In case you haven’t noticed, vintage jeans are everywhere this summer–and I am 100% on board. (Anything that helps me live out my Jane Birkin fantasies IRL pretty much gets the OK.)
But while the look itself is effortless, finding the perfect pair is tricky. Premium vintage denim can be pricey at brick-and-mortar stores—I’ve seen pairs at What Goes Around Comes Around for upwards of $300—and trolling second-hand and vintage stores can be more work than it’s worth. Buying online seems risky (vintage sizing is a whole other ballgame) but in my handful of years collecting old-school Levi’s, I’ve realized it’s the only way to go if you want to save time and money.
So, without further ado, here is everything you need to know about buying vintage denim online. (Many of these lessons have been learned the hard way by yours truly!)
What to Know:
Expect to go 3-4 sizes up. The trickiest part about buying vintage denim online is that the sizing is crazy different than modern sizing. On average, I would say that you should go 3-4 sizes up from your current jean size. So if you’re ususually a size 28 in Madewell skinny jeans, expect to be a 33 or 34 in vintage Levi’s, depending on if you want more of a boyfriend jean or a ’70s-style high cut.
When in doubt, size up. For one, vintage denim does not have the kind of stretch we’re used to. Not only is it nearly impossible to button up too-tight Levi’s, but you’re going to be uncomfortable all day. Besides, if they’re too big you can always repurpose them as baggy boyfriend jeans or loose cutoffs.
Size and fit varies by decade. As a rule of thumb, the older the jean, the smaller (and less stretchy) they run. How tapered and high-waisted a pair will also depend on when it was made. Levi’s has a handy general guide on their website.
Pro Tip: If you’ve the time/desire to go the extra step in finding your correct vintage size, head down to one of those over-priced but impeccably curated boutiques (like What Goes Around Comes Around) and try on a bunch of different pairs. Take note of the brand, size, and decade of the pair that fits you best.
What to Look For:
Vintage Levi’s 501. This is the gold standard in vintage denim. It’s got a universally flattering fit (bootcut, a little high-waisted) and owing to the fact that it was first introduced in 1890 (!), there are plenty of differing stlyes available online.
Vintage Levi’s 505. For whatever reason, the 505 doesn’t have quite the same prestige as the 501—which means they can usually be found for a slightly better price point. The fit is exactly the same as the 501, but the fly is a zipper instead of buttons.
Orange Tab Levi’s. Introduced in 1969, this type of jean veers more towards Jane Birkin flares and groovy bell bottoms. Even if you’re not into the whole hippie vibe, they make excellent cut-offs.
Red Line (Double or Single) Selvedge, Big E Tab Levi’s. If you’re looking for rare, collector’s denim, these are important terms, as each one denotes the age (and therefore value and rarity) of a specific pair. Selvedge refers to the white lines running along the outside of the inside seam of your jeans. Basically, if you cuff your jeans you’ll see it. Selvedge that has a single red stitch going through it dates from the mid-1970s back, while selvedge with a double red stitch dates from the mid 1970s to late 1980s. Big E refers to Levi’s that have a capital E in the logo on the jeans tab and date earlier than the 1970s. If you’re just looking for a cool-looking pair of jeans for a good price, I would suggest you ignore or even avoid all these terms as they tend to jack up the price.
Lee Riders, Lee Selvedge, Wrangler Blue Bells. I would say 80% of the vintage market is comprised of Levi’s but these are also great and storied brands to look into. While they’re generally harder to find in women’s sizes, they can also be had for cheaper prices!
Where to Look:
eBay. The original virtual market probably has the widest selection of vintage denim. Stick to the terms above and use the filters on the left to select preferred decade. Prices will vary greatly (rare ones are $$$) but you can still find gems for next to nothing, like this ripped pair for $2.50.
Etsy. Etsy may not bring up as many results as eBay, but for some reason it has a wider selection of women’s sizes and styles. They also have vintage styles that have been customized, like this pair of 501s with paint splatter.
Denim Refinery. Probably my favorite place to shop for denim, if I have a litle money to spend. Incredibly well-curated with a selection spanning decades and styles. Prices range from $60 (for jean shorts) to $150. They specialize in unique pairs, like these artfully distressed flares or these gold-foil ones.
Urban Outfitters. Urban Renewal actually has some good pairs of vintage Levi 501s & 505s at a decent price point ($89). They’re not for the vintage purist since they’ve all been distressed in the same way and are no longer pristine, but they’re cool nonetheless. Bonus: Urban sizes their vintage jeans from xs to xl so you don’t have to figure out the tricky vintage sizes.