The Insiders' Guide to Buying Vintage Denim
The latest "It" item has been spotted on everyone from musician Solange Knowles to stylist Vanessa Traina Snow to Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine to model Laura Love, and shows no plans of slowing down. What are they, you ask? No, they're not the newest bag or must-have shoe, but, rather, vintage denim—specifically heritage Levi's 501s and 505s. High in the waist, tight in the butt, and relaxed in the leg, these styles are the antithesis of the skinny jean and suggest a fresher take on what is considered sexy.
Bliss and Mischief designer and founder Hillary Justin credits the newfound hunger for authentic denim to their “one of a kind” quality. “For so long we’ve been in this upswing of very mass produced clothing and anything is available to anyone at anytime, so now the pendulum is swinging the other way,” she says. “To have a piece that’s only your own, that’s perfectly worn in and lived in is a hard thing to go out and buy. It sets people apart.” Knowing how elusive vintage denim can be—blink and you can miss it—we spoke with Justin and Jean Stories founder Jane Bishop to help you think about what to consider when finding your perfect vintage pair.
Know Your Vintage
People define vintage differently, depending on the category of fashion in question, but for women's denim, Bishop says “vintage is anything that dates before 1980, which is the year that Levi's started making 501s for women.” Justin’s golden rule is “anything that’s about 20 years old or older,” but that’s not to say to discard pieces from the late 1990s. “There were some really great fits back then,” she adds. Levi’s with the Big E on the back suggest something that was made before the 1970s.
Look for a Great Wash
“Wash is great thing to start with when shopping,” says Justin. “It helps you eliminate a lot of what you don’t want.” If you are buying vintage denim for the first time, she recommends starting with a “mid-tone jean with a lot of highs and lows—denim that goes from dark blue or medium blue to a light blue where there is wear, like at the top of the thigh or knee.” She adds, “Let your eye be your guide when digging through a stack, so you don’t get overly exhausted."
Forget Your Traditional Size
“Ignore the size you see on vintage jeans,” says Bishop (older denim is much smaller than today’s sizing). Justin suggests subtracting two sizes from the label tag, if there is one, to meet your modern size. “If you have a 32 x 32, that would be probably be a today’s size 30,” she says. However, if a style is Levi’s Shrink to Fit, meaning that it was sold as raw denim and then washed to fit the original wearer, the label size is actually bigger than its true size. Thus, you might go down only one size or not at all, Justin explains. When perusing flea markets and vintage shops, she suggests bringing a measuring tape or always trying them on, but if those aren’t feasible options she says, “put the waist band around your neck to make a big denim necklace.” The reason? “If it overlaps a little bit, they should fit you in the waist, if it doesn’t, then it is just too small,” she explains.
Don’t Be Afraid to Make Adjustments
“When making alterations, be sure to go to a tailor that specializes in vintage denim,” says Bishop. Her picks are 7th Bone Tailoring in New York City or Denim Doctors in Los Angeles. For her part, Justin offers Denim Revival in L.A, which saved a pair of men’s railroad overalls for her. A common adjustment is length, says Bishops, but she emphasizes “to always keep the original hem.” Justin agrees, “Move the hem up the jeans to show off those great highs and lows,” she says. “The top of the ankle is a flattering length on everyone, and a good way to tell if that’s the right length for you is if it’s a 28 or 29 inseam.” Tapering the leg is another easy fix if you are petite, says Justin: “I have clients that are really tiny and the thigh is just too overwhelming on them, so they take it in an inch, so they’re not swimming in their jeans.” As for the waistband, Justin proposes making it smaller only if there is a little gapping and the fit is right everywhere else. And if the style is still too slouchy, moving the pockets up is possible, but it might leave dark wash marks where the pockets used to be. “I like a slouchy, not overtly sexy feel,” Justin says. “It’s not a super commercial look, but I think it looks great.”
Where to Look
Bishop has had the best luck in L.A. at Chuck's Vintage and What Goes Around Comes Around. Justin suggests heading to the white section of the Rose Bowl Flea for the best selection. As for online, Bishop recommends the Urban Renewal collection at urbanoutfitters.com and Justin suggests Etsy because measurements are visible on their site.
Know Your Budget
Obviously, the price in vintage denim can range—Justin once bought a pair of painted, beat up no-label jeans for $8 and hand-patched Wrangler’s for $250, so “anything goes that excites you,” she says. Still, at most fleas, vintage 501s run about $20 to $40, she says, but prices are going up because they are becoming more covetable. Older Levi’s styles with the red line selvedge trimming are even more grab-worthy and start at around $80. Special details like the Big E on the back or chain stitching further increase the price.