How To Shop Your Grandmother’s Closet

Leah Bourne

Going to my grandmother’s New York City apartment as a kid meant an inevitable routine—being force-fed a half of a grapefruit (“Children need their calcium!”), an hour or so of looking through her extensive book collection, and lastly, my favorite part of the visit, when she’d let me take whatever I wanted from her closet.

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My grandmother (far right) in 1935.

My grandmother, who amazingly just turned 100, is essentially an organized hoarder, which means her closet feels like a never-ending treasure trove of hats, drawers of carefully stacked boxes of costume jewelry, and racks upon racks of dresses and coats. While my grandmother was never wealthy—she was a teacher—she’s always loved clothes. Some of my favorite stories involve her love of fashion—from getting a custom lambswool coat made when she was a girl, to sneaking out when she was in college to buy shoes.

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And every item that she’s given me over the years came with a story—”I bought this necklace in Venice” or “I saw this dress in the window at Bloomingdale’s and had to have it.” There was also the accompanying aside, “They just don’t make things like this anymore.” It was usually hard to argue with that point.

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My grandmother in 1987.

Looking at my wardrobe now, it’s a safe statement that some of my most prized pieces are from my grandmother—a Christian Dior tulle pillbox hat, a multi-colored sequin jacket, white leather opera length gloves with lace detailing, and a patchwork alligator envelope clutch.

Finding great pieces in a store that you know will be invaluable in your wardrobe is great, but shopping your grandmother’s closet, I’ve learned, is another way to find pieces that you love and will wear time and time again, with the added bonus of sentimental value

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Me (center) in a pink satin turban from my grandmother.

Here, the seven tips that I’ve picked up from the many years of shopping my grandmother’s closet.

1. Start with accessories.

The easiest pieces to pull from your grandmother’s wardrobe are, of course, accessories. Vintage clutches and bags, Swarovski-encrusted pins, statement necklaces, and silk scarves, will work with just about any woman’s style. Plus, if your grandmother is a different size from you (mine is about a foot shorter than me), no worries there either.

2. Think about pieces you’ll be able to modernize.

You might not want to wear your grandmother’s full-on tweed skirt suit, but think how cool the jacket will look with a pair of ripped boyfriend jeans. Grandma’s tea-length dress from the 1940s might feel dated on its own, but imagine it paired with a jean jacket and strappy sandals. I even wear some of my grandmother’s slip dresses out and about (much to her horror) layered under sweaters. It really all comes down to how you style these things.

3. Don’t rule out making alterations.

Don’t be afraid to make alterations, even major ones, to pieces you’ve found at your grandmother’s. Turn that sequin below-the-knee dress into a mini dress, or that frumpy floor length mink coat into a cute short jacket. If your grandmother is like mine, she’ll just be happy you’re getting use out of her old things.

MORE: The 7 Habits of Highly Stylish People

4. Think outside your comfort zone.

You might not head into a store to buy a turban or a satin coat, but the best part of pulling pieces from your grandmother’s closet is the chance to step outside of your fashion comfort zone. That conversation-starter item also means inevitably being able to brag about your grandmother’s stellar fashion sense later on.

5. Go for the pieces that have special meaning.

A dress, for the most part, is just a dress, but a dress that your grandmother wore the night she got engaged? That’s a piece of family history you can reference every time you wear it.

6. Scour for cool buttons.

My grandmother has boxes and boxes of cool buttons (and something tells me she’s not alone in this). I’ve used gold military-inspired buttons I’ve taken from her to update a boring navy pea-coat, and pearl buttons to transform a basic white button-down. Don’t be afraid to get creative!

7. Don’t forget about grandpa.

My grandmother’s closet has always been my first stop, but I also have some incredible pieces that I’ve taken from my grandfather, like a tailored pinstripe jacket with tails, and a red fedora. Men had real style back then!