How Do I Wear a Vintage Dress Without Wrecking It?

I recently bought a vintage 1980s Italian designer silk chiffon dress with matching belt and jacket, in somewhat fragile condition. I want to keep the garment nice, but I also want to wear it. How should I proceed without ruining it in a couple wears? Is there a way to restore it? And is there a way to keep sweat off the delicate fabric so I can wear it more places? — Abigail, Alameda, Calif.

You have identified one of the biggest issues in the current conversation around the virtues of vintage: condition and wearability. It is all well and good for us to talk up how important it is to keep clothes in circulation, how significant the future resale market is and how great it is that Gen Z (or a portion of it) seems to gravitate to used clothes rather than new. But if those resellable clothes are not actually rewearable, all of that potential is destined to remain more theory than practice.

So it’s worth recognizing that while vintage shopping is a laudable and sometimes highly satisfying practice, one rife with the promise of unique and unexpected finds — the mystery of what might be unearthed! — it is better done with an understanding of what you are getting into and the commitment that may be required. Not to mention a slightly different way of thinking about exactly what you are buying and its role in your life.

Generally, the older the garment — the more legitimately “vintage” it is — the more delicate. When I asked Cameron Silver, the owner of the OG vintage boutique Decades in Los Angeles, what he advised, he noted that “chiffon is a particularly fragile fabric, regardless of age.” But, he said, “a bit of restoration can really help with the longevity of a silk dress.” And, he added, if the intent is to wear the garment rather than preserve it as a collectible, then such restoration is warranted.

(Vintage shopping for collectible pieces is a whole different matter with a different value proposition.)

First, Mr. Silver said, consider “gently reinforcing the seams of the dress by hand.” If the piece involves leather, try taking it to a leather repair shop, which can help spruce up the detailing.

Amy Abrams, the owner of the Manhattan Vintage Show, suggested finding a dry cleaner known for handling wedding dresses. “They are experts in cleaning and repairing garments for maximum wear,” she said.

Next, Mr. Silver said, consider “thoughtful undergarments such as a slip dress and a natural deodorant, since if you are a sweater, aside from Botox injections in your armpits, potential perspiration will be a major liability.” Ms. Abrams also recommended a natural deodorant.

And then think about where you are wearing the dress. Opt, perhaps, for “standing events and not dinner parties,” Mr. Silver said. Or, as Ms. Abrams suggested, save it for cooler temps.

Finally, it is possible to think about the flaws in a vintage garment that come with wear and age — and the related mending or additions — not as flaws, but as simply another kind of customization and personalization, the sort of changes that give the garment a longer story and make it even more unique; a true one-off.

And you know what we also call one-off garments tailored for one person? Couture.

Your Style Questions, Answered

Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.

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