Back in the mid-1970s, when Margaret Wilds was a teenager and first became interested in wearing vintage clothes, finding incredible pieces — those considered extremely rare by today's standards — for cheap at thrift stores was quite common.
At that time, vintage fashion hadn't reached the fever pitch it's experiencing today, as more and more savvy shoppers look to stand out from the crowd via conversation-starting outfits, and to adopt more sustainable living practices.
"I didn't have money, like most teens, and I was looking for ways to expand my wardrobe," Wilds says. "You could get stuff for pocket change in antique stores, but back then it was called 'old clothes.' Vintage was just starting to be big in Seattle, where I grew up in the early '70s. I really, really latched onto it because my parents were into good, quality clothes."
Wilds is still very much into vintage fashion, now as a buyer, seller and collector. Since 1999 she's run her online shop, DeniseBrain Vintage, out of her central Spokane home. Wilds' Etsy storefront mostly features higher-end women's pieces from the 1940s through the '70s.
Recently, the vintage fashion enthusiast channeled her years of expertise into a book to guide vintage newbies and casual collectors on their personal fashion journeys. Wear Vintage Now!: Choose It, Care For It, Style It Your Way compiles many resources Wilds previously published on her website, denisebrain.com, about how to shop for, wear and care for vintage clothing.
"There is so much to know, even in this little book," she says. "There is fabric and mending and styles of different decades, how to wear them, how they were once worn, designers, the fit — there are so many facets to it. It fascinates me, and I've always been a learner at heart."
Wilds, 60, moved to Spokane in 1985 and was principal French horn player with the Spokane Symphony until 2001. She still subs in for the orchestra on occasion.
Her shop's name, DeniseBrain, is a play on the name of famous virtuoso horn player Dennis Brain, whom Wilds deeply admires.
"I have the same feeling for vintage that I do for music. It's a passion," she says.
Wilds currently serves as president of the Vintage Fashion Guild (vintagefashionguild.org), an international collective of sellers dedicated to the history and appreciation of decades-gone-by clothing. The guild's site offers myriad resources for both vintage sellers and buyers, many of which Wilds' addresses in detail in Wear Vintage Now!
"I was trying to explain all these things in my blog" about vintage, she says. "One New Year's, I decided to do a series of blogs about how to buy vintage, so on things like fit, and value and pricing, and how to judge a seller's reputation. Then it started to get book-like and some people said, 'If this were in a book I'd buy it and read it.'"
Wear Vintage Now! is available on Wilds' website, via Amazon and locally at Auntie's Bookstore and vintage shop Tossed & Found.
Among the endless nuances of vintage fashion, Wilds says the top piece of advice she wants readers to take away from the book is this: Vintage is for everyone.
"I want people to think they can do it. There is no such thing as no vintage for you," she says.
Addressing proper fit of vintage clothing is another main topic.
"Fit seems to be something that really gets in people's way," Wilds says. "People always say 'vintage is always tiny,' but it's not true. I've seen things for people who are very tall, very wide or both. It's not a new thing that people need larger sizes."
Because clothing sizes weren't always consistent between brands, nor numbered like modern pieces, until the early '70s, Wilds says the most important thing to know when shopping for vintage is your own body measurements: waist, hip, bust, inseam, shoulders, etc. She says to also keep in mind that clothes should be a little bit bigger than your actual measurements for ease of movement.
"Compare a [vintage] piece to the fit of something you already have that fits well," she recommends.
Most established vintage sellers post garment measurements, and sometimes sizing advice, in their listings. What someone might call a modern medium, though, might be another seller's interpretation of a size small. Handmade garments, common in decades past, were also custom-made to fit their original wearer, and that can equate to unusual sizing.
If you're buying in person, many local vintage shops have dressing rooms. Wilds also suggests bringing a tailor's measuring tape to check pieces on racks until you learn how to quickly spot your size.
How to wash, mend, store and otherwise care for your vintage collection is a third major topic Wilds' book explores in depth.
"I get questions every day like 'How should I take care of my dad's old uniform, or a taffeta dress from the '60s?'" she says. "Without tags, and not knowing the fabric, it's really hard to sort that out."
Vintage fabrics present many challenges in cleaning, like dye bleed, shrinkage and rusty buttons, but that doesn't mean you can't clean them yourself at home, she notes.
"These clothes were meant to be cleaned, not bought and thrown away like we do now," Wilds says. "All of them have some technique for cleaning, you just have to figure out the key steps to do it."
Wilds is glad to see such a widespread, heightened interest in vintage fashion. Not only is buying secondhand clothing more sustainable — garments made back in the day are also of much higher quality fabrics and construction — it makes getting dressed fun. Vintage allows a wearer to express their personality in creative ways, like mixing different eras into one outfit.
"Vintage has always had these ebbs and flows, but right now it's at an all-time high," Wilds says. "People are more aware of fast fashion and the degradation of the planet from the amount of resources it takes to make clothes, and to have things made in a country where people are paid very poorly. It's very noticeable to people now, and I think people are turning the corner and wanting handmade or vintage and used clothing. It's cool and hip." ♦