Stylists Share Tips for Giving Grandma’s Goods a Modern Makeover

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By Michelle Seitzer

Playing dress up was a regular occurrence in my girl-dominated family, and Grandma’s closets and trunks provided hours of fashion fun. But Grandma’s closet wasn’t just the best place for our dress up adventures. It was the place to get stylish clothes (and Halloween or theater costumes) for the next few decades of our lives. 

Though the wildly imaginative stylings of our childhood may not accomplish the sophisticated look we’re going for at 30 or 50, that doesn’t mean vintage is out of reach. Give Grandma’s goods a modern makeover with these style tips from top vintage fashionistas in the metropolitan area: 

Dianne Daniels, The DivaStyle Coach, Inc., Norwich, CT

Dianne Daniels, a self-described “irrationally passionate coach and consultant,” says a focus on fit is a good foundation for wearing vintage. 

 “Vintage garments were made with a very different ‘fit model,’ so the figure proportions can be harder to match on a modern body,” she explains. She recommends buying a piece in a larger size and seeking alterations to make the garment fit your current shape. “This will give the garment much more versatility,” Daniels says. 

 Being consistent with color is another important facet of vintage fashion. Going all vintage from head-to-toe often produces a “costumey’ effect, “she says, so Daniels suggests incorporating “modern solids to update and freshen your vintage pieces.” Another great color tip: using vintage garments as a fashion foundation. “Pick out specific colors from a vintage print or plaid and use existing garments in those solid colors to form outfits,” says Daniels.

 

Ellen Thomas, StyleList Reporter, NYC

Ellen Thomas believes family heirlooms are the most fun and unique pieces of jewelry to incorporate into your daily outfits. But when you’re hunting through your mom or grandma’s treasure chest, don’t reach for the dainty or precious stuff – as these pieces can make you look dated, she says. “Instead, look for chunkier styles like cocktail rings, cuffs and pendant necklaces.”

Keep the rest of your look current when sporting a vintage piece, Thomas adds. For example: “If you have a cool pair of vintage denim cut-offs, try pairing them with a simple white button-down, instead of a vintage tee, to avoid looking like you stepped out of a time machine,” she says.

 

Ashanté Nicole Evelyn, Wardrobe Stylist, Brooklyn, NY

Ashanté Nicole got her start exploring the closets of her grandmother and great grandmother. Now, as a stylist, she loves taking vintage jewelry and pairing it with solid-colored maxi dresses to draw attention to the accessory. “I also love taking my grandmother’s sweaters from the 60s through the 80s,” she says. “The hardware from some of the 80s pieces is very geometric, so it is fairly easy to pair with denim and t-shirts to give an edgier look to the outfit.”

If you’re new to wearing vintage and unsure of how to begin, Ashanté offers this advice: find a look that fits with the season’s trend. Timeless accessories are also easy to integrate for first-timers. “Pearls never go out of style, so a nice long 20s style necklace goes great with feminine lace pieces. Snagging a great vintage broach to liven up a basic blazer or jacket works well, and vintage hair clips are great with updos,” Ashanté says.

Lauren Wilkey, A Wild Tonic Vintage, Parlin, NJ
Lauren Wilkey of A Wild Tonic Vintage suggests starting with vintage bags, shoes and other accessories. “They are usually the most readily available and the least expensive. That way, if the piece doesn’t really work with your wardrobe or if you decide you no longer like it, you aren’t breaking the bank,” says Wilkey. “Also bags, scarves, and jewelry are all one-size fits all, making them easy to shop for, especially online.”

Wilkey also recommends keeping an eye out for truly unusual pieces. “I once found a vintage bug pin at an estate sale and I always get compliments on it,” she says. Also vintage dresses are known to have fun novelty prints, from spider webs to sailboats, Wilkey adds.

And ladies, as great as it might be to raid Grandma’s closet and borrow her dresses, hats and pearls, “don’t forget to check out Grandpa’s closet too!” Vintage menswear, such as cozy sweaters, polos, button-downs and even shoes (if you can find a size that fits) can easily be worked into your modern wardrobe,” says Wilkey.

Hillary Cooper, Stylist, NYC

Hillary Cooper would agree with Dianne Daniels about the importance of fit when it comes to sporting vintage pieces. “A vintage size 4 is comparable to a modern size 8, so don’t be discouraged by sizing! Besides buying bigger and altering accordingly, Cooper suggests tailoring to remove shoulder pads, shorten hemlines and replace old zippers and/or buttons. These are great ways to ‘modernize’ a garment, she says.

 As other experts have affirmed, vintage accessories are a great way to add some old charm to a modern look, but Cooper says they also make fabulous and super thoughtful gifts. “The size is always correct & no one will have the same exact bag, earrings, necklace, bracelet, or scarf. It’s also easy to clean vintage jewelry, and usually a minor repair isn’t costly.”

 

Stacey Alcorn, My Little Black Box, Trumbull, CT
As one of the founders of My Little Black Box, a subscription service for cool accessories, it’s fitting that Stacey Alcorn shares her tips for “turning grandma’s jewelry box into a fashion frenzy.” Says Alcorn, “If you have a little bit of spunk in you, turn your vintage watches into funky tie clips. I fasten my grandma’s vintage Gucci watch – with changing faces – around my favorite scarves to add a bit of fun to my wardrobe,” she says.

 If you have inexpensive costume earrings from times past, clip off the backings and glue the gaudy globes onto a bobby pin, Alcorn suggests. And when it comes to grandma’s pearls, make them “Friday night fabulous” by adding a black silk ribbon bow, says Alcorn. “A big thick bow looks great both on a single strand of pearls and on multiple strands, tied together at the neckline.” Alcorn says her grandmother was “the queen of big, huge, gaudy clip-on earrings.” But she has had some great fun using those earrings as shoe accessories: “I clip them on the front of my flats, or dress up the back or sides of my favorite pumps to make them glam-fabulous!” 

Mariana Leung, Ms. FABulous Media, NYC
A designer and blogger who often takes inspiration from styles of the past for new collections, Mariana Leung loves vintage brooches for their versatility. “Pair them with a silk scarf in a modern print, or twist it into a great belt to accent an outfit in the season’s colors,” she advises. Want that gorgeous Gatsby look? “Putting a scarf belt on a drop-waisted dress is a great way to get a contemporary take on the 20s inspired Gatsby silhouettes,” she says.

Some brooches have delicate or fragile backings, says Leung, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be worn. “I recently stitched my mother in law’s pretty beaded pin into an embellishment for a headband. You can also stitch smaller vintage accessories as embellishments for a clutch handbag or solder it into a statement ring.”

Emma Grady, Past Fashion Future, Brooklyn, NY

Emma Grady recommends vintage shoppers seek pieces of quality construction and materials such as silk, wool, and cashmere. “And take care of them,” she adds. “From hand washing and steaming to bringing shoes to the cobbler, these habits will give your vintage fashion finds longevity.”

Wearing vintage fashion and heirlooms is all about styling, Grady says. “Donning a statement heirloom necklace? Tone down the rest of your outfit with classic wardrobe staples to make the jewelry pop. It has a story behind it after all, let it be the main attraction in your ensemble,” she says.

What Grady loves best about vintage is the ability to channel the timeless elegance of an era gone by in today’s trend-driven fashion world. “Vintage doesn’t have to look old or drab; it is actually the best kept secret on how to look chic and polished on a shoe-string budget!” she says. Grady also loves the creative challenge of wearing vintage. “I always ask myself how I can make an old classic piece look fresh and modern. Shopping for vintage fashion at thrift stores and flea markets is a treasure hunt and I enjoy finding rare and one-of-a-kind styles that you won’t see other people wearing.”

 

John Festa, aka Johnny Lingerie, NYC

There is a popularization of shapewear once again, and John Festa, aka Johnny Lingerie, attributes it “to a confluence of factors, all returning to the feminine mystique.” Some factors are the resurgence of the Pin Up, burlesque and, not the least of which, the return of the dress as a staple, says Festa. “Nothing creates a ‘sound foundation’ like shapewear,” he says. Festa’s favorites for creating that vintage silhouette are all-in-ones, longline bras, and high-waisted control briefs.

Corin Wright, Style Haven Boutique, Montclair, NJ

As the proprietor of her own vintage boutique who also offers wardrobe styling services, Corin Wright definitely knows her vintage stuff. “Cardigans, secretary blouses, and floral blazers are great additions to your weekend jeans. Beaded bags are also a great vintage addition to any evening gown,” says Wright.

The key is to wear your pieces with balance by mixing vintage, trends and classics and not too many of one component, adds Wright. Then, “wear with confidence!”

Sandra Campos, Fashion Brand Builder, NYC
Working for the past 20+ years with designer brands from Donna Karan to Ralph Lauren, Sandra Campos loves the versatile vintage scarf. Scarves can be modernized by the various twists one can create, she says. For example, twist it into a sexy halter paired with high-waisted pants or skinny jeans, or into a tube top great for evenings.

Grandma’s vintage jewelry collection can easily create a younger, yet sophisticated look that is ageless, says Campos. “Tie a vintage piece with ribbons to create an ever-so-cool belt, or bejewel and glamorize a great sweater or sweatshirt,” she suggests. 

Other great tips from Campos include using flexible, vintage clutches as berets pinned to your hair, updating grandma’s belts with elastic to create that cinched-in professional look with a blazer, or adding new holes to skinny belts to create a vintage chic look for your modern boyfriend jeans. “And the quintessential grandma/grandpa cardigan can become new again with a fresh set of buttons,” she adds. 

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