Five Tips On How To Shop For Vintage Shoes

Secondhand shoppers fall into two camps when it comes to vintage footwear. The first set lives for the thrill of scoring a pair of platform heels, retro sneakers, or colorful cowboy boots in their size. The second can't seem to get over the reality that they come used. Maybe it's a slight foot phobia, but either way, if you fall into this second camp, you are missing out on some of the best and highest quality vintage fashions.

There are other advantages, like the fact that vintage shoes are broken in, comfy, and already stretched out. And these days, brand new, quality-made footwear is increasingly expensive and harsh on the environment. In fact, a staggering 300 million pairs of shoes end up in American landfills every year, which ultimately take around 30 to 40 years to break down (via Waste 360). Of course, you should throw your shoes away immediately if you notice certain issues, but for the most part, they can always be repurposed or repaired.

We've discussed what vintage clothing brands to look for when thrifting, but what about shoes? And how can you tell if they are worth the investment or are too far gone? When you're on the hunt, not only do brands matter, but so does a shoe's condition, construction, and materials.

Look for these signs when vintage shoe shopping

Just like everything in life, shoes don't live forever. So, when you're on the hunt for a vintage pair, you'll want first to evaluate how they were cared for. Online resale destination Vintage Vixen explains that shoes can show wear in ways beyond how many times they were worn. Common materials like rubber and glue can deteriorate depending on age, and if they were properly stored or exposed to moisture. So, if a rubber sole is crumbling, or if the upper is starting to separate, you should pass.

Leather shoes are much more durable, but just like our skin, after several decades, leather can begin to dry out and become brittle, especially if it wasn't cared for properly. If the material is before the point of tearing, and just slightly flaking, there may be hope for a successful restoration, per Bank & Vogue.

Construction matters more than you think

To find vintage shoes that you know will last, make sure to look at the type of construction. Heels, sneakers, and flats are usually crafted with a cemented or vulcanized construction, which uses a strong adhesive to bond the upper to the sole, per Primer Magazine. But as we mentioned before, glues can break down.

On the other hand, boots are crafted to withstand the elements of wet weather and demanding conditions, often prioritizing function over fashion. The most durable type of boot construction is a Goodyear welted construction, which securely stitches the upper leather, lining, and welt together, then stitches the welt to the outer sole (via Thursday Boots). You can easily spot the telltale stitch along the outer rim of the boot, even from a distance. Some examples of vintage Goodyear welt boots are the Campus or Harness styles by The Frye Company, Doc Martens, and Mexican or American-made cowboy boots.

Look for high quality materials

Next to construction, you'll want to determine what the shoes are made of, because there's no way to have long-lasting shoes without quality materials. Look for a stamp printed on the inside of the upper part of the shoe. Genuine full-grain leather on the upper and a sole crafted from stacked leather or wood will perform the best, per Bank & Vogue. Beware of fake stacked leather heels, where manufacturers mimic the look with a wrap design made of plastic.

Even though suede is a form of leather, look out for crocking, which is essentially the leather shedding itself in small particles. Vintage Vixen explains that this issue is normally caused by age or poor quality, and can only be spotted when shopping in person.

Test the shoe's fastenings

You find your dream pair of vintage leather boots, and they are even in your size! But wait, before you run to the register, don't forget to test out the zippers, buckles, and laces. If you come across fit issues that require a bit of tightening, a cobbler will be able to fix this. 

However, if branded hardware is missing or the zipper is completely busted, this can pose more of a problem. Parts can't always be replaced on vintage models, and fixing broken zippers can often cost more than the shoes themselves (via Work Gearz). So, unless you can't live without them, it may be best to pass on a pair of vintage shoes with these issues.

Find a cobbler you trust

We all know women who collect shoes like it's their job, and there may be pairs in her closet that only make an appearance once or twice a year — if they are lucky. The exciting part about vintage shoe hunting is that these same shoe-obsessed people will donate or sell their barely used pairs, giving them a second life. Finding shoes straight out of the box is certainly a score, but there is still hope even if a pair has noticeable wear.

A trusted cobbler will be your best friend when it comes to restoring your vintage gems. They can easily re-sole boots, replace rubber heel taps, and restore leather, all of which can make shoes look and feel brand new, per Live About. Once you find a cobbler you can trust, you'll be set for life, and you'll be able to shop for vintage shoes with a higher ease of mind. They may even be able to help you find the best shoes for wider feet or other special circumstances.