Scavenging your way through thrift stores and consignment shoppes for secondhand clothing can be a rewarding and self-affirming activity for #menswear enthusiasts. Others, like recording artist Macklemore describe thrifting as, “savin’ my money and I’m hella happy that’s a bargain, bitch.” Whatever your reasons are, if you’re smart about it vintage shopping can pay serious dividends.
I say that thrift shopping can be rewarding because in addition to being able to snap up everyday items at a fraction of their retail price, from time to time you can stumble across rare or unusual vintage pieces that simply aren’t available “new”.
I also consider thrift shopping to be a self-affirming exercise because as #menswear enthusiasts we consider ourselves to have something akin to “insider information” on fit, style and quality. Accordingly, when you roll out of a Salvation Army with a tweed sport coat you paid $12 for, you feel like a champ because the hours you spent on the blogosphere arriving at the conclusion that an undarted, 3-2 role lapel, hook vented jacket is worth having just paid off.
Unfortunately we don’t all live in San Francisco, New York or any other meccas of #menswear that come to mind. I live in Vancouver for example – somewhat of a hinterland for classic #menswear, and the “trad” lifestyle generally. Put simply, my trips to the secondhand shoppes aren’t quite as fruitful as our friend over at Broke and Bespoke who shamelessly flaunts his weekly hauls of tweed jackets (he picks them up by the half-dozen I gather) and Etro ties that he gets for the price of a cup of coffee.
Indeed, for the rest of us vintage shopping is a grind; you can’t remember the last time you actually found anything nice, but the faint memory that it did happen once keeps you coming back. Thrifting is trickle-down economics: if the gentlemen at the top of the top of the food chain in your area don’t dress particularly well, there’s little chance that their cast-offs that end up in your local used clothing store will be worth purchasing.
The body of literature available in the blogosphere advising on thrift shopping is voluminous, with posts by PutThisOn and Broke and Bespoke coming to mind as particularly informative. Nevertheless, on the topic of sourcing used sport coats and suit jackets I volunteer three further observations:
1) When you pick a jacket off the rack your primary focus should be on the jacket’s length, and how it fits you across the shoulders. This applies to purchasing jackets “new” as well. These are the two “gatekeeper” criteria, and it’s binary system – either the jacket fits across the shoulders, and is the right length for you, or it isn’t. It’s a matter of yes or no – there is no “sort of” for these crucial jacket dimensions.
Block from your mind fabric, colour, brand and other considerations until you have arrived at this simple “yes or no” conclusion. If the answer is yes then you may pass Go and contemplate what further work needs to be done to improve the overall fit of the jacket.
If the answer is no then put the jacket back. No amount of tailoring is going to make your size 40 shoulders fit naturally into a 38 jacket – no matter how beautiful it is. Likewise if you’re a 40 regular, don’t buy the 40 tall.
A smooth and natural fit across the shoulders of any jacket is fundamental: too tight and you’ll see weird ridges, too big and the jacket will sag. Neither look is flattering, and neither can be cured by tailoring. Attempting to adjust the length of a jacket will throw off its “balance” and is not advisable. I suppose a tailor could try and let out the bottom of a jacket by an inch or so, or take it in by the same margin, but my old tailor refused to do this for me on more than one occasion.
Jackets are designed with proportions in mind like the distance between hemlines and pockets, and the jacket buttons and your waistline. If you attempt to change these ratios the “balance” will get offset and won’t look quite right.
2) If you’ve found a jacket that fits you across the shoulders, and the length is right for your torso, your next consideration is sleeve length.
I don’t think I’ve ever tried on a jacket that I haven’t needed to take out at least a half inch on the sleeve.
This is where you need to be careful when looking at jackets made of materials other than wool. Wool (worsted or otherwise) is an ideal fabric for jackets because it doesn’t crease or fade as easily as other materials. Cotton on the other hand will crease along the cuff, and may be more prone to fading.
The photo above is a good example what does this mean for a vintage shopper. I bought this jacket thinking I’d have no problem taking the sleeves out. I was wrong. That crease isn’t going anywhere. If I went ahead and had the sleeves taken out anyway I’d be left with ridiculous looking slightly discoloured rings around my cuffs. Terribly unbecoming.
With wool on the other hand, like in the photo below, the problem isn’t as pronounced.
At the very least before you leave the store with your new jacket pull the end of the sleeve open a little to take a look at the difference in colour between the exposed fabric, and the fabric tucked underneath, and consider whether there is a crease separating the two that’s too rigid for a steam iron to press out.
3) When buying used clothing you don’t get the benefit of a marketing campaign, a salesperson, or running commentary on the blogosphere to inform you of the quality - instead you have to rely on your instincts and brand reputation.
When in doubt over the bona fides of a garment, try focusing your attention on evaluating the workmanship of the little details. This is a trick my old tailor got me on to. How are the labels sewn on? How are the buttonholes finished? What are the seams like in the places no one gets to see? While not necessarily determinative of a well-made garment, the level of care put into the lesser aspects of the jacket is a pretty good indicator of what sort of price point the garment was manufactured for.
As you can see from the label on this Saks suit, no one in quality control at that factory cared how the labels were cut or sewn. Makes you wonder what else they didn’t care about on that run of suits.
Every aspect of a mass-produced garment has a dollar value attached to it. If a suit manufacturer bidding on a contract needs to cut costs – the quality of buttons used, or whether or not the lapel buttonhole will be functional – are easy ways to shave off a few dollars per unit. Individually these minor irregularities or shortcomings may not be noticeable, but when examined in aggregate they can leave you with the conclusion that the jacket you’re holding was made on the cheap.