Diving in with Betty Venom: A Guide to Vintage

Betty is the fabulous owner and operator of Betty Venom Vintage in downtown Missoula. Her journey into vintage goods began in childhood and reads like a novel. Let me tell you, she gives off some major main character energy!

I've been following and shopping with Betty for a couple years now and I adore the unique, high quality items she finds, particularly when it comes to clothing. She shares interesting tidbits on the history of her pieces and shows how to wear them on the daily.

With the rise in vintage popularity and the positive impact thrifting can have on the environment, I knew I had to get her two cents on everything from care to wear and she certainly delivered! Read on!

SDC: How did you get into vintage clothing?

Betty: When I was a kid, my grandma had an antique store in Philipsburg (where part of the Sapphire gallery is now) and I remember going over there after school and playing dress up with the hats and clothes. I remember one time I made the front cover of the local paper because I was outside the store in a massive sombrero and vintage dress. I think I was maybe in 2nd or 3rd grade?

After their store closed, my grandparents had a basement full of antiques AND they had the Mann Garage. The Mann Garage was a 4-story brick building in Philipsburg (now the local hardware store) and it was FULL of stuff and it was dark and spooky and just kind of a musty building with bad lighting. Inside, there was a little bit of everything- a boat, a truck, shelves of puzzles, rows of glass, a room full of stuffed animals, records, you name it. I think my dad once found a ticket stub for Led Zeppelin in with the records. Whenever we’d go it was for sure a chance to come home with a new treasure.

I guess from there, I just had small collections of things- cat things, Pokémon cards, books, etc. I didn’t fully start collecting vintage clothing until I was a year or two into college. I wanted to try a semester without working at a job and so I decided to supplement my income by reselling a few items on eBay. I think the first thing I sold was some Ed Hardy perfume. From there, I would collect all types of cool stuff from thrift stores; even if it didn’t fit, I felt like I had to save it for some inevitable future where someone would eventually love it as much as I did. I had dreams of one day opening a store and selling these unique clothes I’d found among the rhinestone jeans and embroidered denim teacher dresses.

SDC: What do you look for in vintage clothing to determine quality?

Betty: I always look to find any sort of damage on an item before I buy it; from there I determine:

  1. Is it worth fixing?
  2. Can I fix it?

I’m always drawn to fun textures, colors, and patterns. The polyester from the 60s and 70s is absolutely like nothing you’d find today. There was so much effort put into making a garment special.

SDC: How do you care for vintage clothing?

Betty: That wholly depends on the type of material you are working with.

  • Silks, Rayon, Velvet, Wool, and specialty fabrics should be dry cleaned unless you’re familiar with laundering yourself. I know we all laugh at the poor “DRY CLEAN ONLY” tag on your favorite blouse, but it really does help keep up the quality of your vintage and modern clothes.
  • Other items can be handwashed. I’d suggest using a mild detergent like Woolite, handwash (likely as cold as you can deal with), rinse, and air dry. Google is also extremely helpful in finding communities passionate about preserving their vintage garments with tons of resources and graphs and tips on cleaning. Facebook also has tons of groups dedicated to the same thing.
  • Keeping your body oils off of your most precious vintage items is essential in keeping your clothes clean. Attach sweat guards in the armpits of your blouses and dresses to absorb sweat. Sew on is better than adhesive but, do what you can! Wear undershirts beneath your favorite rayon or wool top. Wear a slip with your favorite dress (they also help smooth out your panty lines, if you care about such things!).

One important thing to remember too, not everything has to be washed after being worn once.

SDC: How do you deal with sizing in your store?

Betty: Everything in my store has at least its basic measurements: Chest, Waist, Hips, Length. This creates consistency in organizing the store and also allows customers to decide for themselves how they want their clothing to fit. Some like fitted garments, some like oversized.

This also helps equalize the gaps in sizing over the decades. Did you know a 1950s size 16 is about an equivalent to a modern-day size 8?

This also saves me (and you!) some headache and heartache knowing that people are buying things in sizes that fit them instead of something too small. I once had a 1920s silk slip completely ruined because someone squeezed into it and busted all the seams. I was devastated! It’s helpful for everyone to know what their measurements are.

SDC: How do you seamlessly incorporate vintage into your wardrobe?

Betty: I don’t know if I’d say I “seamlessly” incorporate vintage in my wardrobe. I think almost all of my clothing is notedly vintage!

But, one tip to incorporate more vintage into your wardrobe is to try mixing it in with your day-to-day pieces. Some of my outfits begin with “what kind of mood am I feeling?” and I’ll go from there. I’ll mix my Doc Martens with a vintage 50’s wool skirt, fishnets, a vintage 90’s black band tour tee shirt, and a vintage 40’s fur coat. It’s ok to be wild!

SDC: What tips do you have for newbie thrifters?

Betty: Do it for yourself and what YOU like. Don’t worry about what’s trendy. If you’re trying to branch out and bring things to the public, your style and sensibility is what will draw people to your collection. There’s not a thing in my store that I wouldn’t own myself.

SDC: Why is thrifting important to sustainability?

Betty: Sustainability, to me, isn't just wearing second hand clothes, it’s really about pushing back against the notion that everything that we strive for has to be new and current. Trends are all about keeping up with the Joneses and it’s expensive, exhausting, and never ending. Thrifting is more about creating a one-of-a-kind identity that also incorporates sustainability and rejects modern day trends.

This goes beyond just personal fashion, but your homelife and how you use technology every day. For example, items from about the 70s and before were made with durability in mind; one thing that comes to mind for me is can openers. I've had several brand-new can openers. I’d use them for a year or two and then they suddenly don’t work- they’re rusted, they’re no longer sharp, they don’t grip the can, they slip along the top of the can. However, the can openers I use at home now are probably at least from the 70s… the ones that are barebones, with the funky colored handles, just clamp to the can- they’re super simple. They are such a higher quality item than what I’ve had experience with modern items and they’re $3 at the thrift store.

I feel like I could go on an entire tangent on why older items are generally better but, I guess that’s a dialogue to discuss one on one!

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