The Price of Vintage Clothing

This post was written by Lindy Shopper.

I have received a request from Laurel Carpenter to write about evaluating vintage clothing prices, based on the tendency of some vintage retailers and eBay sellers to overprice their vintage pieces. What is worth it? What should you leave on the rack or the proverbial auction block?

I have found that this becomes a very personal decision, based on your income, the priority of incorporating vintage clothing into your wardrobe, the availability of vintage clothing in your geographic area, how well the garment fits, how much you like the garment, the condition of the garment, the similarity to other vintage items in your wardrobe, the cost of any potential alterations, and occasions to wear a particular garment, among other factors. When I go shopping for vintage clothing I sort of run through a series of questions based on these factors.

When it comes to the price of vintage clothing I look at things on a sliding scale – the garment is more valuable to me if it fits like a dream, it is unique and flattering, and in great condition. And if it’s green, I’ll be willing to pay even more. šŸ™‚ However, just because it is old doesn’t mean that it is worth hundreds of dollars and just because it is vintage doesn’t mean that I’ll open my wallet any wider than I would if I shopped at the mall.

I’ll speak generally about prices, focusing on swing era garments, which are a rarity in your average local vintage store and more plentiful on eBay. Some sellers just want more money for their stuff – they either live in an area where people pay these prices or they think they’ve hit the jackpot at an estate sale and have dollar signs in their eyes. With the advent of eBay, these rarities have become more available to the masses and I have noticed the prices of vintage in my area either going down or staying the same as when I started shopping for vintage clothing, around 1999. It’s become more competitive, which is good for you as the consumer, to have a wider selection at competitive prices.

1920’s clothing, due to its age and fragile nature, tends to cost more because most of the materials in clothing from this era have deteriorated – to find something in excellent condition from the 1920’s is rare. To translate that into cost you have to consider how good the condition is and how fabulous the item – do you pay $1,000 for the beaded 1920’s dress/gown? No, no, don’t do that – would you spend that much on an evening gown? Maybe your wedding dress, but consider how old this garment is, the likelihood that the fine mesh will deteriorate, and what happens if it gets a tear or the beads start coming off? Devastating. Do you pay $200 for it? Maybe. If it fits you like a glove, you can Charleston in it without shedding beads, and you have the perfect occasion to wear it, then consider it a viable option. In a similar fashion, what if you find a 1920’s cotton day dress? How ornate is it? If it’s got wonderful embroidery or tailoring details, you might want to spend that much on a day dress that you could wear more often. Fabulous-ness and wear-ability equate value.

That said, you don’t have to spend $200 on a 1920’s dress. I have found wonderful 1920’s dresses for $80 (at Sweet Lorain in Cleveland, slate gray and cream day dress with about 50 tiny covered buttons up the front, perfect fit), for $40 (eBay, pink day dress with hand embroidered roses, my tailor had to enlarge the arm holes), and for $30 (1920’s maid uniform, black with white lace collar and cuffs, mint condition, possibly never worn).

$200 is my benchmark, I won’t pay more than that for anything vintage and I try to implement that policy here when I write about clothing on Lindy Shopper. It has to be the most fabulous thing I’ve ever seen to get me up to that number and it has to be close to the most fabulous thing I’ve ever seen to get me over $100, or I have to really, really need it for an occasion. Beyond that, it becomes unaffordable and I’ll file it with the Miu Miu and Prada dresses I want, but will never own.

The more you shop for vintage, the more you are aware of what is rare from each era and what constitutes a reasonable price. I have been sorely spoiled here in Durham with Dolly’s Vintage, which hasn’t priced anything I’ve picked up in the store over $35, but then Dolly’s doesn’t have a lot of swing era items. You may pay anywhere from $30 to $80 for a vintage 1940’s or 1950’s day dress – would you pay that much for a dress at, say…Banana Republic? Probably, maybe even more. And if it fits you better than a BR dress and it’s one of a kind, it would be worth it, right?

eBay can be tricky, since you are bidding against other people. I find that placing my maximum bid and just walking away until the auction is over is the best policy for me, which is how I acquired those two 1920’s dresses at such a low price. I can’t rely on eBay to absolutely get me what I want unless I’m willing to wage a bidding war, but you really have to choose your battles on eBay and only wage war for those items that you absolutely must have. You’ll feel it in your gut when that item shows up. There are no guarantees you will win and losing something you’d like to own can hurt, but the odds of getting something amazing are much greater overall because there is a larger selection of items.

There are also those eBay sellers who have severely overpriced their items (Buy it Now $198.00 for a cotton 1930’s day dress that is fairly unremarkable) and they keep showing up in my searches week after week after week (*cough* VioletvilleVintage *cough*), but there’s a reason the items continue to be re-listed – no one is willing to pay that much for that particular item. If no one is willing to pay that much, then why don’t they lower the price so they can sell it? I have no idea. I’ve been tempted to write to these sellers and let them know what price I would be willing to pay for their wares, but it’s not worth my time because there are so many other dresses out there.

I’d love to hear your experiences with prices, both eBay and retail, and I’d be happy to take any follow-up questions you may have. It was hard to organize my thoughts on this topic because there are so many factors that go into my decision to purchase a particular item of vintage clothing, but price is definitely a big factor.


17 thoughts on “The Price of Vintage Clothing

  1. What a great idea for a post! I have done pretty much all my vintage shopping @ Sleepy Poet Antique Mall (Charlotte)… They have a great selection in general, and I like to try items on before I buy them. I think the most I have spent there was $40 or $50 some, but only if it is really REALLY remarkable. Most of their skirts and dresses are less than 30. I have a really tough time justifying spending more on an item than I would spend on it in other circumstances. Like you said, would you spend that much on a dress from Banana Republic? I am a thrift store girl, so…probably not. Unless someone else wore it for years first and then donated it to Goodwill… šŸ˜‰

    Glad for the reinforcement though!

  2. Hi guys, i do apologise if this sounds like a self advert for our site. the thing is; we just launched an online vintage store( and our biggest challenge is pricing the items just right for our shoppers.

    this is where you guys come in, any feedback you can give us would be much appreciated. like yourselves, one of the reason we decided to set it up was because we were tired of paying over-the-top prices.. to find bargain we would have visit soo many thrift stores.. the legwork is sometimes demanding.

    tell us what you think.

  3. Hi, I own a beautiful dress, from the 1940’s. Hand beaded, lined, in immaculate condition. I mean like nobody ever wore it. It weighs about 15 pounds though. I was wondering how much I could get for it?

    1. I’m not an expert in pricing vintage clothing, but I can tell you that it’s only worth what people are willing to pay for it. If I were listing it on eBay, I’d probably start the bidding at $50.00. Aside from that, in terms of a listing price, it could vary widely, depending on where you are located and the market for vintage clothing in your particular area.

  4. This column definitely holds up well! Still apt! My one additional consideration is…for what will an item be worn? Wearing a vintage dress or outfit to a wedding or even to work is different than wearing that item to do something sweaty and athletic (Lindy or Bal!). For me it’s a question of whether the item will hold up, stain, tear, or be difficult to clean. Thus sometimes I would prefer a repro item with new threads, zippers, seams, and cleanable fabrics.

  5. While I get the allure of vintage (history, connection to the past, the ghost of the original owner!) I don’t think I could bring myself to dance in 90-year-old beaded silk. Aged textiles are inheritly fragile. The idea of damaging a piece of history horrifies me. Rather, I think the best use of vintage clothing is to preserve it and use it as a pattern for copying. Admittedly, this presupposes sewing skills or sufficient funds to purchase intricate bespoke garments. The price of such garments is astounding to Americans used to garments produced by starving oppressed Chinese labor. I used to complain about the prices of garb at the Renaissance Faire. Then I made a period outfit for my daughter. It took me a week and cost me $100 in material (not even the best materials). Even if I was only paid minimum wage for my seamstress skills the cost of that outfit would be in excess of $500. That hard won understanding of the labor involved makes me just that much more unwilling to endanger a piece of history.

    1. The beaded silk garments are almost impossible to find in a condition where they could be danced in, so people just don’t dance in them, they wear them for other less strenuous events – 90 year old cotton, however, can be surprisingly resilient and some of those garments still have a few dances left in them. šŸ™‚

  6. I have a long sleeve red silk Geoffrey Beene sheath dress from i believe fall/winter of 89-90. I purchased the dress in dec of 1990 at Neimans Last Call. It was worn one time and is in excellent condition. I have not seen another dress like it online and have no idea what i could sell it for. Any input would be greatly appreciated.

  7. Hi, how much would you value a hand painted 50’s dress at? If there was a way of sending you the link to the dress I’d like to do so, but if not a general assessment would be much appreciated! Thank you!

    1. I’m not in the business of valuing clothing, only making personal assessments of whether or not something is of value to me to spend my money on, which is entirely subjective and personal, sorry! The value will depend on the market, the means of selling, the condition of the garment, the uniqueness of the garment, the size, and I’m sure there are other factors. You may do better to visit a vintage store near you or watch online sales/website/auctions to get an idea of what you might charge for it.

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