Do you know your Bertex from your Biba? Could you spot a Forties wiggle dress from a pile of Eighties puffball prom dresses? There’s one lady who can, and unsurprisingly she makes her living from it! Author and vintage fashion expert Naomi Thompson shares her insider tips on what to look out for when shopping for vintage dresses.

I often get asked, “Where do you buy all your lovely vintage from?” The truth is there is no one magical answer. I don’t have a secret dealer who I swap frocks for god knows what, so I tend to tell people how to buy vintage instead.

Anyone armed with a few good tips can go to a car boot, charity shop or market and sort the Bertex from the Biba. Only last week I found a Fifties dress with hearts on it, and the sexiest black wiggle from the Forties, so without giving it all away here is how you can build your very own collection the clever way.

Start small and make a list of  places to target in your area. Church sales, fundraisers, car boots, charity shops, anything that people will empty their attics into. Weekends are great for this kind of excursion but make sure you’re there first to snap up the good stuff.

Once on location make sure you follow my five golden rules for buying:

1. Don’t be afraid to rummage

It’s hard work but those tea dresses under the Superman duvet are not going to fling themselves at you. Rummaging allows you to shop with your hands. It’s a bit of a no-brainer but the excellent fabrics used before mass production will always feel nicer than later materials and will help identify the age.

2. Always, always hold things up to the light!

Any holes will instantly appear. Have you noticed vintage shops can sometimes be quite dark places?

3. Check the armpits

Sweat bleaches and yellows fabric. This is a major problem with old clothes. Check the seams as well.

4. Ask questions

If you see a nice item ask the seller where it came from. They may just utter the magical words: “I have suitcases of these at home from Great-Granny Maud.”

5. Look at the label

Check for labels and swot up at This will help you value an item but also sort the genuine vintage from the new wave of replicas that came out in the Eighties when the Forties and Fifties came back in style for the first time. A pretty tea dress with a Clockwork label will not be WW2.

I made a few mistakes when I started out. I thought it was ok ay to buy damaged goods and do them up. They are still under my bed gathering dust. Always get the best quality you can afford unless you are a talented seamstress or you are happy doing that as a hobby. If the damage is a seam that needs re-sewing or a small hole in a hem that can be taken up, that’s not too bad, but point it out to the seller and they should lower the price.

Soon it will become a second language to you and your vintage radar will be so finely tuned that you will spot a real tea dress a mile off. You’ll wonder why you ever even bothered with the high street!

2 Responses

  1. Mary Kincaid | Zuburbia

    These are great tips!

    And while knowing fabrics helps will help with rummaging, it’s also helpful when you’re shopping at a thrift store.

    I sometimes get strange looks from other shoppers because as I walk the aisles of clothes in thrift shops I run my hands down the aisles as if I were playing the piano keys on a piano. Over time, you develop your vintage Spidey-sense so that a quality vintage fabric will literally stop you in your tracks!

    Also, be cautious with items that have their labels cut out. Often, these are “vintage-inspired” items of more recent years that are trying to be passed off as authentic vintage clothing.

    Mary Kincaid |