many people ask me where my love and knowledge of vintage clothes began. for a while, i found it difficult to pinpoint. as long as i can remember, i’ve always been drawn to fashions from bygone eras, poring over the descriptions of decadent garments from the past in my favourite books, or oggling the outfits in old advertisements i found in tattered magazines or black and white films. it wasn’t until i began thrifting on my own as a teenager in small town ontario that i realized vintage clothes belonged in my closet, on my body – not just in storybooks and period pieces. but my knowledge of them? that has a very different starting point; not in books, but in very much in the flesh.
i first found out about ottawa’s vintage clothing fair from a little flyer in an antique shop in peterborough, back in 2005. i had seen a smattering of vintage clothes here and there in antique shops, or had stumbled across the rare find in thrift stores, but had never been to a vintage clothing store, let alone an entire bazaar or fair. i had some cursory knowledge thanks to helpful folks in livejournal communities, namely vintage_look and thriftwhore, where i learned things like how zippers or buttons could tell you what decade your find was most likely from, along with what was valuable and what was a dime a dozen.
but the stories behind the clothes, what decades they are from, the real nitty-gritty? those are the kind of things you learn about from meeting and talking to vintage sellers. and once a year, a great gang of canadian vintage sellers bring their best wares to the ottawa vintage clothing fair, ready for all the grubby hands and curious questions.
now that my closet is pretty much full and my bank account still tight, the appeal of the vintage clothing fair for me now isn’t so much the shopping experience: it’s the people, the stories, and how much you can learn about vintage clothing. as much as i enjoy browsing gorgeous garments on etsy, it’s not quite the same as touching 1930s velvet, as seeing the vibrant colours of the prints, asking the seller the story behind the item.
not to mention the venue! this year i hear it has changed, but in years past it has been at the chateau laurier. absolutely gorgeous.
this will be my fifth time attending the vintage clothing fair now, and i still vividly remember the stories behind most of the items i’ve purchased there over the years. here are most of them:
this dress no longer fits me, but i think it is one of my all-time favourite finds. i think i paid something like 40 or 50 dollars for it, since it wasn’t in the best of condition. the last time i could squeeze into it was shortly after i had been very ill and lost a lot of weight, and luckily holly norris took these beautiful photographs of me in it then.
one of my favourite fall dresses!
the story behind this strange skirt is what really makes it.
the woman who sold it to me told me it belonged to her aunt. (background: usually, when you buy vintage, it is kind of standard to ask if it came from a smoke-free or pet-free home, but you usually don’t get this much detail) she went on to tell me her aunt was a devout jehovah’s witness, who never smoked, drank, or married. this seemed like a bit of a “wink wink nudge she died a virgin” type situation. all of these factors did not make the garment pristine, however. it has little stains around the waist, but that makes me love it even more (and made it affordable; it was originally priced at $40, then marked down to $30, then i snagged it for $15) and the story makes it all the more precious to me. it makes me want to be particularly debaucherous every time i wear it.
most of the other items i’ve purchased were earrings or small pieces of jewelry, some of which i’ve unfortunately lost, like this precious brooch:
another thing i thought about last time i went with annemarie back in 2010 was how the online market for vintage clothing in the last few years (or as i often refer to them, the “post mad men” years) had become slightly oversaturated, especially with lax rules about what constitutes “vintage” over at etsy. it’s not rare to see pieces from the 80s and 90s online listed as vintage, but you don’t really see that at the fair. it is not rare to come across top hats from the 20th century, or halloween costumes from the 30s! and even though that’s not what i go there to buy, it is fascinating to see such quality vintage goods all in one lovely place.
tips if you attend a fair like this one? i’ve told a lot of friends to go, so i’ve given these tips out before:
- arrive on time, and with cash. there is an ATM on site but who likes to pay those overcharge fees anyway? i tend to be very strict with my budget, and only take out as much cash as i can spend. that way you can’t splurge on a 300$ gown you don’t need and will wear once just because you saw it and it fits you and it is beautiful.
- dress for the occasion. now this doesn’t mean getting decked out to the nines, trying to impress fellow bargain hunters with your gorgeous duds. if you’re going here to buy things, you will be trying them on. so dress appropriately! wear something that’s easy to slip in and out of. i almost always wear a slip, so i can know how much wiggle room i have.
- ask questions. as i said, i learned almost everything i know about vintage from asking sellers question after question. it can be short and sweet, just asking what decade a dress is from and how they know that, or you can go into detail.
- be patient. give yourself a lot of time. in my experience there have always been large crowds, whether you show up at 10 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon. take your time, don’t let people push you, and be polite with others.
- be gentle with the goods. most sellers will ask you to leave a piece of id behind when you head to the change room, but what they really want from you is to be gentle with their items. try on dresses by putting them over your head, not stepping into them. assess whether the garment has stretch to it or not before jerking at the seams. don’t force it. there are literally thousands of other items for you to try on, you’re sure to find at least something that suits you.
- don’t take photos of yourself in the change room. or do. whatever. if you’re anything like me, however, these photos will lead to you kicking yourself five years later as to why you didn’t buy that gorgeous dress.
now you’ve got almost a week to prep – november 18th – off you go, and be sure to show me your fantastic finds after you’ve conquered the crowds! see you there.