Do you alter vintage?

by jennine on March 18, 2010

These days it’s hard to find actual vintage in a thrift store. Every now and then you’ll come across something vintage in a sea of last year’s H&M, and for that reason, I don’t frequent thrift stores as much as I used to back in the day… well, the ‘new clothes’ back then are now being sold as vintage. Yep, that long ago.

A few weeks ago, looking for furniture for our new apartment, I visited a thrift store that actually had a high percentage of vintage clothing and antiques. They were having a sale on coats, and never having enough coats, I took a look through, and found several vintage coats I wanted. One I had to leave behind, though it looked like it might be from the 1950’s, but it had stains, and was quite frail. Then this beautiful camel hair coat for $20. Holy moly, it has beautiful buttons and lining. The camel hair is soft and it fit perfectly. The only problem was that it was too long. Long coats are great for cold weather, but in California, id never really gets cold enough to where you need a long coat, and they often come across as too formal.

So here is the question… do you alter vintage?
Sometimes it feels like destroying the design by altering, taking away the elements that made it true to it’s time. Other times, it seems that a long skirt or a high neckline come across as frumpy by today’s standards, and a beautiful garment ends up sitting in a closet hoping the next generation finds it fashionable.

In this case I decided I would alter the coat. It was $20 and alterations on the length and the sleeves cost $35, for a total of $55 for a natural fiber, union-made, vintage coat. Even the $250 made-in-China coat I was wearing this winter started to pill because the fabric wasn’t sturdy enough (much to my annoyance). So these days you really can’t get good quality pieces for cheap. I’ve worn this coat a few times already since altering it on Monday, and I really find it goes with a lot of my wardrobe.


The coat passed my knees. This is a good length for colder climates, but in a place that never goes below 50°F it’s a little too much.


The shorter length is more casual and versatile…works with jeans, and short dresses.
Now I’m thinking, heck what else can I alter in my wardrobe? I really want cropped jackets…we’ll see what comes up next.

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{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

1 angela March 18, 2010 at 12:37 pm

i love the new seasons cropped trenches - and the thrift stores are full of these ready to shorten!
the cotton twill trench also takes well to being altered, i’m all about altering vintage and often shorten, or “upcycle” pieces in my shop to bring them to a current style, as you say you can’t beat the quality of the fabrics used prior to now - even 10 years ago, even compared to couture now, the quality is much higher and i think in large it is due to the lower level of competition for a designer to have to dominate a market. i think you will be loving and wearing that coat for an eternity!


2 jennine March 18, 2010 at 3:01 pm

OH YES! I love cropped trenches! You’ve given me a great idea to go down and get one!
but you’re right about the quality of fabrics these days, some of it is just horrible. considering it’s not all that cheap when it only lasts a few months.


3 Poochie March 18, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I say go for it! I have a few vintage things I plan on altering. Luckily I’ve found a good seamstress. Much better that it’s getting worn.
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4 The Curvy Fashionista March 18, 2010 at 12:41 pm

I love the fact that you do this! While not everything can be altered, YOU have the right eye for this! I am loving it! Get it!!!!
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5 jennine March 18, 2010 at 3:03 pm

thanks love! it’s a little scary considering i’ve not done this very often…


6 Jillian March 18, 2010 at 12:48 pm

If the vintage in question isn’t an artistic masterpiece purchased simply to preserve the design and craftsmanship then I think it makes perfectly good sense to alter it to suit your personal needs. Better to make it wearable than to let it collect dust. I think a lot of us would actually save money on clothing if we altered pieces that we have instead of always buying new things!
Jillian´s last blog ..Could Have Been a Photo Shoot: Londonbeat My ComLuv Profile


7 jennine March 18, 2010 at 3:04 pm

oh yes, i would have a hard time hacking up a vintage valentino or a classic, but most those are in museums and archives!


8 Em March 18, 2010 at 12:52 pm

First, I want to say, I LOVE the coat and the alterations make it all the more wonderful. It looks wonderful on you and the coat’s material is amazing. Secondly, in the past every one did alterations all the time and reused, changed things to be what they needed them to be to get more use out of them, passed them down, etc. So, I actually think it honors the spirit of the times the vintage items were created to make the garment your own.


9 ny stylists vintage March 18, 2010 at 12:52 pm

If you really understand fashion ( having once worked forecasting trends) you will understand that fashion repeats itself..what I mean by that is designers just update old silhouettes. Not all, but most. So you go ahead and update by shortening, pulling in… and enjoy that one-of-a-kind treasure. I alter things all the time!!!


10 jennine March 18, 2010 at 4:30 pm

oh yes..they do, i had no idea until recently that desigers actually rent vintage clothing to use copy the patterns. It’s amazing acutally how much ‘inspiration’ goes around.


11 Vic March 18, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Looks fabulous both ways;) Great job! I love shorter for sunny days, longer for cold days;)
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12 apparellel March 18, 2010 at 1:14 pm

good lord! i would say a definite “yes” to this alteration. it looks like a totally different coat! i love it!!

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13 Deepti March 18, 2010 at 1:15 pm

the look changed completely after the alteration. very chic.
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14 Peldyn March 18, 2010 at 1:19 pm

I not only say yes, but I have done so! I would even go so far as to change certain style elements if it made for a more esthetically pleasing and better fitting garment.
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15 AlysonIsNeat March 18, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Its either leave the vintage unaltered and let it sit in your closet until you take it to a goodwill or give it to someone, or alter and it becomes one of your favorite pieces. Unless you intend to sell the piece, then I think you can do whatever you want to it.
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16 Empress March 18, 2010 at 2:45 pm

I say alter. Nothing you do to it really can take away from the fact that this coat came from a time where good quality and style were important. Making it up to date and practical is only an amazing plus. Love the before and after $55 for a coat alterations or not is am amazing steal.

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17 Clare March 18, 2010 at 2:51 pm

First off, I just adore that coat! It’s lovely, both short and long. In terms of altering vintage, I honestly never have. I mostly don’t alter anything, but it’s a decision made out of sheer laziness rather than respect for the item’s authenticity.
Clare´s last blog ..I Know Times Are Changing My ComLuv Profile


18 pretty face March 18, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Woah, wait, sorry, when did I miss you moving back to California??? xx


19 Chic 'n Cheap Living March 18, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Totally worked - love the new length. Sigh, I’m on a mission to find great vintage in NY and now Singapore. It’s definitely a process and no, I don’t care about H&M from 5 seasons ago (though if it was Stella McCartney…)


20 diana March 18, 2010 at 3:06 pm

I love the new look of the coat. I’m not really a fan of big, long trench coats. The shorter look is much more my style because it is more modern and chic and like you said, it looks great with a pair of jeans. I’ve never altered vintage clothing but the altered coat is just a better version of the original in my opinion.
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21 jennine March 18, 2010 at 4:31 pm

oh yes… the long coats kind of bother me, unless they are floor length, i don’t know why that is, it just looks too frumpy, and the shorter versions i think are way more versitle.


22 lei ann March 18, 2010 at 4:25 pm

you took frumpy & made it fun…awesome short coat! i guess i come at the whole altering thing from a different angle since i’m short & i’m always altering things! if you don’t alter & it just sits in your closet unused, then what’s the point? go for it :)
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23 WendyB March 18, 2010 at 4:41 pm

I do it all the time!
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24 PixelHazard March 18, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Oh I know what you mean. It doesn’t get cold enough here to get the really pretty wonderful winter coats. I’m ok with altering vintage as long as it’s done propery, as it seems to be in your case. Nothing worse than botching up a garment you will probably never find again
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25 l'habitué March 18, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Yes I do alter vintage. Sometimes I just make things a little more wearable or just make them fit me better. But I always try to stay true to the essence of the piece and keep in mind that they are unique.
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26 Renata March 18, 2010 at 6:44 pm

I do believe you have to “respect” the vintage piece and its design… and you did it wonderfully! I don’t shop vintage, since in my town we don’t have a lot of good thrift stores, but I’m a huge fan of searching my mom’s closet for cool old stuff. Last winter I got the best NY jacket that she bought in the late 70’s. Soooo cool. So wearable! It was my key peace all winter.


27 Corie March 18, 2010 at 8:09 pm

I love the trench! And, your tights are very cool.
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28 Alicia March 18, 2010 at 8:11 pm

YES to alterations. Clothing should be about fit and how they fit in to your life. If it isn’t going to work for you, but would with a little tweaking, I say tweak away.
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29 Style Eyes Fashion Blog March 18, 2010 at 11:28 pm

Hmm a difficult one. I can see what you are saying but if you don’t make them wearable for you then there is no point.


30 propriatress March 18, 2010 at 11:28 pm

oh my you have opened a can of those worms. First, I alter vintage all the’s one of the many things I do. Then, should a garment that is from a great designer be altered…No, unless it has some terrible damage. Garments that were produced by the gazillion, well, whack away I say…….
You picked a great length for the coat you altered and it looks fab!

Yes, the dreck being made today, such a shame. Garbage on the Hoof I say. And that is why it is doubly important to save the really good stuff for the future generations.
One season’s wear of the typical mall offerings are a Holy Mess,and can’t be saved to be altered. They hardly make a good paint rag after 3 months.
and yeah, about the California thing…….;-)
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31 Alice March 19, 2010 at 3:05 am

I have ambivalent feelings toward alterations. It happened to me that I shortened a dress or a skirt and then regretted it…so I am a bit more careful now. Also, I have no excuse to pay for alterations and a study dress making but I hate doing alterations (which is a pity because they pay well).

On the other hand, everybody has plenty of staff in their closet they would wear if only it was shorter, slimmer, had a funky detail, different button, etc. So it is definitely worth looking into.
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32 Icon Americana March 19, 2010 at 4:25 am

you look great! love the vintage look!
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33 Mary Kincaid of March 19, 2010 at 5:26 am

Your altered coat looks fantastic!

We’re all for altering vintage if it will keep it a completely useable vintage piece out of a landfill and turn it into something that you’ll wear and love. That is what upcycling and restyling is all about!

The only time we want to cry is when someone alters a collectible or historical piece of vintage clothing that has cultural significance to the history of fashion.


34 Sandra @ DebutanteClothing March 19, 2010 at 6:29 am

I get asked this question a lot. As a member of the Vintage Fashion Guild, officially I am supposed to discourage altering vintage. We do this mostly because many people do not know how to distinguish what is historically valuable and what isn’t. Not all designer labels are historically valuable though, so it’s not as easy as knowing a designer label.

Personally, I have altered hemlines, waistlines, and bust lines. But only for garments I am confident are not significant. And I have a very good tailor that really keeps the integrity of the design.

As a seller though, I do not alter garments for resale. I don’t have anything against re-worked vintage for resale, I just don’t do it myself. I’d rather leave that to the eye of the buyer. I trust my clients have a good eye and their own sense of style. Like you my darling!


35 Fajr | Stylish Thought March 19, 2010 at 6:33 am

I have a ton of sweater dresses that are too long that I have to get hemmed. I say alter, alter, alter!!! Sometimes vintage is hard to wear as is, so altering it breathes modern new life into a piece! Love the coat cropped, looks much better than the long version!


36 pennerad March 19, 2010 at 7:01 am

looks like the alterations served you well!
i would definitely go for altering; better to have something that fits you as though it were custom than something ‘vintage’ sitting in your closet collecting dust bunnies.
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37 Priya March 19, 2010 at 7:33 am

I love the cropped trench look! so gorgeous and creative of you! also, those silver heels in that pic are killer! where are they from-WANT!

amazing site!



38 enc March 19, 2010 at 9:24 am

That is a very cute coat! I love it!
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39 Retro Chick March 19, 2010 at 9:29 am

I have no problem with altering vintage. I know the Vintage Fashion Guild discourage it, but I think it’s better an item is worn than left to possibly degrade in condition because no one wants it! If you found that in a thrift store then it might have even ended up going for rags if you hadn’t bought and altered it and that would be worse!

I do think it’s important to do it properly though if it’s a quality item like that coat, it would be awful if someone were to just hack the bottom off!
Retro Chick´s last blog ..Beauty Essentials From Retro Chick Readers My ComLuv Profile


40 Athletiart March 19, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Actual vintage is alive in my vintage leotard collection—you need to see it, over 300 pieces never owned before:

Let me know what you think!

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41 Sandra @ DebutanteClothing March 19, 2010 at 2:08 pm

@Retrochick I have seen some beautiful, museum worthy items hacked to bits though. Altering wearable vintage that is not historically important is not an issue for me. However someone might not know who Claire McCardell is and think, oh this old cotton dress would look soooo much better as a mini. And yes is happens. This is why the VFG discourages altering. If anyone is unsure if something is valuable, you can always ask a reputable vintage seller! There are many here at the IFB.
Sandra @ DebutanteClothing´s last blog ..Vintage Inspiration | Vintage Green Coat My ComLuv Profile


42 Sandra @ DebutanteClothing March 19, 2010 at 2:12 pm

ack. hit reply to soon. Ultimately, if you are going to wear it, you have to be happy with it. This topic is what really divides vintage wearers from vintage collectors. I’m pretty much a vintage wearer, but do collect certain designers for their history.
Sandra @ DebutanteClothing´s last blog ..Vintage Inspiration | Vintage Green Coat My ComLuv Profile


43 Audi March 19, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Absolutely. If I find a great vintage piece that I know I’m going to hang onto, then I have no problem altering it. It’s just a matter of finding a tailor that I trust with an irreplaceable piece.
Audi´s last blog ..Surprise My ComLuv Profile


44 SarahJayne @ Goldmine Trash March 19, 2010 at 3:51 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with Sandra!

I don’t have a prob. with turning 50s dresses into mini’s if say, the bottom half of the skirt is tattered and it’s the only way to salvage the item. And I don’t have a prob. with converting non designer frumpy maxi dresses from the 60s or 70s into minis, and that’s pretty much the only way they sell.

So long as the alteration is correctly done and looks professional, I say go for it.

But few things make me cringe more than seeing *collectible* vintage (which was perfectly fine as is) get hacked into something ‘modernised’. In the grunge days I had friends who shortened some AMAZING 40s and 50s dresses into baby doll mini’s. We’re talkin’ rayon, poodle prints, and prom dresses here! Things that are worth a small fortune now.

Items which are the best from their time should be left as is so their value will continue to increase.
SarahJayne @ Goldmine Trash´s last blog ..PSYCHEDELIC MOD 1960s Vintage dolly MINI DRESS kaleidoscope lace WEDNESDAY ADDAMS ON ACID My ComLuv Profile


45 Marta from With Love... March 19, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Stunning coat…I think that shortening it definite gave it a more modern and casual feel. Fantastic find! I am too intimidated to even try out vintage shopping, patience is not my strongest quality!

P.S. Those mary jane’s in the last image are too amazing to describe!



46 Annie Spandex March 19, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Ah! I love what you did with that peacoat! I had a vintage party dress altered because it was a little more busty than I am :)
Annie Spandex´s last blog ..Neogoth Sportif My ComLuv Profile


47 sara March 20, 2010 at 12:06 am

wow, look at that, I’m already drooling, great color, looks superb. how i wish i could get one of these!!


48 Jen March 20, 2010 at 4:15 am

Last year I bought a beautiful vintage wool coat from an amazing warehouse in Nottingham, UK. I loved it in the shop, and then when i got it home it just didn’t feel right. You have hit the nail on the head, it just looked to formal, and I felt I couldn’t carry it off. After seeing this blog I am going to take it up without hesitation. I believe clothes are made to be worn, and if it means making it fit you so that you love it even more so be it.
Jen´s last blog ..*dAyDrEaM***** My ComLuv Profile


49 Robyn March 20, 2010 at 8:37 am

I really like the alterations! It turned out great. :) I’m a big fan of altering things… it’s a great way to save money and reuse old garments that just need to be tweaked a bit to be current.
Robyn´s last blog ..Lakme Fashion Week featuring GUEST BLOGGER Shot Couture! My ComLuv Profile


50 Foley March 21, 2010 at 2:11 pm

I love it that way! You were right to alter it, it looks amazing :)


51 hiyaluv March 21, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Great decision!!! What a treasure and it looks awesome on you!
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52 Lexie March 21, 2010 at 5:08 pm

I see no reason not to alter vintage pieces… but going to the tailor is one of my favorite little luxuries! That coat looks beautiful on you both ways!
Lexie´s last blog ..jumping on the bandwagon My ComLuv Profile


53 alexandra keller March 21, 2010 at 9:53 pm

i attended a talk on vintage clothing recently and the advice was to not alter vintage. but we’re talking high end couture stuff. i say, if you thrift a good deal, alter it to fit. i did with a faux leopard coat and get tons of compliments on it. you look smashing in yours, btw :)
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54 Jenny March 21, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Wow. Very inspired by this. Altering vintage would make me nervous, but this is fabulous proof it can be done. I love it.


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