Urban Outfitters, along with sister stores Anthropologie and Free People, are ubiquitous with bohemian, vintage-inspired designs that throwback to free-spirited looks from the ‘70s, grunge angst of the ‘90s, and a little ‘80s Sunset Strip excess thrown in for good measure. The fashions channel the past to lean into the future, attempting to echo the authentic vibes of bygone decades but existing more as a fashion reboot, an update influenced by nostalgia — sans the original spirit or historical context.
The brands’ parent company, URBN, has vintage-inspired fashion that doesn’t come cheap, and the craving for nostalgia has a lofty price.
Free People charges nearly $400 for a kaftan that would make Endora from Bewitched swoon; at this price, the assumption would be that the makers of these garments should be well compensated. Or, at the very least, compensated fairly.
Unfortunately, URBN and all its brands remain on Remake’s #PayUp list. The company has refused to pay for orders cancelled as result of Covid-19, and as a result, the factories that sew their garments are left to manage the financial fallout.
URBN isn’t a stranger to controversy in its quest to bring back the trendy ghosts of fashion’s past. In 2016, The Week highlighted 15 of Urban Outfitters’ biggest mistakes and most shameful fashion transgressions, and the brand has continued to take missteps time and time again in years since. Often, the company’s vintage-inspired reimaginings are more of a nightmare, like the release of a Kent State sweatshirt with fake blood. UO has also been accused of culturally appropriating the Navajo, and the company once sold a shirt that featured the Star of David emblem that was used to identify Jewish people during Hitler’s regime.
Embracing the past doesn’t—and shouldn’t—require the consumer to also embrace a company that hasn’t learned from the past. Wearing vintage—true vintage—is a celebration and appreciation of the past. And that pleasure comes cheap. Although the hunt for nostalgia requires an investment of time and patience, real vintage clothing is a piece of history, and each item holds someone’s stories, their memories, their joy, and maybe even their sorrow, too.
That link to the past is what makes vintage clothing so special — and that’s something that a brand like Urban Outfitters or Free People simply can’t replicate.
Wearing your values is about so much more than refusing to support companies that fail their makers (and in Urban Outfitter’s case, the public as well), it’s also about understanding that individuality and personal moral codes don’t come with a price tag. Those flowing floral dresses, 80’s inspired bodycon dresses, kicky printed pants, and mod detailed skirts that brands like Free People and Anthropologie are so good at marketing are actually all already hiding in your own neighborhood — at a thrift store or charity shop, among racks of other castoffs, waiting for you to find them.
It’s time to start embracing vintage with a conscience, and shopping for your retro looks secondhand is the best way to do that. Here are some tips, tricks, and hacks for thrifting, so you can score authentic vintage.
Before You Shop…
Walking into a thrift score for the first time can be a little overwhelming. Some are super organized, others not so much. Here are a few ways to keep yourself on track when perusing the racks:
Make a Shopping List
Unlike a traditional shopping trip where the stock is nearly unlimited for particular items, thrifting vintage clothing is a one-off, buy-it-now-or-you-miss-it experience. This can lead you to compulsively grab anything that leans vintage.
To keep a sharp shopping focus, many avid vintage thrifters have a mental or written list of items that they hope to find. If you’re new to thrifting, though, have a basic list of clothing items in mind; go into the store knowing you want. Maybe this is a vintage skirt or a ‘70s leather jacket. Create a shopping list so you don’t get overwhelmed and buy items you just don’t need.
Find Your Style Muse
Queue up a good playlist on the trip or before you go. Yes, this sounds weird, but it can be inspiring. Listening to a mod ‘60s, hard rock ‘70s, punk ‘80s or grunge ‘90s playlist may help you figure out what decade speaks to you and your style.
That playlist may also help you find your style muse. Listening to Fleetwood Mac calls up Stevie Nicks and her amazing ‘70s style (long skirts, tall boots). Kicky ‘60s pop might have you Googling mod looks worn by models like Penelope Tree, Twiggy or Pattie Boyd. Feeling a punk ‘70s/’80s playlist? Embrace Debbie Harry’s or Debora Iyall’s style.
Set a Budget
Thrift stores allow you to score amazing vintage clothes at ridiculously low prices. Some thrift stores charge merely a quarter an item, but others may vary prices according to brand or clothing type. Region can make a difference, too.
Set a budget for your trip. It’s easy to get carried away when the price tags are so low. The best tip is to carry cash, use those dollars as your firm budget, but don’t limit your style. When an item is cheaper, it’s easier to take fashion risks. You’re more likely to buy that psychedelic butterfly collar ‘70s blouse if it’s $2 than if you have to spend $75 at a vintage-inspired store. Experiment with your style! Just be sure that when you grow tired of the item, it doesn’t end up in the trash. Fortunately, there’s always repurposing, swapping, and mending to help give old clothes new life.
Forget Urban Outfitters, Here’s How to Score Authentic Vintage
URBN’s brands aren’t the only stores borrowing from past styles. Vintage-inspired designs are nothing new. Just because something looks retro doesn’t mean it is vintage. Here are ways to spot real vintage from the imposters:
Union Tags & Brand Tags
Tags are one of the biggest giveaways of a garment’s history. Sammy D Vintage has a comprehensive write-up about union tags found in many vintage garments. These tags can be the key to identifying the decade of origin of a garment. For example, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (or ILGWU) tag was found in all garments sewed by union members over past decades; through the years, these tags changed in appearance. They eventually disappeared almost completely as garment work was shipped overseas and outsourced.
The brand tag also can help you pinpoint a garment’s age. Scripts and fonts on tags evolved throughout the years, and some fonts are simply just dead giveaways to the decade. Care labels can also help you identify if a garment is vintage; prior to the ‘70s, care labels weren’t mandated. So while a missing label doesn’t guarantee the garment is older, it could be a clue.
If you’re unsure if a garment is vintage, use the Vintage Fashion Guild’s Label Resource page to look up brand labels. You also can register with the Guild to post any fashion questions in their forums; take a picture of your garment and the label and consult the experts!
Zippers & Closures
Yes, even a zipper can be a marker of vintage clothing. One of the most popular brands of zippers prior to the ‘80s was Talon. Today, the zipper market is dominated by YKK, so a Talon zipper (especially if it’s metal) can be a good sign. Talon 42 zippers were used by Levi’s in its jeans, and, the company still uses Talon on vintage-inspired modern denim lines (like the re-release of the vintage styles of the Orange Tab jeans). If you find a dress that features a Talon metal zipper (up the back), you may also have a vintage score.
The Look & Feel
Vintage fabrics are as varied as modern iterations. However, some decades have fabrics heavily associated with their style—like the ‘70s. Heavy polyester was HUGE in the ‘70s, and it has a very distinct feel that you don’t really find today. However, the ‘70s and early ‘80s also featured dresses constructed out of very thin polyester—it’s nearly transparent—these dresses are often referred to as ‘disco dresses.’
Craftsmanship is another vintage hallmark. In previous decades, many women made their own clothing because this was a more affordable option than purchasing new clothing in the store. Hand sewn garments often feature pinked seams (seams cut with pinking shears) or they may look unfinished, as the seams weren’t run through a serger.
Handmade vintage garments are one of the best treasures in thrift stores. They are completely one-of-a-kind. And they may feature little mistakes that give them even more character than.
While vintage-inspired stores like Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Free People borrow from the past, their own history is problematic for consumers who want to ensure that the clothes they wear are ethical. Shopping at thrift stores for vintage is an affordable way to wear your values and embrace a personal and unique style.