This is a question I hear a lot. I’ve flipped through vintage catalogs found at estate sales and seen gorgeous dresses selling for $6.95 and thought, gee I’d love to hop in a time machine and buy that at that price! Everything was just so cheap back then, right? Well, maybe… but maybe not.
So just why do vintage clothes cost so much?
There are a number of reasons buying vintage clothing can cost more than buying new clothes. Rarity and the rise of fast fashion are two that pop immediately to mind, but the reason I’m going to delve deeper in here is… well… they actually weren’t that cheap to begin with!
Yeah that vintage catalog may have dresses selling for $6.95, but that price means different things at different times. For the purposes of this comparison, I’m going to use actual pages from Sears catalogs from the 1940s to the 1970s. When it comes to shopping in mid-century America, Sears was pretty much the most common denominator – everyone and their grandma shopped for everything from clothes to toys to furniture to entire houses there! For price comparison I am using a standardized US inflation calculator. (Yes, I realize this isn’t a perfect tool, but this is a vintage blog not an economics blog. It provides a clear enough picture for our purposes here.) Of course these price comparisons will change over time, as inflation is always – you know – inflating, so this is accurate as of writing this in October 2022. (If you’re reading this at some future date, it might be fun to recalculate and leave a comment with the change!)
Shopping in the 1940s
Let’s take a look at 1940s dresses first. This is actually a page from a 1940 Sears catalog, I assume Springtime. Here we see printed button front A-line dresses, a silhouette that is exemplary of its time. In 1940 WWII was gaining momentum but the US wasn’t fully part of it and rationing had not begun.
Can you imagine getting ahold of these beautiful dresses for $3.98 and $5.98! Bargain time, right? Well, those prices were the equivalent of $84.20 and $126.51 today. Yup, fully in the range of some of the vintage-inspired brands made now, and in the range of lots of true vintage 40s dresses you can buy online or in your favourite vintage shop.
Buying dresses in the 1950s
Next we’ll move on to 50s fashions with this page from 1956. The war’s been over for years, business is booming (and so are the babies), and the nation is drenched in optimism. (Side note, it’s also the year my mom was born!) This Sears catalog page tells us we like flower prints – and lots of it given the size of those circle skirts!
It doesn’t take a lot of sewing knowledge to realise these dresses have nearly double the fabric of those forties frocks, so it makes sense for prices to be higher from a materials standpoint. Plus it’s 16 years later – yes inflation has always been a thing. Our original prices here range from $9.98 to $12.98, and adjusted to 2022 prices we see they are $108.67 to $141.33. Which again is fully inline with true vintage and vintage-inspired dresses sold today!
Buying 1970s clothing
Finally, we’re going to pop forward to 1972. By now we have the Vietnam War and Watergate and the national pride and optimism of previous decades is all but gone. But Sears knows we still want to look our best in a new dress in a shorter length, bright bold colours, and “carefree” nylon fabric!
It’s been another 16 years since our last catalog page and prices have basically doubled again, with this range priced at $24.90. It’s worth noting that these have about half the fabric of the 50s dresses so cost of materials doesn’t come in to play here. Adjusted for inflation, these $25 dresses would be $176.43 today! The original price has now surpassed much of the true vintage and vintage-inspired 70s style dresses available today, other than the more remarkable and iconic pieces which rightfully command higher prices.
This is a blog post not a thesis, so this really just presents a broad perspective through the singular lens of economic inflation. But hopefully it helps clarify the “Why are vintage clothes so expensive?” question for you; though it may raise the antithetical question, “Why are new clothes so cheap now?“
And I gotta say, at Shipyard Millie’s I strive to keep pricing reasonable and quality high on both the true vintage clothing and vintage-inspired clothes I carry. If you’re ever looking for that just-right outfit from a certain decade, I’d love to help you find it!