On a short strip of King Street East in downtown Hamilton there are three Vintage Clothing shops. Each has its own character, vision and sense of style.

I love vintage clothing. I love it even more when it is well selected and presented. What I found particularly fascinating was how each of the three shops managed to present a unique collection of clothing that was from similar eras but mixed and blended in their own way.

As I researched this article, I first dropped in on Out of the Past at 185 King Street East. The clientele of this shop are as mixed as the eclectic selection. Reflecting alternative culture, ravers and indie, the teen to 20’s and 30’s customers have to work a bit through crowded racks overflowing with merchandise. While all three shops are overwhelmingly female oriented I confess to being tempted by a selection of ties from the early 1950’s – horses, pinup girls and swirling abstracts were mixed in with more mundane and more recent stripes and paisley patterns. While I resisted temptation to add to my tie collection, I fell for a fedora. A beautiful faun coloured felt hat with a high crown. It even came with it’s own hat box! I spent $35.00 for a hat that I couldn’t duplicate for a hundred dollars.

Let’s face it; women’s clothing is far more interesting than men’s wear. It is also more nuanced, complicated, and (for me) confusing. On their business card Out of the Past calls itself “A store to explore!” It’s true. The store is merchandised with similar items hung together in a kaleidoscope of dresses, blouses, skirts each taking up a section of wall or floor space. But the laid back staff seemed willing to pull together disparate items to help each client achieve the look they were after.

Modify Your Closet, at 203 King East reminded me of a 1960’s boutique with colour-coordinated selections neatly grouped throughout the shop. Modify your Closet owner Melanie Amato proudly explained how her shop often added value to vintage garments by re-working and modifying clothing. Melanie and her husband Vito took another vintage idea to heart – they live above the shop much as many shopkeepers (including my own parents) did in the past. As well as the quality vintage garments offered, Melanie and Vito’s shop offers a selection of vintage home accessories. I was impressed with a selection of re-painted picture frames re-purposed as chalk boards. You can review some of their items on their website at www.modifyyourcloset.com.

I’ve saved the best for last. Whitney McMeekin’s Girl on the Wing (lovely little things) is my personal favourite. Whitney’s refreshing enthusiasm and consistently tasty collections of vintage women’s wear make her shop feel polished but relaxed at the same time.

Girl on the Wing’s clients are typically university students and tend to be artistic and creative. Whitney describes her merchandise as feminine, romantic, quirky, and classic. Her shop is the most recent addition to the retail scene on King Street (181 King East) having just opened in May of this year.
Like in the other two shops, there is a small collection of non-clothing vintage items like a great matched luggage set from the 50’s and some high ball glasses from the 40’s.

Augmenting the vintage clothing are new saltwater sandals, shoes, jewellery and vintage looking Esther Williams bathing suits. (How do people in their 20’s know about Esther Williams? She was a star over 50 years ago!)

Rather than fail in an attempt to paint word pictures of her merchandise, I encourage you to look at the boutique’s website at www.girlonthewing.ca. Each season there is a themed series of photographs – a Look Book – giving an indication of the direction for the next three months. A Look Book for vintage clothing, a selection of “plus sizes” and a dedication to quality all make Girl on the Wing a must stop for aficionados of vintage wear.

None of the shop owners would discuss how they sourced the majority of their vintage clothing. It seems however, that there are third party wholesalers who supply retailers of vintage ware. Modify Your Closet does take some better quality pieces on consignment. Estate sales also seem to be a source of vintage housewares as well as clothing for all three shops.

Do you have to shop in a boutique to get great value in vintage clothing? Of course not. Talize, Value Village, and the Salvation Army Thrift stores all offer clothing bargains. The difference is in the consistency and quality. When you shop at a Value Village the racks and racks of stuff mean you have to waste a lot of time and effort in hunting through the dross before you find a nugget. While there is gold to be found, you are far more likely to find a piece that doesn’t go with anything else or to just waste your time. In the boutiques, the store owner has done the work, selected, cleaned and sized the inventory so that all you have to do is pick what you like from a refined and carefully assembled collection.