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Coat Me in Vintage

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When the first cold wind blows, so does my temptation to buy new coats, boots, gloves, and hats. A good coat—or two, or three—is something you’ll wear every day, and is thus the backbone of a winter wardrobe. But finding one that’s fashionable and warm can set you back upward of $400. And then there’s the dilemma of what type of coat to buy—a puffy down number that’s practical and appropriate for impromptu sledding trips? Or a tailored wool coat that looks great for the office or a night out? And what if I want something a bit more fun for special occasions, like a tweed duffle coat or a bright pink A-line coat?

Buying vintage can be the solution to getting quality and variety at the right price.

My first vintage coat was a ’70s-era camel-colored pea coat with a rip in the lining that I bought at the Salvation Army when I was sixteen. It was fantastic and lasted me five years, retiring to the local secondhand shop not because it was worn out, but only because I had too many coats and needed to purge. I was hooked at that first purchase and immediately bought three more coats for under $100 total. It felt truly luxurious to own a coat for every occasion, and I hadn’t even completely blown my babysitting money.

Occasionally, a designer vintage item—say, a 1956 Dior ermine cape—can cost much more than a quality piece made today. But in general, buying previously worn means buying quality at a discount. The care that was taken with making clothing in the past is largely replaced my machine and assembly-line work now. You rarely find hand-stitched embroidery or carved wooden buttons nowadays. A new coat for under $100 might start falling apart after a season, whereas you can buy a vintage coat that’ll last a lifetime for the same price.

With vintage, there’s little danger you’ll be unoriginal. Vintage clothing is usually unique. My first round of vintage coat purchases included a bright red wool swing coat with black braided trim. It was something I’d imagine Anna Karenina to wear. (I looked in vain for a black muff.) It was a head-turner, and ever since, vintage shops are my destination of choice when I want an item no one else has.

Buying vintage is more environmentally responsible than buying new clothes made from fibers grown with pesticides, from fossil-fueled synthetics, or with sweatshop labor. Buying a vintage fur, on the other hand, is a morally ambiguous decision, but if you just must have fur, vintage is undoubtedly more PC than newly shorn.

It’s easy to walk into Neiman Marcus and, thirty minutes later, walk out (considerably poorer) with a winter coat or two that meet all your requirements. Vintage shopping is a more delicate operation.

Late winter, when owners are purging their closets but competition isn’t fierce, is a great time to look for coats. But stores restock continually and often haphazardly throughout the season, so you can find a gem at any time. It pays to browse frequently.

When shopping online, know your measurements. Fit is important with coats, as they are difficult and expensive to tailor.

Most vintage items have at least one flaw. There are some problems that are fairly simple DIY fixes. Others are more problematic and may not be fixable at all, or may take more time and money to fix than is worthwhile. I was quoted $50 for a zipper replacement on a vintage leather jacket. You should avoid coats with the following flaws:

  • mildew smells
  • improper fit
  • visible underarm stains
  • rusty or faulty zippers
  • unraveling seams
  • ripped lining
  • visible holes or stains, unless you know what the stain is and are confident you can remove it
  • poor construction or mending
  • very snug fit—you could end up tearing the lining and dealing with an expensive problem

Easy fixes include:

  • loose or missing buttons (you may have to replace all the buttons, but it’s a cheap fix)
  • loose trim can usually be fixed easily

If you can live with the flaw, go for it. But don’t talk yourself into buying something or the blemish will forever annoy you. Just pass it up and move on.

Vintage isn’t always better. It can pay to look, but ultimately, if you can’t find something in good condition, don’t buy it. I cursed myself for a season after buying a very cool green leather jacket with a ripped interior pocket. When I lost my lipstick in the lining for the twentieth time, I was feeling downright murderous. And if you need a waterproof, windproof coat, it’s best to go with modern innovations like nylon and neoprene. As a recent Toronto transplant, I’m not messing around this winter––I plunked down the bills for a waterproof Burton ski jacket. But if you’re looking to expand your winter fashion repertoire, it doesn’t hurt to pop into a vintage shop or browse online. Vintage finds are like a worthwhile boyfriend––you rarely find one when you’re looking expressly for it, but if you aren’t open to the possibility, you might miss out.

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