Thrifting for the Swing Era: all things vintage, vintage-ish and thrifting.

In Contributors by Sudipa Balgobind

Born and raised in Durban, no one loves a good deal like I do.

My love of thrift shops started when I lived in Korea. I was too cheap to spend thousands on the latest long puffer down or branded ski jackets to get me through just two winters, so I hit the local thrift shops – Cue Macklemore “I’ll wear your granddad’s clothes, I look incredible, I’m in this big-ass coat, From that thrift shop down the road”.

Fast forward a few years, a combination of Cape Town’s thrift shops and finding sparkly dresses (with the excuse of ‘this would be great for a swing social’) makes the inner magpie in me very happy. Swing dancing gives me the excuse to change up the work-from-home uniform (jeans/t-shirts/shorts/track pants). I mean, where else can one wear a swooshy skirt and ALL the sparkles?

Swing socials and classes don’t have too much of a strict dress code. While evening socials can be more formal, everyone is encouraged to wear whatever they feel good and comfortable to move in. For me, it’s a good excuse to experiment, learn what clothes I feel good in, and play around with different colours, textures and styles.

It’s fun to learn more about the clothing styles during the swing era and have an idea of what to look for in thrift shops. I’ve never considered myself cool or fashionable enough to keep up with the trends, so thrift shops have been the perfect place to find items that are timeless, classic, weird, unique and don’t come with the guilt of buying fast-fashion (think Shein, Mr Price etc).

Here’s a quick history of the clothing styles through the swing age – what to look out for and recommendations on a few vintage shops.

1920s

Context: WW1 has ended and there is an economic boom world wide. Also known as the ‘Roaring Twenties’, it was a time of new cars, electricity and telephones in houses, jazz bands, women in the workforce and a rise in consumer culture.

Casual wear (women)

  • Dresses with dropped waists and a loose/tubular/pullover/looser, shapeless fit
  • Shorter hemlines
  • Colourful prints; gingham, plaid, stripes
  • Pencil or straight skirts
  • Sportswear became more acceptable for women as casual wear and tennis influenced this
  • ‘Middy’ style tops, which was a sailor-inspired casual dress or blouse

Formal wear (women)

  • Sheer, layered fabrics
  • ‘Flapper style’ dresses – beads, sequence, metallic threads, fringes, embroidery, silks
  • Think ‘Great Gatsby’ – ALL the glitz, glamour and sparkles
  • Shawls, fur coats
  • Feather boas, pearl necklaces and headbands with ribbons/beads/feathers/bows

Menswear

  • Pinstripes were popular
  • Tweed, wool, flannel, corduroy materials
  • 3-piece suits were swapped for 1 or 2 button suit jackets, worn without a waistcoat
  • ‘Oxford bags’ and ‘Plus-fours’ became popular trouser styles

1940s

Context: WW2 created clothing rationing, and wartime fashion on a budget became the norm. Women’s fashion echoed men’s traditional clothing and the new serious looks were about supporting the war effort through fashion. Dresses became shorter as a result of rationing. Women began to regularly wear pants.

Casual/formal wear (women)

  • Plain, functional, utilitarian, boxy
  • Shirtwaist dresses
  • Knee-length dresses and skirts that were A-line (flared from the hip to the knee)Boxy fit, shoulder pads
  • Two-piece skirt suits that allowed women to mix and match to create ‘new’ outfits
  • Post-war, there was more material to go around and the ‘New Look’ involved rounded shoulders and long, full, voluminous skirts with pleats and a cinched waist

Menswear

  • Also affected by the war and material rations, men wore uniforms or utility suits
  • ‘Zoot suits’ were popular. These had oversized jackets, voluminous pants tapered at the ankles and wide ties
  • Pinstripe suits were also popular
  • Postwar, servicemen returning to the US from the Pacific islands or Asia, brought with them the trend of brightly-coloured Hawaiian shirts
  • Men also wore what they already had, resulting in mismatched outfits – combining suit jackets with different trousers became common

1950s

Context: As men returned home from the war, women returned to the home as wives, mothers, home-makers. There was also more fabric to go around. As such, women’s clothing became more feminine and formal while men’s became more casual. Think ‘Pin-up’ for women, and ‘James Dean’ for men.

Casual (women)

  • Full-skirted circle swing dress/skirt
  • ‘Poodle’ skirts
  • Simple cotton, thin stripes, plaid, small print, polka dots

Formal (women)

  • Pencil/sheath skirts/swing dresses
  • Heavier fabrics ie cotton, wool, tweed

Menswear

  • Pants and ties became narrower
  • A common look with jeans, a white T-shirt and a leather jacket was inspired by Marlon Brando, James Dean & Elvis Presley
  • The ‘Youth Culture’ saw fashion inspired by working-class men, rather than the elite

Anything goes

While thrifting for vintage is fun, it can be tricky and it’s equally fun to figure out how to make what you already have work for you. Here are some of my go-to’s when I try to throw an outfit together for dance class/socials.

Colours

Think back to the colour-wheel and theory you learnt in primary school. I find it easier to start with solid colours than prints.

  • Match warm with warm, cool colours with cool colours
  • Contrast neutral with colourful/bright colours
  • Contrast complementary colours (red+green, orange/yellow+blue, purple+yellow)
  • Go colourful/bold with everything (I recently wore a shockingly bright pink/orange combination that somehow worked)
  • Tonal: different shades of roughly the same main colour

Movement/Texture

  • Light, flowy, fabrics with some swoosh factor but NOT TOO MUCH SWOOSH (as I’ve learnt by accidentally flashing the whole world during a very windy outdoor social)
  • Fringes, sparkles, and beads can also create fun movement while dancing

Prints

  • I find full prints trickier to wear with accessories and they can start to feel dated after a few wears
  • If mixing and matching, wear one plain item that is a colour from your patterned item

Hillary is your girl if you’re looking for advice/resources to make your own cool items out of Shweshwe fabric

Length

  • Totally dependent on one’s mood, and the weather
  • The perfect, Goldilocks skirt/dress is usually found by trial and error and many swing-outs
  • A longer skirt can look great with a tank or crop top

Fitting vs Loose

  • Again, opposites match. When I don’t feel like wearing a dress/skirt, I love a good pair of baggy jeans or other loose, high-waisted pants that I can cinch at the waist. I’d pair this with a more fitted top like a tank or strappy top.
  • With tighter fit clothes, make sure they’re still comfortable to around move in and the fabric has a little stretch/give to it

Sparkles

  • The more the merrier
  • Beaded fabric, shiny threads, shimmer material, swooshy fringes
  • Looks and feels great during an evening social
  • Comfort first; make sure it has great lining and doesn’t feel scratchy or pokey while dancing
  • Makes you feel like you’re in the Great Gatsby movie
  • No real cons 😉
  • Can sometimes find great beaded dresses on Yaga or Style Rotate at affordable prices
Four different outfits from one plain skirt.

Thrift resources for vintage and second-hand clothes

Brick & mortar shops

  • Thrift Fest (check out Facebook for their various events)
  • Various shops in Observatory
  • Some shops behind Gardens shopping mall
  • Muizenberg Bluebird market
  • Waiting for George, in Seapoint
  • Novalis market in Wynberg
  • Tokai vegan

Online shops

Here are some of the lovely ladies from the CTS swing community, looking fabulous in some of their favourite thrifted finds for Swing dancing. Big thank you for contributing to this! Hopefully, the guys in our community can be inspired to up their game! Thrifting is fun, cheap, and reduces waste.

Ladies from CTS with some of their thrifted finds, and where they sourced it from).

This dress deserves special mention and is probably the best R80 I spent. I found it at the Obs Thrift Fest market. The stall owner said that they had this for a long time, and the colours, pattern and fit made me feel like it was waiting for me! I’m not sure when it’s dated, but the length and swoosh-factor is perfect for me.

About the Author

Sudipa Balgobind