Vintage: you love the movies, you wear the clothes, you’ve even mastered some pretty fancy hair, so what’s next? Topping off your vintage look with the right accessories can be fun, but it can also be a challenge. In particular, just what sort of bag should a girl be carrying? Candice Deville has a guide on how to find the perfect vintage bag.

You could just make a beeline straight for your favorite auction house and snatch up the first thing that takes your fancy, or you could invest some more time and research to come away with a real gem. Before you hit those shops you need to consider two critical factors in buying a vintage bag.

Firstly, what do you want it to hold?  Tip out the contents of your current bag and make an honest inventory. It is possible that you don’t need all those old train tickets, and five lipsticks is probably overdoing it.  So sort out the wheat from the chaff and decide what is critical to the success of your day.

Secondly, what shape and sized bag do you need? The structure of vintage bags doesn’t allow for our modern habit of overstuffing. The sturdy walls, metal clasps and hinges will not thank you for overstraining them and are often beyond repair should this happen. Evaluate your list of essentials and see which items can be downscaled to fit easily into your dream bag.

For instance, instead of carrying a bulky notebook and pen, I carry a slim-line voice recorder. Does your key ring need to house the keys for every lock in your abode, or would just the house and the car do? Do you want to carry the bag in your hand all day or do you prefer being able to sling it over the shoulder?

Now you know how much you need to carry, you have a fair idea of the size of bag you are looking for.   Next, narrow it down to day or evening, casual or formal, or even something a little quirky.  These are all personal choices, but the following buying guidelines apply to all of thhem.

If you are a serious vintage collector and looking for a piece that will not only continue to go the distance, but also retain its value, knowing your labels is critical.  You need to have an understanding not only of top choice names (think Chanel, Hermes, Ferragamo) but of which bags are most iconic to that house and thus retain a better value.

Picking up a lime green quilted Chanel number may be the perfect thing for your current look, but it will not retain the value of the classic little black number. Remeber, quality is not mutually exclusive to well known labels.

You are likely to find some lesser known gems that will become the pride of your vintage wardrobe by following these simple steps:

• Stitching: Look for straps that are stitched together (not glued) in tiny, even stitches.

• Lining – Check the quality of the lining. Better bags have suede, silk or full leather lining as opposed to nylon or acetate.  Lining should be in good condition with no mildew, rips or holes.

• Frames – Look for bags with sturdy metal frames that are designed to keep their shape (these are inside the outer fabric), and often have metal feet on the bottom of the bag to prevent them resting directly on the leather.

• Hardware- Thoroughly check the clasp and all other metal hardware on you bag. Is it warped, pitted or peeling? Re-plating can be an expensive process and unless you feel the piece you have unearthed is worthy of some serious restoration money, I’d let these ones be.  The rust will continue to eat away at the metal and may even cause staining on your outfit (quel horror)! If a clasp doesn’t close properly, find out why. It may be that hinges can be tightened, magnets replaced or in the case of those twist grip closures, replaced with minimal fuss.

• While on the subject of hardware, make sure to check all zips thoroughly for rust, missing or snagged teeth and secure stitching.  Ideally you’ll be looking for bags with metal zippers, another indicator of quality.  If the zipper is less than perfect, evaluate the effort needed to replace the it. Leather bags should always be handled by a professional, but repairs to fabric bags may be within your skill set. Any skin bags, alligator, ostrich etc. will set you back a pretty packet for repairs in comparison.

• Leather – When buying a leather bag, make sure that it is indeed leather. Leather has a distinctive smell but is sometimes difficult to distinguish after it has been around the block a few times. Vinyl smells of nothing much other than plastic and doesn’t scuff in the same manner.

Leather bags can be treated to bring them back to their former glory, whereas a vinyl bag, once damaged is past worth repairing. Scuffs on leather can be touched up with ordinary boot polish, and a good leather hydrating lotion will help to restore its shine and suppleness. If the object of your affections is looking like it has been left out in the sun too long, there are leather specialist who will be able to professionally rehydrate the bag, but once again this service does not come cheap.

• Straw – Straw bags were all the rage in the Forties and Fifties, and there are some stunning designs out there for more casual wear.  When evaluating these, look for a close, tight weave, no broken or missing pieces of straw and most certainly no mildew.  Unlike your day to day work horse bags, these fancy numbers need a little more TLC to see another lifetime of use.

• Lucite- Lucite bags are the big news in collectible vintage bags at present. With their stunning glass like appeal, cut crystal patterns and multitude of finishes, these are the ones likely to catch you eye for a special occasion.

But a word of warning, lucite becomes brittle with age and the more you handle it, the more you risk breaking it. Personally, I’d save these beauties for your collection or the odd special occasion as seeing them snap could break your heart. Still, you may find a piece you’d like to salvage that is in need of a little work.

If there are broken pieces, they can be re-glued using a two-part primer and superglue mixture. Sadly, it will not be totally invisible and is not advisable for any area under constant strain or pressure.  When cleaning these bags, take care not to use any modern cleaning products whose harsh ingredients can damage the lucite or, even worse, eat into it causing pitting and colour clouding.  I simply use neat vodka on a soft clean paint brush, then a soft cloth for removing all traces of grease and dirt in the intricate pattern work.

Now that you have an idea of both what type of bag you want and how to find the best of the bunch, what next?  It is likely you’ll have your favorite vintage shops that you turn to on such an occasion, but when looking for perfection, cast the net wide.  There are lots of online auction houses that can help you quickly narrow your search, but you won’t be able to touch and feel your discoveries. If your limited to this method of shopping, ask for lots of photographs both inside and outside of the bag (don’t forget the bottom), as well as internal and external measurements.

If they are a reputable dealer with a genuinely lovely piece, it is likely that they will be happy to indulge your requests. When shopping in antique and bric-a-brac stores, the set up is often not ideal. Lighting tends to be darker, making it difficult to see faults and details. Ask to take your selection outside to inspect it in natural light. That way you will be able to see the smaller flaws that would not be obvious in bad lighting conditions, and may even uncover the odd bug or two.

Thrift shopping is often the ultimate adventure in vintage bag hunting, but be warned. With so many counterfeit bags on the market, many make their way into these stores where unsuspecting staff often jack up the price thinking they’ve struck gold.  Know you labels and you won’t get caught out paying a pricey sum for a second-hand counterfeit bag.

All that said, there is no replacing love at first sight.  So it may be a little scuffed and may smell like the back of nana’s closet, but its perfect shade of blue makes your heart sing.  And there is no replacing that.

3 Responses

  1. Jeani

    I am from Asia and I wonder what the vintage bag looks like. Do you have a close up photo? I love to see them

  2. claire

    Great feature. Would love to read something about finding modern bags that look vintage too!