For the collector of antique and vintage apparel, most of what she learns comes with time and experience. But she still had to do a certain amount of research for appraisal and study. Collectors who aren’t formally schooled in fashion history teach themselves and learn more as they build their collections.
The internet has brought a wealth of information to vintage clothing lovers and it’s brought many collectors and sellers out of their wardrobes and into the vintage apparel milieu, making names for themselves online and in brick and mortar businesses. They’ve gained expert knowledge and a strong ability to date and appraise a well-made Victorian bodice or a 1930s bias-cut evening dress. A love for the clothing always makes the research an enjoyable learning experience.
Research Using Antique Periodicals for Women
Antique periodicals like Godey’s Lady’s Book, which was an American monthly magazine popular in the 19th century, or Ladies Home Journal first published in 1883, are very good research resources for collectors of vintage apparel.. They are filled with articles related to the fashion of the period illustrated with advertising from corsets to hair products and stockings. They also included a number of patterns for the seamstress to enlarge and redraft. Later issues were filled with fashion plates to inspire the reader.
Antique woman’s magazines can be found in all the usual places like flea markets, thrift shops, yard sales, antique shows, second hand book shops, antique malls, live auctions, and via online venues. Some can be found online for less than $10. A collection of antique periodicals alone is one worth pursuing for collectors with interests in fashion history.
Books and Written Materials on Vintage Clothing
There are numerous research books and price guides on the market on vintage apparel for collectors to peruse. A good basic guide like History of Costume, by Karl Kohler, or Vintage Clothing 1880-1960: Identification and Value Guide, by Maryanne Dolan, are both good general guides for a beginning collector and presently in print.
For further research, the University of Texas at Tyler offers a huge online bibliography compiled by Vicki Betts titled Books, Articles, and Dissertations on Clothing,1840-1865, which could be very useful for collectors who are researching early Victorian apparel and American Civil War era clothing.
Costume museums are a great source of knowledge for the antique and vintage apparel collector. The collections on display in most costume museums are ever-changing due the textiles’ sensitivity to light and impurities in the air. Regular visits often show something new. And in most cases, a paid museum membership allows access to the museums’ library and archives for further research.
- Columbia College in Chicago has the Women’s Costume Museum with items illustrated online. Most vintage apparel in the collection dates post Second World War.
- The American Textile History Museum has recently added historical and vintage apparel to their collections. ATHM is in Lowel, Massachusetts, a state where there are many vintage clothing shops, and antique markets to peruse.
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Costume Institute, in New York City has thousands of pieces in their collection and visitors can also research their data base in the museum or online at home. The Met has now added the collection from the Brooklyn Museum.
- Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a world-renowned collection of historic costume. The costume gallery will be closed from November 2010 to the spring, 2012 as the museum is undergoing renovations, but the collection can be viewed online and researchers can make appointments with the Textile and Fashion Department to research further.
- The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada has become world-famous with over 12,000 artifacts in ever-changing displays. Be awed by the 17th century mules or the 20th century designer shoes.
More Resources for Vintage Apparel Research
Visits to vintage clothing shows, shops that deal primarily in vintage apparel, as well as antique malls can be very enlightening. In these places, the collector can ask questions of the dealer and study the clothing by touch.
Search engine results will bring up hundreds of pages for sellers of vintage clothing. Most sites have a catalog that lists the item with an illustration, describes it and prices it. Online shops are a good source of information.
- Old photos and art from earlier periods assist greatly in dating vintage apparel. Roger Vaughan’s Picture Library will show collectors of fashion how to date the the clothing while dating the photos.
- Learn to identify textiles to discern silk from acetate, or wool from polyester. Visits to Fabric shops might help.
- Look for old Sears or other merchant catalogs. The earliest ones are expensive, but many have been reprinted. They are an excellent reference guide for everything from pantaloons to collars.
- Collectors should keep files and document every piece added to their collections. It serves it’s purpose in further research. Try to find provenance for each piece by asking questions of the sellers and digging further.
- Watch old films, like the Fred and Ginger musicals and just about anything featuring Katherine Hepburn. These offer great ’30s and ’40s fashion education.
- Collect vintage sewing books to learn construction methods and the language of vintage apparel.
- Collect vintage apparel from a niche era like the 1930s, for example, and specialize in it rather than try to learn it all at once.
- Add vintage sewing patterns to the collection to assist in dating apparel and leaning construction methods. They often suggest what materials were used to create the pieces.
- Search for clothing label patents at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. It’s a huge site and researches will have to do a bit of digging, but it’s possible to find the label the collector is researching and be able to date the American garment. Other countries will have similar offices.
Why Collectors Love Vintage Apparel
There are many reasons why collectors love antique and vintage apparel. What people wore in the past is part of history. Earlier fabrics feel warm to the touch, but that warmth is more emotional than physical. The lace, still smelling of violets and lavender, was made finer in the past and reminds us of our grandmothers. The darned button holes on a wool coat tell the story of someone who wore it often and loved it. The Edwardian white tea gown shows visual signs of the hem being lengthened and lengthened again – evidence it was worn by a young girl growing into womanhood. Collectors appreciate that history and honor it with the same care and attention the original owners paid to the clothing.