Collecting Vintage Clothing
Part I: Basic Principles
In Vintage Clothing as an Investment, we explained the reason to build a vintage clothing collection: aesthetic pleasure; social prestige; intellectual challenge; and long-term financial rewards.
In this article we focus on the nuts and bolts of creating your own vintage clothing collection. I draw on my long experience of collecting fine vintage clothing as well as my career as a vintage show dealer and now exclusively on the internet.
Those who buy vintage clothing from Vintage Textile span the range of collectors: novices making their first purchase; more experienced collectors, gaining confidence to buy better pieces; and long-time collectors who have painstakingly assembled a high six-figure collection. My experience with collectors has taught me certain principles about what works and what doesn't for the collector. I offer these principles in the hope that valued customers of Vintage Textile will in turn share their experiences with me.
Research in the library or on the internet on collecting vintage clothing will be disappointing. Although one can find many books on the topic, they are mostly catalogs of collectible items from a particular sector, e.g., glass bottles. These guides are little more than detailed inventory lists with recent retail prices.
Such books are useful if one already understands the field but have little use to those without a basic knowledge of the principles of value to be applied to building a collection. One will look in vain for a discussion of these principles.
A search on the internet for collecting guidelines yields a few generalities without nuance or context.
Clichés of Collecting
- Go with the flow.
- Buy what you like.
- Focus on a specific area.
- Experience is the best teacher.
- Buy quality.
All well and good, but what do these clichés mean in practice? Like most clichés, they contain an element of truth. "Go with the flow" presumably means to buy what's hot. This is generally a poor idea, because what is hot today is unlikely to be so tomorrow. The successful collector should be most interested in next year and the year after that but should not concern herself with next week or next month.
"Buy what you like" is an almost meaningless tautology, since one is unlikely to buy what one does not like. But here is the kernel of a useful idea. Many successful collectors do begin with the simple idea that they love beautiful clothing—to wear and/or appreciate. By finding what can be collected, over time they refine their idea of "what they like" and gradually become knowledgeable on an aspect (period or style) of vintage clothing. Starting with "what you like" will make sense if you are open to extending the scope of your appreciation.
"Focus on a specific area" is a byproduct of serious collecting as a practical art form. As the collector becomes more knowledgeable, she focuses on her developing area of expertise.
For the beginning collector:
This pretty, basic dress with its abundant lace and trained skirt has the romantic appeal of the Edwardian period.
The lace is machine-made; the dress has no special hand finishings, but it is the type of dress that is affordable and wearable.
For the developing collector:
As the collector becomes more knowledgeable, her focus shifts from finding a pretty dress to wear. She becomes more interested in the details that elevate the value of a particular piece.
This lovely Edwardian dress is machine-embroidered and has machine-lace inserts, but the work and fabric are much finer than that in the example above.
The dress is beautifully hand finished with silk-bound edges and tiny hand-crocheted buttons.
For the advanced collector:
This exquisite Edwardian gown, custom made in Paris for a member of the family of Commodore Perry, exhibits all the fine hand finishing that you should expect in an expensive gown.
The gown is fashioned from very fine sheer batiste and is completely hand embroidered with high-relief, padded satin stitch.
The long trained skirt is beautifully scalloped, following the pattern of the embroidery.
Knowledge and aesthetic appreciation go together. The latter increases with the collector's knowledge (history, provenance, construction technique). The ability to make fine judgments of value is a natural and lucrative dividend resulting from increased knowledge. Since vintage clothing is still an inefficient market, knowing gradations of quality, and therefore of value, presents opportunity to the decisive collector. Here is an example of this phenomenon at work.
In January, 2002, I sold an important couture gown from the House of Beer. I had not previously dealt with the collector who bought this elegant Beer dress. From the outset, the questions he asked about the couturier, the House of Beer in Paris, were perceptive and insightful. He already had some knowledge of the importance of Beer in the pantheon of 19th century French design.
I was able to provide additional information, not available on the web site, about the House of Beer. Founded probably in the 1870s, Beer was a recognized couture house in Paris in the first quarter of the 20th century. The name is not so well recognized as other famous Paris couture houses, although Beer was certainly at least at the second level of Parisian haute couture. Their production was not so large as that of Worth. Examples of Beer are rarer today than those from the House of Worth. This accounts in part for the high prices that Beer gowns generally fetch in the market.
This information was sufficient for this savvy long-time collector to decide to purchase an item attractively priced vs. its intrinsic financial and aesthetic value. Knowledge and experience engendered confidence, decisiveness, and smart buying.
"Experience is the best teacher." This sounds shrewd, but it can be a dangerous principle to follow. More useful would be: "experience is an expensive teacher." I know of one beginning collector, full of enthusiasm for bargains on eBay, who focused on wearable dresses under $150. Several years and thousands of dollars later, she had closets full of "fun" dresses. Her "collection" had little aesthetic or financial worth.
If she had spent one third the money on a select few items, she would have achieved much better results. The great Americana dealer Israel Sack used to say, "Bargains are expensive." "Experience," absent knowledge, can be very costly. Experience is profitable to a beginning collector only insofar as it provides practical knowledge.
A beginner with taste and discrimination can accelerate the learning process by working with a high-end vintage clothing dealer. Although it may initially cost more to do this as opposed to picking up worthless "bargains," such a relationship is less expensive in the long run, if one is serious about building a valuable vintage clothing collection.
"Buy quality" is another staple of collecting folk wisdom. When properly understood, this simple idea is the bedrock principle of collecting vintage clothing and indeed of all collecting. Let us step back and think about what we are collecting and what collecting is. Collectible vintage clothing refers to finely constructed clothing from the past; clothing that meets high and generally agreed standards of aesthetic quality.
In advanced societies, collecting objects d'art has been a recognized cultural activity since antiquity. Throughout history, collecting fine things has been an expression of the soul of the collector: to experience the beauty of art objects; to create an aesthetic whole greater than the sum of its parts; and to share with other cognoscenti the enjoyment of the collection.
The clothing in our collections is also known as "fashion" or "couture" clothing. For 3,000 years, a chief purpose of fashion, particularly of women's fashion, has been to visibly demonstrate the social power of the fashionable woman or at least the social status to which she aspires.
A key concept here is social status. Fashionable clothing has always been finely made, distinctive, and expensive. These qualities have restricted the market for high fashion apparel to those with the time, money and discrimination to acquire such clothing. Fashion was meant to reflect the gradations of status in a particular society. It is remarkable how successfully fashion has done just that over the ages.
The basic dress:
The appeal of this wonderful 1920's dress is the pretty floral print. The dress—a simple cut without hand finishings—could be mass produced and sold at a reasonable price.
From Bonwit Teller:
In the 1920s, the lady of means could go to an upscale store like Bonwit Teller and purchase this Paris-made dress.
The beautiful beading (custom tailored to the shape of the style); the extravagant skirt panels; and the two-tone under slip are characteristics of limited edition production.
The lady who purchased this expensive dress would not expect to see another one at one of her social engagements.
A couture dress from the House of Worth required a trip to Paris for custom fittings.
This dress embodies the substantial quality found only in couture, high quality which immediately bestows status on the wearer.
The complicated inner construction, possible only in a custom made garment, is the backbone of the look. The elaborate yet elegantly selective beading on the highest quality fabric perfects the impression.
Status adheres, in greater or lesser degree, to the wearer of high fashion. Likewise, status attaches to the collector of high fashion—and for many of the same reasons. It takes knowledge, discrimination, and money to know what to acquire, whether the beautiful garment will be worn or whether it will be displayed in a collection.
In the antique furniture field, the English have collected fine furniture for hundreds of years. In America, collecting of fine antiques began about one hundred years ago. The furniture itself had originally been owned by the wealthy, aristocratic classes. In both countries, the high social status of the original owners has passed, in dilute form, down to the collectors of that furniture.
Modern couture began in 1858, when Charles Frederick Worth founded his couture house in Paris. As a distinct branch on the tree of serious collecting, vintage clothing burgeoned forth only in the 1960s. Hence, vintage clothing is where fine American furniture was around 1918. Precocious and courageous collectors have begun to assemble serious collections of vintage clothing, just as astute collectors of Americana did shortly after World War I.
With this perspective on vintage clothing and on collecting as cultural expression, we can better understand the first principle of collecting: "Buy quality," concentrating on the clothing itself rather than on the activity "collecting."
This may seem so obvious as to be not worth noting. However, beginning collectors often take their eyes off the ball by getting too absorbed in the mechanics of collecting itself: bidding on eBay; buying and selling too quickly for a small profit; or obsessing about the minutiae of price differentials.
Israel Sack believed that the "best go to the best": the best antiques go to those with the knowledge and passion to acquire them. He was referring, not so much to snob appeal, as to the aristocracy of fine taste, which is open to anyone with knowledge, discrimination, and the passion to collect.
Translated to the world of high-fashion clothing, "the best" refers to the intrinsic qualities that determine value: creative and inspired design for the female form; superior materials; and uncompromising workmanship. All these qualities come together in a felicitous whole in the following example.
Worth Court Gown
Designed by Charles Frederick Worth c.1888, for Esther Maria (Lily) Lewis Chapin to be worn for presentation at a European court.
This exquisite gown and train sold to a collector for $101,500 at the Doyle Couture Auction of May, 2001.
Value vs. Price
An "efficient market" is one where information on items for sale is accurate and complete; where there are always buyers and sellers who can act quickly on perceived discrepancies between price and intrinsic value, buying under priced items and selling overpriced items.
In an efficient market, like the stock market, stocks priced below intrinsic value are quickly bid up to fair market value; overpriced stocks are quickly sold off to fair market value. In an "inefficient market," like vintage clothing, bargains may remain on the counter for weeks until noticed by a savvy, decisive buyer.
The "intrinsic value" of collectible vintage clothing is not identical to its "current market price" (cost). The latter is simply the actual sale price or the price that the item would realize in an arms-length market transaction between a knowledgeable buyer and seller, given a reasonable time to find a buyer.
"Reasonable time" is the normal time required to realize full retail market price. "Reasonable time" has different meanings in different markets: one day for blue-chip stocks; one week for lower quality financial assets; three months for residential real estate; six months for top quality vintage clothing. We may say that, compared to other asset classes, vintage clothing is a relatively illiquid asset.
Examples of valid prices for vintage clothing: actual sales by a dealer at publicly posted prices, often on a web site; or prices realized at a major auction house. In contrast, unverifiable private transactions cannot be relied on as valid market data. All the examples below are based on actual market transactions.
The relative lack of liquidity of vintage clothing means that sale price will vary widely depending on the strength of the market at the time of sale. Contrast a highly liquid market like government bonds to the market for vintage clothing. In the bond market, the seller can expect to realize close to intrinsic (fair market) value, whether the market is strong or weak. But in an illiquid market, the seller may realize well below intrinsic value in a down market; or realize well above intrinsic value in an up market.
The moral: the vintage clothing collector must be disciplined when selling. Sell when you can sell (an up market), not when you must sell (possibly a down market.) Sell, not when it is convenient to you, but when it is convenient to the market to buy. This selling discipline, together with a long-term perspective, is a prerequisite to realizing the attractive financial returns of vintage clothing. Of course, vintage clothing has other favorable characteristics that more than compensate for its lower liquidity.
As opposed to "current market price," "value" refers to the intrinsic worth of an item.
Deco Lamé Shawl
This shawl sold in September, 2001 for $1035, and would sell for more today. The intrinsic value is high because it is a superb example of period design, in excellent condition.
Because markets are imperfect, we can expect that current market price will only approximate intrinsic value. Price may be below value ("under priced"), a true bargain, like the Beer dress; or price may be above value ("overpriced.")
Charles James Velvet Bodice c.1949
This under priced James piece sold at the December, 2001 Doyle Couture Auction below the estimated value of $3000-$5000.
James incorporated this bodice style into several different evening gown designs, including the famous "March of Dimes" dress owned by eight of his most prominent clients. See The Genius of Charles James by Elizabeth Ann Coleman. This design realization in a signature James piece embodied high intrinsic value.
Whether above or below intrinsic value, price will be drawn, as to a magnet, in the direction of underlying value. Under priced items like the James bodice can be expected to appreciate in price more rapidly than overpriced items. Overpriced items will lag behind the steady upward march of value and price in vintage clothing; in extreme cases, overpriced items may even suffer declines.
As the moving target of value increases because of a variety of long-term factors (Vintage Clothing as an Investment), so market price will appreciate in an irregular manner to approximate the item's value.
The Market for Vintage ClothingVintage clothing as an asset class is gradually becoming a more efficient market because of eBay and competing high-end vintage clothing web sites. There are two long-term consequences: deviations of price from value become relatively smaller; large deviations last for shorter periods of time than in the past.
There is still enough time for the attentive collector to take advantage of bargains, as vintage clothing remains a relatively inefficient market. An under priced blue-chip stock might remain so for a period of weeks until it is "discovered." An under priced Beer dress might remain on the bargain counter for several months, though not for several years, as in the past.
As a collector's knowledge increases, her ability to discern value also increases. She will have a better sense of the real bargains, where price is less than intrinsic value. The $1,200 item may be a better value than the $365 item.
1920s Hat $365
This pretty wearable hat will probably fluctuate in a price range of $350-$400. It is priced close to intrinsic value.
Adrian Custom Hat $1200
Hats by Adrian are rare. The Adrian exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art features this design. It is under priced vs. intrinsic value.
As quality increases from Good to Fine to Superior, market price does not increase linearly, but rather geometrically: the Fine item may cost two times the Good example; while the Superior piece may cost three times the Fine one. Here is an example where the "Superior" item is valued at more than twelve times the "Good" item.
Karl Lagerfeld $465
This ready-to-wear suit is a great buy if you are looking for something to wear, but it does not have the appreciation potential of a numbered couture piece.
Balenciaga Couture $5875
The price of this 1962 gown reflects the fact that it has provenance; it has been exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and it is a rare Balenciaga.
Because the market has an inherent bias towards "affordable items", one must be especially careful in this segment of the market. Generally, cheaper items are worse values. The best quality costs more. But in a market like vintage clothing, a market in the early stages of the mark-up phase, the collector knows that her entire collection is likely appreciating at least as fast as the cost of the new items she is buying. From this pleasant perspective, she can buy the best when it comes along, even though it may cost more than it did last year.