Lilah Ramzi knows how to dress with style. But not because she studies trends or spends a lot of time or money on clothing. Ramzi knows how to dress because she knows clothes. The low-key fashion historian has a masters in costume studies, worked at the Met’s Costume Institute, and is now a fashion journalist and creator of Part Nouveau. So Ramzi understands clothes in a way most twenty-something women do not. Her background in fashion has given her a deep comprehension of the relationship between body, shape and fabrics, and her present dive into contemporary fashion reporting gives hers an appreciation for styles that hold their strength over time.
“Vintage pieces are essential to any wardrobe,” Ramzi insists when we meet, placing her 1960s Jackie-O style pillbox hat on the table in front of her. She’s clearly the kind of woman who practices what she preaches. Her timeless, vintage pieces mix seamlessly with modern classics, giving her the undefinable look of someone who exudes style with (seemingly) zero effort. That zero effort look however comes with years of study and practice. Ramzi is a vintage clothing aficionado, and in her time combing stores for pieces, she’s come away with a few invaluable skills. She knows how to pop into a dinky looking thrift shop and come out with a rare Missoni dress from the 70s that’s only one replaced button away from being in mint condition.
“Seventy dollars,” she says, showing me a picture of this particular find.
“Why would someone give that away?” I ask her, having no understanding of how the vintage world works.
“Some people don’t understand the value of what they have,” she says. “And if you’re lucky, the store doesn’t understand the value, in which case you walk away with a $70 dress that was once worth hundreds.”
Having knowledge of fashion history, labels, and quality when you walk through the door of a shop gives you an edge in vintage collecting that, in some cases, even the store owners don’t have. Ramzi is the kind of fashion scholar who knows the importance of a quality zipper, and which fabrics age best. It allows her to spot the quality in the midst of a thrift store packed with a whole lot of quantity. Most modern pieces, she tells me, just don’t stand up.
“Sadly, you will learn that craftsmanship has gone out the window (unless you’re shopping designer),” Ramzi says. “An affordable, department store dress for a woman in the 60s would come with all the trimmings, lining, finished hemlines, and darts in all the right places. In today’s counterpart, you’ll get a cheap exposed zipper that’s more of a cost-saving measure than a fashion statement.”
Vintage shopping, Ramzi insists, is not all label hunting. It’s having an eye for quality. It’s knowing what hardware is replaceable and how to tell the difference between a diamond in the rough and yesteryear’s trash. But it’s also about individuality, finding your own unique style. When you have vintage pieces mixed into your wardrobe, it gives you a look that no one else will quite have.
“There’s nothing worse than looking like a store mannequin in a head to toe look,” Ramzi says. “Where’s the individuality in that?”
If you’ve wanted to shop like Ramzi, and pick up classic pieces for a dime, you probably know that it’s easy for the novice to get intimidated by the process of searching for timeless style in what can seem like piles and piles of rubbish. So I spoke to Ramzi about how any of us could use her vintage expertise to dive in the thrifting world. Here, she gives us her insight into successfully building out a contemporary wardrobe with vintage pieces, and how to be stylish without being trendy.
Where are the best sites to find quality vintage rather than just old clothes?
Shrimpton Couture and 1stDibs are hands down the best resources. Otherwise Etsy —though note that patience and time are a prerequisite to Esty shopping. The more you shop, the more you’ll learn various search terms to find exactly what you’re looking for. It’s best to start narrowing down by decade and from there it will get easier to find what you’re looking for.
What should you look for while shopping vintage online?
Look for pieces that speak to you. I have a rule that I don’t purchase anything unless I am absolutely enchanted. That said, vintage shopping is a now or never transaction. Things tend to go quickly and obviously inventory matters. Before I add anything to my cart, I ask myself if I would be deeply disappointed if I came back tomorrow and the piece was no longer for sale. This helps me edit my own wardrobe. Vintage is a look and you must absolutely love and own whatever piece you wear, otherwise you risk the piece wearing you.
What should one avoid while shopping vintage online?
There’s not one piece or genre of vintage one should avoid. However, there are certainly things to keep in mind and ask sellers, especially with early 20th century pieces. If you’re buying a 50s dress, is the garment displayed with a crinoline? Undergarments can drastically affect the look and you should know what you’re getting. If buying 60s and 70s, be sure to check fiber contents — polyester was at its prime in these decades and while a blend is perfectly chic, 100% polyester could leave you looking a bit too retro. As you turn the clock back to the 20s and 30s, know that certain silks were treated with harsh fabric dyes that cause the fibers to essentially disintegrate. And when purchasing furs, especially before fabric and fiber contents identification laws were implemented, you’re never quite sure what fur you’re wearing… which can be slightly unsettling.
What is worth splurging on?
Anything you absolutely love. Pay no mind to designer labels, these really became a fashion commodity in the 70s and many pieces before that were manufactured by regional department stores. And before you splurge, do some research. Many trade shows and flea markets are marked up for the novice vintage shopper.
What vintage trends keep coming back?
It seems the 60s and 70s come back in the most wearable ways. Modish shift dresses and wide leg pants with wide brim hats are bound to surface. The 80s seem to make superficial comebacks on the runways but never really filter down to the street — the lack of shoulder pads might not be the worst thing though.
What vintage trends should stop coming back?
I think there’s a time and place for everything and I appreciate every decade to some extent, especially revivals a la 80s does the 50s. That in mind, I’m not ready for an early Aughts redux. I experienced that first hand and don’t feel the need to relive those fashion days, even in the name of irony!
If we want to purge our current wardrobe, what should we hold on to? What’s timeless?
I wouldn’t necessarily think in terms of classics or staples or follow any “10 things everyone should own list.” Instead, I subscribe to the Marie Kondo philosophy and ask myself, “does this bring me joy?” That said, I’m not a minimalist so I don’t think you should downsize for the sake of downsizing. Have a rack of clothing where each piece makes you feel something. For me, clothing is truly transportive so if it doesn’t take you anywhere, throw it in the donation bin!