nebulous. Even the best sellers make mistakes in pricing, and the least experienced seller may earn top money on a particular item. Desirability may make an item of low quality into the coolest and most valuable thing in the shop for some people. The best shop owner may have prices so low that you wonder if the item is of any quality. There are simply no hard and fast rules about pricing.

Then there is the thrift shop purchase. You know, the one where you found a designer dress from the 1950s in top condition and half off of $7.50? Almost everyone who has ever loved the thrill of the hunt has a story to tell of some incredible deal. This has the effect of making the general public think that all one needs is a bit of pocket change and a trip to the thrift. Of course finding something great and vintage for next to nothing is rare and getting rarer, so if you fancy items that predate the 1980s, you will mostly come up empty.

There may also be the perception that a vintage seller doesn’t do anything but buy, mark up the price and resell. Some might do no more than that, but those who take the business seriously do lots more. For instance, I do a lot of research and stay in close touch with colleagues at the Vintage Fashion Guild who can help me when I don’t know something about a vintage piece. I have a couple of bookshelves full of vintage fashion history books. I did so much research on fabric that I ended up volunteering to write and compile the VFG’s Fabric Resource. Over the course of years I’ve built up many contacts and quite a lot of knowledge.

In my house there are always buckets of vintage items soaking, needles with every color of thread stuck in a pincushion, bags of metal zippers, jars of vintage buttons. I have a very careful dry cleaner that I trust and an expert seamstress for things I can’t fix myself. I have a storage cabinet full of various stain removers, gentle washes and odor lifters. Not only do I read and write blogs about vintage fashion, I participate in the conversations about it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. In my selling practices I am as careful and honest as I can be. I am passionate about what I do. I sincerely care about each individual who crosses my vintage path. And I am not alone in any of this—there are quite a few really excellent vintage fashion shops. Is what we do more than buying and reselling? I think so.

Bottom line? There’s no magic formula for pricing vintage, but these are some of the considerations that might be taken into account.

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New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 4 continued

More on vintage value

Louise wrote about what she most likes about vintage clothing in a comment on a previous post: “You are not supporting sweatshops. No new materials are being consumed. And most vintage clothing sellers are small businesses—you are supporting an individual rather than a multinational corporation.” For her, the greatest value in vintage clothing is in its impact on the world, economically and environmentally. I have talked with others who are most attentive to the fine construction of the vintage they collect. Some time ago I did a graphic showing off my own favorite aspects:
{click to enlarge}
You may have noticed by now that I haven't said that a 1950s dress should cost X amount. I don't think there will ever be a point at which I would be able to say that a certain vintage piece should cost a certain amount. Dealers set prices that are based on the availability of the items for them, the work they need to put into finding the items and preparing them for sale. They research the going rates. There are dealers that also have a certain right to say that with their knowledge and experience they can offer items of a certain caliber for a certain amount. 

You may be fortunate to find some great items on your own or from beginning sellers, and if so, more power to you. By contrast, I have a friend in a big city nearby that says that she hasn't seen an item older than the 70s for some time, looking in 2nd-hand shops, garage and estate sales. The 40s and 50s that I love so dearly aren't to be found in some areas. If you are interested in 20s and 30s, believe me, the pickings are rare no matter where you are. Rarity does indeed increase value. 

And great vintage sellers, the kind that are knowledgeable, passionate, resourceful, careful, honest and dependable, are a bit rare too. If you find you like and trust certain sellers, you may wish to visit them more than once. As Louise wrote, these are small business owners who will appreciate your support. 

Next time: Thoughts on how to wear vintage



New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 4 continued

More about quality and value

In vintage, quality is often in the details. Better fabrics, lining and better-grade components such as buttons and trims add to the quality of items. Quality can also be in the design, which sometimes means better brand labels, and designer labels. Sometimes no-label or lesser-known labels are designed and made very well, so don't let the labels mean everything to you. Also, some designers sold their names for use in lower quality items, so a designer's name isn't everything either.
Right now there are some healthy prices being paid for lesser-made items from the 70s, 80s and 90s. There is a gradual change from better to lesser quality that has taken place from the late 1960s through today. Many labels (designers, makers) have transcended this in these decades, but the trend has been toward more disposable, briefly fashionable styles. The more you know about clothing details and manufacture, the less likely you will be to pay an exorbitant rate for something that is in actual quality, lower end. You may gain the power to find these relatively common items yourself at thrift stores and garage sales, and you may not need to see the item styled for you to get how it could look. I don't mean to say these items are not worth anything (especially if they make your heart sing) but it is best to arm yourself with the knowledge of their true value. If you still want to pay a top price, you will at least know what you're doing!
Condition is also a part of value. I recommend beginning vintage buyers be aware of the condition component in purchasing vintage. A great item in very flawed condition is of lesser value, possibly lower than a relatively lower quality item in excellent condition. The more you know, the more you will be able to assess this.

Value may also be judged in terms of how long a garment has been around, and how long it may continue to be around. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did not live with disposable items the way we do now, clothing included. Purchases were made carefully, alterations were done, care was taken, mends were made, and quite a bit of wear was expected. If you find a vintage clothing item you love, consider grabbing the baton, wearing the item with the same care and thought that was used 30, 60 and 90 years ago. If you do, you may pass the item on for further use in 30 years!

This 1884 wedding dress has been worn by family members ever about longevity! (The story is at MailOnline)
Next: More on value



New Year's resolution: Wear vintage, stage 4 continued

Getting started with vintage quality and value

After my post on alterations you may be thinking that you are looking at a huge expense just to have one great vintage dress. You have to pay for the dress, possibly have to pay to have it cleaned and altered. I've been writing a lot about fit. This post is about value and quality, two more of the handful of Really Big Issues to consider when shopping for vintage clothing.

First, know that if you are used to purchasing an item of clothing in the $25-250 range (more or less average modern clothing from budget-conscious to relatively costly), know that the 1940 equivalent would be $402-$4,017 according to the Consumer Price Index inflation calculator, in 1970 that range would be $145.00-$1,449.

1938 catalogue prices (and style!) from the Chronically Vintage blog. That $4.98, adjusted for inflation, would be $79.45 today
If you see prices in vintage catalogues, on vintage price tags, etc. that make you think the items were inexpensive in their day, remember this.

Next, understand that when you buy a vintage piece you pay for something that is usually better than you are paying for today. As a vintage clothing dealer I can vouch for the superior quality of most vintage items—I find it hard to buy modern items in large part because of their lack of quality.

In the 1950s, most of what was available to wear in the US was made in the US, from the raw materials, to the textile, to the design and finally to the finished product. Union tags will let you know that fairly-paid garment workers made the item.

The ILGWU, once one of largest labor unions in the United States, was one of the first U.S. unions to have primarily female membership (from Rex Parker Does the NY Times Crossword Puzzle
By comparison: Green America's Retailer Scorecard gives Wal-Mart an F, J.C. Penney a D-, and Target a D+ for their use of sweatshops and forced child labor. In choosing a vintage article you not only recycle it for current use, but you can be fairly confident that it was made with better values in its day.

Elizabeth Cline's The History of a Cheap Dress should give even the most inveterate H&M shopper pause. I lament, as does Cline in fascinating detail, the trading of quality for quantity.

{to be continued}