Vintage aficionado Renee Zellweger

There is nothing more frustrating than asking someone where she got her amazing dress, and hearing her remark “oh, it’s vintage.” She is basically telling you that the dress is hers and you will never have it. As someone like who doesn’t like to spend all day searching for the perfect outfit, I find this highly annoying. Like shopping for electronics or kitchen appliances, I like to do my research, then get in and get out as quickly as possible.

But vintage clothing is different. It is an art with its own set of criteria and its own connoisseurs. So as part of my ongoing journey to dress better, I have enlisted 2 specialists to help me navigate through the world of vintage. Pamela Castillo is the co-founder of Market Publique, the online marketplace for vintage clothes (think eBay for vintage) and Sammy Davis, proprietor of online vintage shop Sammy Davis Vintage.

Lesson 1: Vintage Does Not Mean “Used”

The first thing I learned is that vintage does not mean used – that is, already worn – clothes. Just because you snapped up an old dress as the Salvation Army does not mean you have a vintage item. Vintage clothing refers to clothing that is between 20 and 100 years old. Anything over 100 years is considered antique. Anything under 20 is crap. Just kidding – it’s either new, used, or just on deck to become the next vintage stunner.

“20 years is a good number to have items cycle back into fashion,” says Castillo. “For example, you probably don’t want to be wearing a trucker hat circa the year 2000 right now, but a ’90s floral mini dress may be ripe for revival.” Also, items need not to have been previously worn to be considered vintage. If by some miracle you discover a warehouse full of 1960s Pucci dresses that never got sold, that merchandise is considered deadstock, and yes, still vintage.

Lesson 2: Vintage Can Be Integrated Into a ‘Modern’ Wardrobe

“Wearing vintage clothing is not about looking like you stepped off the set of a period piece movie,” says Davis. “It’s about integrating styles that are original and unique to your tastes and fashion values.”

Fashion goes in cycles, so there is sure to be something from the past that will fit into your current wardrobe. “For example,” says Castillo, “the strong shoulder trend is a nod to the ’80s and/or the ’40s. So if you look at pieces from those eras, you may find something that looks like a runway look for less.”

Lesson 3: Not All Vintage Is Created Equal

You may have noticed the huge price discrepancies among vintage stores. Part of this is due to external forces that all clothing retail is exposed to, such as high cost of rent in bigger cities like New York. But there are other factors at work. Thrift stores like Goodwill may contain some high value items for a stellar bargain, but you are unlikely to find it as it will be buried under a bunch of sized XXL Bible Camp t-shirts from the ‘90s.

National resale chains like Buffalo Exchange are more selective, and a bit more pricey, but you are probably more likely to find a Forever 21 jacket from last season than a true vintage piece. A vintage boutique may seem very expensive to the novice shopper, but oftentimes there are reasons for the high markups. First, as Davis explains, “they have curated their collection so that it’s not only pleasing to the shopper’s eye, but easy to navigate and most importantly, presented in an attractive way.”

Castillo suggests, “If you don’t know why something is priced high, ask the shop and maybe they can tell you a fabulous story of why this piece is really special and justifies the price.”

Lesson 4: Know Some Names

When assessing and item’s value, and obvious place to start is the label. Some good quality designers are familiar because they are still around today. YSL, Chanel, Norma Kamali, Azzedine Alaïa, DVF, Betsey Johnson, and Ferragamo are all great brands that have many vintage treasures. Other brands, such as Claire McCardell or Bonnie Cashin, are more obscure because they’re no longer around.

But it’s not only high-end that’s making a come-back. “Surprisingly, mainstream stores like Express, Structure, Gap, Saks, Nine West, Anne Klein, DKNY, and others carried fabulous pieces in the 80s and early 90s that are making a style comeback today,” says Davis.

Names are helpful, but remember, they are only one tool. Castillo warns, “Just because it’s designer doesn’t mean it’s good. There are some amazing, ground-breaking Pierre Cardin pieces from the ’60s, and then there’s the awful licensed Pierre Cardin from the ’80s. Research is key to getting to know labels.”

Lesson 5: Make Sure It’s Not Junk

Because vintage clothes have been around a long time, it’s important to inspect the item a little more thoroughly than you would a new item.

“Make sure to review zippers, buttons, seams, fabric cleanliness and durability, etc.” says Davis. Castillo agrees.  “If something is in bad condition with stains or holes, it’s still junk even if it has an Oscar de la Renta label in it. Items made from natural fibers that have good finishing on the seams are usually better than things that are serged together. I look at fabric, construction, label and condition, plus of course, the style of the piece. If I wouldn’t wear it, I don’t pick it.”

Lesson 6: Enjoy the Hunt

The great thing about finding a vintage piece is that you, like the girl from the beginning of this post, know no one else will have it. I guess searching for special items may not be a time-suck after all. Sure it may take longer to find, but once you have it it should last for years to come. I mean, it made it this long, right?

“The hunt is very addictive,” says Castillo. “You go looking through piles of things that people think have no value and you find an amazing piece that has value to you for a great price – the feeling is fabulous. Like eating good chocolate.”

Brooke Moreland is the cofounder of Fashism.com.