I didn’t always have a reverence for vintage. But after I worked at Buffalo Exchange for a few years—influenced by my impeccably-dressed colleagues’ excitement any time a ’40s cocktail dress or ’50s cardigan came into the store—I caved for a dreamy lunar-print late-’50s dress, and I’ve never looked back. In fact, I’m a little ashamed to admit my former lack of love for the classic, because hell if I wasn’t missing out.
The dress fit me like a second skin, and it wasn't just luck—it was superior construction. The further back we go in history, the more clothing was made by hand by tailors and dressmakers rather than on assembly lines by machines. This also means a lot of vintage items received immaculate attention to detail. My manager at Buffalo Exchange (who rocked some of the finest classic dresses I have ever seen) once told me you can spot a nice vintage dress by turning it inside out. The seams and hems are finished with such skill, you could just as easily wear the dress this way as you could right side out.
"Vintage" is a term you can fairly apply to anything made between 1920 and 20 years before the current day. If it's older than that, it's considered antique. We are lucky in New Mexico, where the arid climate preserves cloth and helps ensure the survival of delicate fabrics. So, this is a really fun place to hunt if you know what you're looking for. Searching for vintage clothing is like mining for gold and, when you're successful, you are rewarded with an irreplaceable gem nobody else can have. And since vintage clothing is highly sought-after, don't expect to happen upon perfect finds on every trip to Savers (3294 Cerrillos Road, 919-7185). And of course, you must also be willing to shell out a bit of moolah at other places.
When it comes to style and spotting something with potential, you have to train your eye. There isn't some formula I can provide, but there are some websites you can frequent to get the vintage vibe so the right things stand out on the racks.
Like shopspanishmoss.com. The site's one-of-a-kind vintage offerings are curated to be classic and wearable, and are particularly good for newbies. If you don't own anything vintage, something easy to wear and classic is a good place to start, like a cardigan or little black dress. You can also check either shopbackbite.com or bornabadseed.com, which mix vintage and new. Both are t-shirt-heavy and lean toward rocker aesthetics, so you can get a sense for what a 1970s leather jacket should look like. If it's a dress you're looking for, visit shopdesertvintage.com to get a sense for the silky goodness.
Once you find something you think is vintage, you can check its authenticity in a few ways. Pay close attention to the construction to differentiate between a reproduction and the real thing; and remember those beautiful interior seams mentioned earlier.
Zippers are a good indicator of age, though they weren't common in women's garments until the 1930s. Zippers are found on clothing like blouses and dresses that don't always have tags, and a metal zipper is a good sign the item may be pre-1960s. If you find something with plastic teeth, it could be even older than that. Check visforvintage.net for more detailed zipper tips.
Tags and labels are a vintage hunter's treasure map, and you can date something like a concert tee pretty accurately with a quick online search. These same rules apply to Levi's. vintagefashionguild.org has an encyclopedia's worth of tags from as many brands, all listed alphabetically. If it's jeans you're after, go directly to the source at levistrauss.com and read their tips for spotting vintage denim on the Unzipped blog.
When you do happen upon that wearable piece of history, take care of it. These things are delicate, even in the desert, so baby them to the max. If you're going to hang up a vintage item, use padded hangers. Pointy corners will be the death of your long-scouted '60s embroidered peasant blouse. Woolite can be your best friend; just half a cap in a cold water bath can do wonders for that pleated skirt from the flea market.
When it comes to the "where" of hunting, there are a few local joints you can troll in hopes of happening upon a great find by luck, like Double Take (320 Aztec St, 989-8886), Art.i.fact (930 Baca St., 982-5000) or Ooh La La! Consignment (518 Old Santa Fe Trail, 820-6433). But if you're serious about finding something authentic and totally awesome, there is only one choice. You can find mention of Santa Fe Vintage Outpost (202 E Palace Ave., 690-1075) and the genius of its owner, collector Scott Corey, in places like The New York Times and the Huffington Post. Corey's Southside warehouse location was named number one on GQ's list of Top 100 Coolest Off-the-Beaten-Path Shops in America in 2015. Oh, and it's rumored to be a destination for designers (like Ralph Lauren) looking to shop for themselves.
On my most recent visit, I nearly bought a pair of '60s selvage Levis. Alas, they weren't high-rise enough for this crop top-lovin' gal. But I spent nearly an hour in the downtown store that was bursting with morning light, making the racks of vintage textiles glow in all their glory. You can find blouses, kimonos, indigo scarves and puppy-ear-soft suede vests… all of which were well over $100, but like I said—these things are treasures.