How To Wear Vintage – Best kept secrets

Fashion faux pas can be avoided if certain considerations are adhered to; over 40s should avoid cheap high street vintage and look towards wearing better quality vintage designer editions;  try not be a slave to a retro look which you know will not work with your body shape; be careful of over accessorizing a look or wearing too many patterns together especially if under 5ft; body tattoos and piercings need to be kept to an inconspicuous minimum when celebrating certain eras such as the demure decades of the 40s, 50s and 60s.

To wear vintage clothing be a total purist, assume the complete look of the period, include fragrance, hairstyle, cosmetics or bring a vintage piece right up to date with the latest styling and accessories, alternatively realize successful pairing with contemporary high street and vintage high end.

The Purist

I remember in the late 80s in Dublin there was this young woman who caught my and everyone else’s attention. Why did she stand out from the crowd?  

Fashion in the 80s

Imagine a mullet haircut or big perm, thick eyebrows, wide shouldered voluminous unstructured shirts and jackets, big plastic earrings, wide legged gathered or pleated culotte pants, rara skirts, chained crucifixes, or shapeless sweatshirts and pants. 

A dedicated follower of vintage

Against that background picture a slim petite pixie faced purist, sporting the clean sharp lines of a mod bob, complete with heavily defined kohled eyes, false eyelashes, finely plucked eyebrows, dressed in a chic semi-fitted double breasted box jacket and an A-line mini skirt, green opaque honeycomb tights and square low heeled Mary Janes.   Have you got Mary Tyler Moore in your head?

Purity is a commitment

Now this young woman lived up to the 60s mod image that she obviously identified with and she deserves the name purist as she presented her vintage look impeccably right down to the gloves and handbag.  

I often wondered how long it must have taken her to get ready in the morning and how challenging it must have been for her to find new pieces that represented how she felt and still helped her to maintain that retro look that she was so committed to.  

Letting the mask slip

In fact she grew older with this era and a decade later she was still to be seen sporting the 60s mod but it just didn’t seem to work as well on her as she aged, that crisp freshness was missing and I could never work out if she had let her standards slip or if she had grown a little tired of maintaining her purist philosophy towards vintage.

The moral to this story is if you are going to wear vintage then you have to decide how committed you are and if you are going to be able to maintain it.  Nothing looks more gruesome than a half hearted attempt at purist vintage dressing, it just looks jaded.  

The Coordinator

There is of course an alternative way to approach vintage which involves taking a piece, be it a suit, dress, coat or even coat dress and combining it with the latest and most up to date styling; shoes or boots, bag, scarfs, belts, jewelry, complemented by contemporary hairstyles and makeup. 

Thereby bringing the total look right up to date whilst being totally original and unique at the same time.  

Wearing vintage in the 90s

The idea of combining vintage and contemporary is not a new one and was common in the mid 90s.  The fashion world called this look ‘Grunge’, a title I have never liked as it sounds like some unwanted surprise you have to scrape off your shoe upon your return from a walk in a public park.  


Actually I remember when ‘Grunge’ hit the catwalks, and was being publicized in all the top fashion magazines; how very disappointed I felt when I made the comparison between it and the clean lines of the mind blowing highly desirable designs from Versace made popular by the ‘fabulous four’: Naomi, Claudia, Helena and Linda. 

Think of the Versace safety pin dress, or the cute little citrus boucle single breasted mini suit, so inspiring and empowering.  What a relief in 1994 when Herve Leger who, along with his iconic Bandage dress, pushed against Grunge and its drippy attempted imitation of the 70s hippy look.

Being a victim of vintage trends

Grunge really did culminate in looking as if the wearer had rolled out of bed and pulled on any old jumble found lying around, what a mess. 

Unless you were a statuesque, long limbed, waif-like creature, you ran the risk of looking as though you were dressed in your big sister’s cast-offs and were feeling so miserable about it that you could not even manage to brush your hair but rather let it fall straggly and unkempt in your eyes.  

Finding the correct combination

In fact there were those who wore the Grunge that actually looked as though they were homeless but on the other hand, other more imaginative dressers found the joy of layering a 20s silk chiffon tea dress over a fine knit ivory sleeveless lycra wolford bodysuit, combining it with stripped or floral leggings and thick soled doc martins or shorts, and invariably topping the whole look off with a pale blue cropped fitted denim jacket and accessorizing with shades and ivory straw baseball cap trimmed to compliment, thus creating a successful pairing between vintage and contemporary.  

Sourcing the look

That was the one real bonus about 90s grunge, there was a lot more early vintage to 

choose from out there and being so readily available it was priced realistically.  Meaning that it was possible to source those twenties and thirties gossamer tea dresses and pair them very successfully with 90s leggings and leather jackets. 

Sadly now it is almost impossible to find vintage from this era in a wearable condition at an affordable price.   

Coordinator par excellence

A successful vintage coordinator will know which eBay seller, thrift shop or online vintage vendor to go to when searching for that unique item that they will work around, combining with contemporary high street pieces to create a look which is unique and invariably affordable. 

Think Laura Ashley’s 70s Prairie dress combined with this season’s hiking boots; the 80s Lady Di high necked frill blouse layered under a  2021 pants suit; Escada’s 90s military boleros and jackets teamed with contemporary jeans or cropped pants. 

The Soloist

This special individual is that fashionable talent that can recognize and utilize quality, whether it is a vintage courtier piece or perhaps one that carries the prestigious label of Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel.  

The skill of the Soloist is to carry off a vintage piece with such aplomb that we mere mortals are left feeling confused and question if it is hot off this season’s couturier catwalks and if so how did we miss such a jewel?

A flair for fashion

The ingenuity of the Soloist is such that they have a natural instinct, a sort of  intuitive timing.  While at one with the mood of a moment, very often they are ahead of the curve and the vintage piece they wear invariably seems to either have distinct parallels with the more visible contemporary versions or are very soon followed by similar styles.  

The correct measure

One of the key attributes of a Soloist is the ability to recognize the moment when less is more and this is where they get their name as they are famed for using one key vintage piece to make a statement.  The impact is heightened by the caliber of the item. 

Success lies in selecting a distinctive yet subtle piece which has the attributes of quality whilst paradoxically at the same time being of such distinct style it is impossible to assign to any particular period.  

Who makes the grade?

If the item is a quality piece any age group has the ability to wear it successfully without it being obviously fashion from another era.   Excellent fabric, cut and finish will assure that the vintage item will be capable of carrying the burden of passing off this look as one of the moment.

Vintage Icons

Think of the quality of a vintage Chanel jacket teamed with a crisp white cotton shirt and jeans or McQueen’s iconic 1995 single breasted swallow jacket worn over a plain turtle neck and fitted skirt in color block of ivory or black; Christian Lacroix’s jewel embellished dresses from the late 80s lend themselves to any age and always command stunned gazes of admiration as have my personal favorite Claude Montana and his edgy silhouette executed in color blocks giving the female form the greatest power and visual impact. 

The Soloist knows that quality will carry you anywhere and enhances the wearer.  

Obviously it may not always be possible for everyone to afford to acquire such famed vintage paragons of fashion, sourcing quality vintage items is a definite skill which requires dedication and contacts, many of whom you stumble across in online quests for vintage apparel. 

Essentially the fewer mediators you involve in sourcing your piece the more affordable it is.  Researching and unearthing less well known fashion peers from an era will bring rewards of uniqueness and timeless style.  

Sharon Cunningham

I enrolled in The Grafton Academy of Fashion and Design and studied there for six years before being taken on by a German fashion house with whom I worked for nine years, eventually leaving to return to university to complete my MA.

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