Champagne Tastes on a Ginger Ale Budget: How to Dress Vintage for Cheap

By Adam Pajkowski | January 2019

Dressing vintage….. What, exactly, does that mean? It can mean many things to many people; mixing and matching pieces from different eras for a singly unified look of Sheer Awesomeness is the loosest possible accepted definition. It does leave room for interpretation, however.

There are those who do it to “upcycle” old pieces, giving new life to old garments, those who rock some retro band tees and party like it’s 1999, those who dress in suits that could be two years old or twenty, just for kicks, and there are those who -….well, you get the idea. The world of Vintage is still rising, I believe, as more and more budget conscious young folk (read as: broke millennials) raid thrift stores for fashion on the cheap, that is also ethically sourced (no third world slave labor, no pollutants or toxic run off during production etc).

Some people, such as myself, are on a mission; to comb thrift stores, vintage shops, eBay, Etsy, flea markets and many more places for real finds. Growing up on a steady diet of Turner Classic Movies, American Pickers, Antiques Roadshow and Glen Miller, I was instilled with a love for the past from an early age. Possibly, I also have a bit of a rosy view of the 1900s-40s that I’ve since tried to counteract with cold hard facts that no era was a Golden Age for everybody, but that’s another story. I was a dapper kid; I never wanted to take off my catholic school uniform as a kid, I wanted a fedora and trench coat for Christmas in 5th grade, and I was listening to music of my grandparent’s day rather than that of my own.

After years of this, I began to research what was actually worn during the period between 1900-1959, I began to seek these items out in thrift stores. I later found out that this was no easy task. Once I had an idea of what to look for (upon combing the interwebs for extant examples, old photos and old magazines) I was ready to find diamonds in the rough. Or at the very least, items from a more recent era in history that could pass as vintage, if done properly.

This brings me to the topic at hand; how do you look like you stepped out of great granny’s photo album if you’re broke, a large size, or simply have no idea where to begin recreating an historically accurate look from years past? It’s not easy, but it’s entirely possible.

DISCLAIMER: There will be MANY times in your search that you’ll find The Perfect Thing…..and it won’t fit. Just keep telling yourself that this is but a temporary setback, and you’ll find a New Perfect Thing eventually.

In addition, you also need to know your measurements. Easiest way to do this is to measure something that you already own. Shirts are measured from the neck end to end, shoulder seam to cuff and underarm to underarm. Trousers are measured from the center crotch seam (where you see the seams meet) to the hem of the pants leg for the inseam, and what I would consider the rise (where the waistband sits), which I personally measure from the center crotch seam to the top of the waistband. Of course, you’ll need to know your waist size, but at the belly button. Jackets are measured pit to pit when buttoned, from shoulder top to sleeve cuff, and from the tallest point of the collar to the hem. Vests are measured pit to pit, and highest point of the back to the waist. No matter the rise of your trousers, your vest should just cover the waistband, being neither too short nor too long.

I’ll be breaking this up into chunks of shirts, ties, pants, suit jackets/sport coats and hats, broken up for 1910-1929, and 1930-1959. If you want to nail a specific year, or part of a decade, pay close attention.

1910-1929: The general look is elongated, fitted and slim. If you’re very slender, then this look is for you. Not to worry; larger men can pull the look off with the proper pieces. Pieces to look out for include rounded club collars, 1980s dress shirts with contrasting white collars/cuffs, vests with lapels (or double breasted vests), high waisted, narrow leg trousers, and unstructured or soft shouldered jackets.
Shirts: I personally favor band collar or grandfather shirts, as they’re sometimes called. They simulate the look of a shirt worn without an old-fashioned detachable collar. That is what the 1980s contrasting collars look like; detachable, turn of the century collars. Try to look for stripes, small subtle geometric or miniscule floral patterns (tiny dots to suggest flowers on a light background. NOT Hawaiian prints). Stripes will also do marvelously. Checks (but not gingham. Gingham is a “country tablecloth” pattern, or a Dorothy Gale dress) will do, for an informal look. Avoid small collars if you can, if you’re trying to accurately portray a look from 1925 onward. Though they’re decent enough for a look from 1915-1924 ish. They look like the detachable collars that were meant to match the shirt when non-stiff collars were just coming into style.

Shirts from the 1990s have the ideal collar shape for post 1925. Occasionally, if you find one with the right pattern AND made of cotton, a shirt from the 1970s will work for post 1925. They have extremely long, pointed collars.

Ties: Authentic neckties from the era are easy to find on eBay or Etsy. Some authentic ties are sometimes found in vintage stores, too. Typically, they’ll be very short, compared to modern ties. They were beautiful brocade patterns of stripes, figures such as leaves, birds, animals, or were striped, made without a lining, and sometimes hemmed asymmetrically. As it’s difficult to find ones this old, try for a more modern striped tie, tied short, with the excess length tucked away from sight. An easier thing to find that’s also accurate is a skinny knit tie in rich earth tones (avoid loud or neon colors. NO EXCEPTIONS).

Pants: The typical rise of modern pants (ie; the bulk of what you’ll find at thrift stores) are around 9-11 inches, measuring from the center crotch seam to the waistband, and they sit at the hips. You need to find ones that sit at the belly button or higher. I take ones that are 6-8 inches larger in the waist than my actual size, and I take in the back seam of the pants to keep the right rise (17 inches for me, with a size 42 waist, but the measurement from center crotch to belly button will obviously be different if you’re smaller). MANY people will tell you that you shouldn’t do this. True, it does mess with the cut slightly, but it’s the easiest/cheapest way to get high rise pants these days. So long as the two back pockets aren’t less than 5 inches apart when you’re done, I don’t think it looks too screwy.

That being said, you’ll want to find wool pants, or a wool poly blend. Color and pattern is up to you, depending on the style you’re portraying (worker, middle class or upper class). For 1910-1924, they should be tapered and narrow at the leg (between 16-20 inches wide at the cuff) with no pleats at the front. Luckily that’s the style that’s in these days. Find longer ones to take them up into 2.5-3 inch cuffs that just touch the tops of your shoes.
1925-29 can be pleat front, and wider, straight legs, if you so desire. So long as they fit high on the waist, they’re fine. One trend among younger men was the wearing of extremely side legged trousers called Oxford bags. You won’t find any trousers with a leg width of 21-29 inches, so a more conservative width (19-20) is fine.

You can also take tweed trousers (a rough, nubby fabric), cut them off to about mid-calf, and add elastic to them to create plus-fours (or plus sixes or eights). They’re golf pants, essentially, with the 4, 6 or 8 referring to how much overhangs from where they’re hemmed at the knee. Be sure to wear high socks with this look. You can easily find those at any mall. Get them to stay up with sock garters that attach to your shirt. This style was favored by young men of the era as casual pants. They, too, have to be high waisted. Vests have to touch the waistband of your pants, or go slightly below. Some lone vests that contrast from your pants are sometimes from shorter men’s suits and will do well enough to cover your new-to-you high rise pants. Look for ones that match as close as possible. Double breasted, ones with lapels or plain ordinary ones will do just fine. Just don’t find one in a shiny material; look for wool or poly wool.

Suit Jackets/Sport Coats:
You have to find ones with moderately narrow lapels for a look from 1910-1925. Avoid ones from Zara or H and M. I recommend ones that lack shoulder pads or have very minimal shoulder pads. The look was for unstructured, soft and natural shapes in the suit jacket. Look for peak lapels, double breasted ‘80s-‘90s jackets (especially ones with notch lapels from the ‘80s. They’re a ‘20s revival). Look for ones that match your pants as closely as possible. Occasionally some from this past decade will have no structure to them at all, and will do splendidly. Try to find ones with patch pockets.

Jackets from 1925-29 were a little more structured, but the same rules apply. This is where belt back jackets will start to appear. They were a novelty style from 1915-1940 ish that had a revival in the late ‘60s to early 70s. Belt backs had a strip of fabric at the back, and some had fancy pleats running up towards the back shoulders, and sometimes had pleated patch pockets with flaps. You can, as I said before, use ‘60s-‘70s jackets with this style. They’re becoming rarer in thrift stores, and more often than not, you’ll find ones with lapels that are too wide for the era of 1910-29, and made in hideously ‘70s colors and are polyester. Good ones to look out for are Ralph Lauren, and Pendleton Woolen Mills. Both are extremely easy to find online, and Pendleton is especially inexpensive. They’re made with tweed, and often feature suede elbow patches and leather buttons (if they have suede in the front, by the shoulders, avoid them. That’s a western style). Replace the buttons and remove the elbow patches using a sewer’s tool called a seam ripper (be careful not to damage the fabric), and you’re all set. Look for soft rolled lapels.

If you find a jacket with flat ironed lapels, you can easily iron them flat, outward, to remove the crease and create a rolled look. I recommend strongly that you look at old magazines from the ‘20s for fit and style guides. In addition, you can see some cuckoo details to add to your jacket. One easy thing to add (assuming you can find matching fabric, be it from a fabric store, matching pants or a vest that were once part of the suit that you got the jacket from, or an identical jacket in a smaller size) and cut it up into some crazy pocket flaps to add to your jacket, or even a belt back for a plain back jacket. I recommend cutting a discreet piece of fabric from the inside of the jacket and trying your hardest to match the fabric at a fabric store. It’s easier to re-use the parts of a suit that you can still find, in order to cut it up to add period details to a jacket with matching cloth.

Hats: Hats are…tricky. The easiest thing to do is buy a modern wool or inexpensive fur felt bowler hat or a homburg. NO TOP HATS FOR DAYTIME!!! Avoid Modern flat caps at all costs. Look at 1920s photos to seek ones with accurate proportions that aren’t too floppy, but aren’t close fitting and skinny. 8 panel caps are your best friend. For summer, a boater hat (a straw flat, cylindrically crowned hat with a flat brim) or a straw panama hat will do. Real vintage fedoras are expensive depending on the age and size. True vintage hats must have a tall, straight crown and a brim between 2-3 inches. Anything else, avoid like the plague. This is one case where eBay is your friend. You have to know your head size here, as hat sizes can vary between 1/8 of an inch.

Shoes: Shoes from 1910-25 were narrow and pointy (some were blunt toed with an odd bump over the toes, like a clown show, Nicknames the turnip toe style), with higher heels and ribbon-like laces. Plain toes, cap toes and wingtips were popular. From 1925-29, both rounded and squat, square toes were popular. Each of these styles experienced revivals at some point, and are easily found in men’s shoe sections at thrift stores. (As a subcategory, belts are good, so long as they are plain and slim. They were a novelty for the 1910s-20s. Button suspenders in conservative colors were the norm. If you don’t want to bother to sew on buttons, you can use safety pins to attach the button braces. Clip on suspenders were available at the time, but were incredibly scarce. The only example I have seen were highly ornate brass clipped ones from around 1910, from Germany)

1930-1959: This time period saw the gradual widening of men’s style, and the subsequent narrowing of it again. The 1930s is highly regarded as the Golden Age of men’s tailoring. The 1940s is seen as the last gasp of classic menswear, and the 1950s saw the emergence of casualwear on an unprecedented level. Styles were relatively wide from the ‘30s-‘50s, then gradually narrowed from 1954-59 to resemble something similar to what’s worn today.

Shirts: Keep with the same patterns as 1910-29.You’ll want small, geometrics, stripes, dots or plain fabric. Long, wide collars are your best friend for 1930-1945 or so. If you have a sewing machine, you can make a spear point collar for your shirt. Simply unpick the original collar from where it meets the collar stand. If you get lucky and find the same shirt in a smaller size, you can use the fabric to make an elongated, tapered collar. It should be about 4 inches long from point to the fold line at the neck. For 1946 onward, unaltered, but still wide in comparison to today’s collars, from the ‘80s-‘00s will work perfectly. Button down collars are acceptable for this era.

Ties: For the period ranging from 1930-39, short, unlined ties were still popular. Animals, stripes, leaves etc were still popular, although creeping up in popularity towards the end of the decade were art deco motifs; geometric and angular. 1940s ties were wild and vivid. Fully lined, yet still lightweight, they featured anything from hand painted scenes, figures or wild shapes. They got a little longer, and at their zenith in the late ‘40s, they were almost 5 inches wide. These are arguably easier to find in stores, and are easy to find online. These were popular till 1953 or 54. Some ‘80s-‘90s tie brands such as Modules, and some Japanese brands were direct copies, almost down to the construction, of these ties. From 1954 to 1959, ties became extremely minimalist and narrow. Narrowing to 2 inches, and featuring solid colors with a few shapes, lines, stripes or embroidered details, these are the beginnings of the early ‘60s Mod look popularized by shows like “Mad Men” and “Pan Am”, both of which have been off air for several years at the time of this writing. Ties from this era are also easy to find on eBay in large lots, as many serious menswear collectors don’t want the narrow ‘50s ties.

Pants: Trousers are still very high waisted, up until the 1950s. Flat fronts, pleated etc were worn. Cuffs were traditionally daywear, whereas no cuffs were for business suits. Due to fabric rationing during 1942-45, some pants went without cuffs. Men during the war years either wore their old ‘30s trousers, or bought trousers liner than they needed to cuff them themselves. 2 inch cuffs reign until the 1950s, when they narrowed to around 1.5 inches. Still, you have to alter them, using the same method of taking in the waist of larger pants that I mentioned earlier. Honestly, nobody will notice your altered trousers unless they really enjoy staring at men’s cabooses. They’ll more than likely be covered by your jacket anyway. Vests still have to cover your waistline, so look for slightly shorter ones. They vanished during the war years because of fabric restrictions, but were still a staple of men’s suits from 1930-39. Look for solid or tweed. Stripes really only work with a striped jacket, and it’s difficult to match pinstripes exactly from two non-matching suit separates. Plaid, checks etc were worn throughout the era, but were common in the ‘50s. Waistlines started to creep downward from above the belly button to below the belly button from 1955-59, eventually creeping to their current position in the mid ‘60s, with some exceptions for ‘70s disco looks.

Suit Jackets/Sport Coats: 1970s belt backs are good substitutes for those worn in 1930-1942, so long as they’re wool, wool tweed or corduroy. Avoid polyester like the plague. 1980s-‘90s, big shouldered double breasted suit jackets/sport coats work amazingly well, as many of them were ‘30s-‘40s revivals. They have to have wide, high lapels for the ‘30s-early ‘40s. For the late ‘40s/early’50s, a low v opening at the chest, and narrower lapels will do. ‘70s- ‘90s single breasted jackets with high, wide lapels will work for 1930-1949. They have to button someplace around the area of your heart, same as the high-button double breasted jackets must cross over around the area of your heart.

1950-50 saw the decline of wide lapels and big shoulders. Look for a softer shoulder and narrow lapel like for 1910-24. You’ll probably be more likely to find actual 1950s pieces in thrift stores these days, but supply is dwindling. ‘80s-modern suit jackets will do fine for the era, with more modern ones especially working for the late ‘50s. Feel free to get wilder with your patterns for ‘50s. Checks and fabrics with flecks of other colors were popular. Stick with colors like blue, brown, grey, black and earth tones.

Hats: Tall, straight crowned hats were still popular, and remained so till 1955 or so. ebay is still your friend for the era, again, with size and shape defining the price. ‘50s hats are pretty much a dime a dozen on eBay, but if you can’t afford that, those modern narrow brim hats will work excellently for 1955-59. Homburgs were worn till the ‘40s for plausible informal daywear. Bowlers for daywear died out unless you’re in the UK. The fedora reigned supreme, as did the boater and Panama hat.

Shoes: Wing tips and cap toed shoes remain popular, rounding out as the years go on. Not too much change in style. Slip on penny loafers were popular for the wealthy in 1936, and became a quintessential men’s shoe in the ‘40s-‘50s.

Conclusion: It takes a good eye to really spot the modern pieces could be used to portray a look from yesteryear. The easiest thing I advise is to research, research, research. KNOW what you’re looking for before you find it. There are many old magazine scans online these days from the era that you can use to determine what was worn. Old photos can be a treasure trove of information, especially to show what the styles looked like on real people, and show HOW they were worn. Minimal sewing skills can be a blessing, and knowing your measurements is the first step for actually looking. Keep a tape measurer with you (a soft one used by dressmakers. Cheap enough), as well as needles, thread, a seam ripper and knowledge of both what different fabrics are and where to buy them, in case of emergency repairs, additions to clothes etc. You can even make simple things like vests with the proper fabric, using an existing vest in your size as a pattern and altering it from there. Knowledge of shoe care is paramount as well. Stock up on shoe polish, and laces. New Old Stock period laces from 1920-1940 are cheaply available on ebay, but you must know the length of the laces you wish to replace. Irons and an ironing board are a necessity. This may sound difficult, but it’s not impossible. Keep researching, keep looking, and above all, don’t give up hope. No matter what your financial situation is, you can always find an alternative for true vintage. What you do with your new/old outfit is up to you.