Collecting Vintage Clothing
Part II: Quality and Condition
Achieving the "highest and best condition" means that the dealer/restorer will do whatever can be done to correct the flaws in the garment, while always preserving design integrity, an oft-used but poorly understood expression. Design integrity refers to a couturier's design concept as a whole. If the garment in its original condition was a great design statement, then removing or altering an important part of the garment will negate the design statement. The magnificent House of Rouff cape shown below illustrates design integrity.
In successful design, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The exterior design uses shape and monochrome color with no ornamentation. The cape is fully lined with rich gold silk faille with ribbon-woven satin stripes in a purple that echoes in muted tones the majestic purple of the exterior. When the cape is opened, allowing a glimpse of the sumptuous inner silk, the understated opulence of the cape is revealed. The design is a triumph of contrasting design motifs, sculptural on the exterior with a masterful use of color on the interior.
The original lining is in excellent condition. But if this were not so, then the lining should not be replaced. Replacing a damaged lining in this case would violate design integrity.
More commonly, maintenance of design integrity is not a bar to skillful restoration. In fact, design integrity is often enhanced by skillful historic restoration, i.e., restoring the garment’s condition sufficiently to properly show the original design. Since few dealers can do skillful restoration, which is time consuming, they will rarely have the work done at all (very expensive!)
In this Morin-Blossier gown, areas of the embroidered tulle in the skirt front had numerous holes, causing it to sag. The restorer backed the original tulle with matching period tulle. The work was done by hand with tiny stitches and correct thread. Design integrity was maintained because nothing original was removed or changed.
Certainly, design integrity is important, especially for historic, collectible vintage clothing. But even here the skillful restorer with knowledge of historical costume and materials will often have scope to improve the garment's condition. For more recent wearable vintage clothing, the dealer/restorer has greater leeway for restoration, while still maintaining design integrity.
Recalling the definition of “vintage clothing” from my article Collecting Vintage Clothing-Part I, the central concept is "aesthetic quality." In all the arts, "highest and best condition" is integral to aesthetic quality. Thus, the high-end dealer cannot afford to be casual about the condition of the treasures that she presents to her customers.
In this example, a 1920's beaded dress was brought to its highest and best condition without changing the original design. Beads that were removed from the inner seam allowances were used to fill in spots where beads had fallen off.
Mint condition. There is no apparent damage or wear to the garment, presumably because it was never worn. Mint condition is very rare for women’s vintage clothing. Unfortunately, the term has been cheapened on the web, where Mint has been applied to undeserving items. A large high-end web site should not have more than a handful of Mint items. On the web, the terms “Perfect” and “Pristine” are sometimes used to convey the same meaning as Mint.
Near-Mint condition. The structure is completely intact. Only minimal wear from aging, shown by even the finest materials, is apparent.
Excellent condition. There is no structural damage. Only normal wear from aging is apparent.
Very Good condition. There is a minor structural flaw, which cannot be remedied by restoration; or there are surface flaws, like staining or soiling, confined to a small area. The flaw(s) are counterbalanced by another feature, like brilliant color or innovative design.
Wearable condition. The physical condition allows gentle wear. Post-1920’s garments are often Wearable. For 1920’s and earlier garments, Wearable allows very gentle wear. (Please don't do the Charleston in a 1920’s beaded dress.) A Wearable garment, when regarded as a collectible, may also be classified by any of four preceding conditions.
I do not use lesser grades of condition (Good and Fair) to describe items in the main sections of the Vintage Textile web site, where I generally present garments in the "highest and best condition," i.e., in Excellent or in Very Good condition. On the other hand, the "Treasure Hunt" section will often have items in Good and Fair (sometimes Very Good) condition.
Even when an item is marked Mint, or Near-mint, the garment is still old and, therefore, it is more fragile than a new item. Excellent condition does not mean Near-Mint. If an item has been used, it will generally have at least subtle signs of wear.
It is both unrealistic and unreasonable to expect a vintage garment to have the same durability as a new garment. Collectors of vintage clothing will often accept a few minor flaws in a garment in order to find qualities not available in modern mass produced goods, qualities such as exquisite hand work and rich, hand-loomed fabrics.
Collectors are willing to accept a tradeoff of condition vs. price. The condition of the vintage garment may be Excellent or Near-Mint, but the condition is unlikely to be Mint. However, the vintage garment for $10,000 will have extraordinary design, materials, and workmanship. True, these qualities can be found in a new haute couture garment but at an astronomical price. A grand evening couture dress can cost $60,000 or more. Evening dresses with embroidery can require several thousand hours of work and multiple fittings in Paris.
The purchaser of vintage clothing should always keep in mind these points about restoration.
- The most conscientious and diligent dealer/restorer cannot catch every flaw.
- Even when a flaw is identified, there may be no "fix" that is both economic to do and that maintains design integrity.
- For economic reasons, since time is money, "highest and best condition" is most likely to be achieved for the best, most expensive pieces, as opposed to lesser items.
- The price to the customer should reflect the condition. If it is Very Good, rather than Excellent, that should be reflected in the price and vice-versa. (There are exceptions where great design trumps everything.)
With these caveats in mind, here are a few examples of the kind of restoration that should generally be done for high-end vintage clothing at full retail price. This is not a comprehensive list, but it will give a flavor of the minimum standards for Excellent condition. This is the loving care that is owed to the treasures of our vintage clothing heritage and to their new owners.
Steaming: If ironing is not possible, then steaming is the best method of removing wrinkles. Steaming has another benefit. While steaming, I have often found flaws not otherwise apparent, since they were hidden by the wrinkles, e.g., small holes, missing beads, stains. You cannot fix a problem of which you are not aware.
Buttons and hooks: If buttons are missing, sew on the appropriate matching period buttons. Replace missing hooks.
Beading: 1920s dresses often have lost some beading. Find and sew on the appropriate antique beads. If necessary, shoulders should be backed for support, because the weight of the beads is so great. One must make sure that the weight of the beads does not destroy the fabric, which will be somewhat fragile because of age.
The lining: Replace the lining if necessary, particularly for a Wearable garment. An important collectible, however, may have more value with an original lining not in good condition. A damaged or shredded lining should be replaced in most cases, since often the original lining was of a plain solid color and was not meant to be seen. But even here one must maintain historic consistency. If the original lining was silk, then replace with silk, not polyester.
Stitching and retacking: Replace loose seam or hem or surface stitching. All repairs should be done by hand with appropriate thread, even though the original dress may have been made with a sewing machine. Vintage clothing must be gently treated.
Lace: Restore antique lace, using very fine lacemaker's thread.
Washing: Cotton and linen tend to darken with age. Soaking the fabric will generally restore the original color. Soaking may take as long as a week. Then wash linen and cotton by hand. Never use chlorine bleach. White cotton linen dresses were meant to be washed and generally can be washed.
Cleaning: The issue of dirt removal puts the dealer/restorer in a quandary. There are two very different markets for certain beautiful old garments. There is a market for collectible garments in original condition. If the garment is dirty, so be it. Then there is the wearable market, which wants the garment in pristine condition. Some garments are suitable for both markets.
The conscientious dealer/restorer faces a dilemma. If dirt is left in the garment, the material is more likely to (continue to) rot, though the garment will be in “original condition.” On the other hand, cleaning will remove dirt, but also remove the beautiful patina on metal fibers or wash out the mellow color on old lace.
Packing: Pack the garment with tender care and not just for appearances. Careful packing protects the garment and creates only a few new wrinkles.
“Easily repaired flaws”: What can I say about this popular catchall phrase? If the flaws are easy to repair, then that should be done prior to shipping. Those who do not correct easily repaired flaws accept by default the criterion of quality and condition which I call the Old Clothes credo. The garment may be made from wonderful fabric and have beautiful design. Nevertheless, the garment is shipped “as is.” This treatment of the treasures of vintage clothing does not do justice to their intrinsic worth.
The Redesign criterion for quality and condition goes to the other extreme. The Redesign credo makes a vintage garment conform to the norms of contemporary fashion by changing fundamental elements of the design and/or structure. The “redesigned” vintage garment may end up with excessive embellishment, e.g., beading that was not originally there. The neckline may be lowered to make the garment “more sexy.” A redesigned vintage garment often turns into a modern garment made from vintage fabric.
Reasonable restoration, the standard in which I believe, is the criterion that I have described by example in this article. By emphasizing honest restoration in conformity with design integrity, reasonable restoration strikes a happy balance between the extremes of the other two restoration credos.
In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, we are told that Goldilocks rejected the first bowl of porridge as too hot. She spurned the second bowl as too cold. But when she tasted the third bowl, she said that it was “just right and happily ate it all up.” I prefer to reject the Redesign credo as too hot and spurn the Old Clothes credo as too cold.
Over the years, as both a dealer and collector, I have settled on “reasonable restoration” as the criterion of condition with which I am most comfortable. I deal in those pieces whose quality and condition meet the test of reasonable restoration. Maintaining the highest quality and condition requires a great deal of work. But I have been fortunate to have found customers who share my design philosophy.