Sydney Ballesteros started shopping vintage in yard sales and thrift stores back when her mom still bought her clothes.
In high school, she burned her paychecks at thrift shops on North Fourth Avenue, treasure hunting for threads of history.
"I've been attracted to old things for as long as I can remember," Ballesteros said, attributing that interest to her antique-collecting grandmother.
Back then, Ballesteros, 31, could find dresses from the 1950s and 1960s for a couple of dollars at yard or estate sales. Vintage was a clothing style stashed in dusty attics and closet corners.
Not so today.
Vintage is trending, popularized in part by nods from the high-fashion world and bloggers who showcase one-of-a-kind style. It's mainstream to make a fashion statement by flaunting history.
"[Bloggers] have shown people courage," said Salima Boufelfel, 26, who co-owns the Desert Vintage boutique on Fourth Avenue with Roberto Cowan, 23. "People think, 'I could wear this even if it's a little more wacky and I stand out.' People have become more brave with how outgoing they want to be with their fashion."
While collectors and stylists such as Ballesteros continue to hunt as they always have, finding those rare and unique pieces takes a little more work these days .
Ballesteros generally relies on yard and estate sales, thrift stores and vintage boutiques for her finds. Shopping at a boutique, while pricier, often means looking at a better selection of items - many of them already spruced up by the shop. The store does most of the legwork.
At Desert Vintage, people bring in their old clothes and jewelry to sell. The shop gets everything from turquoise and silver Native American jewelry from the 1920s to 1970s to pieces from French designers from decades past. Boufelfel was decked out in what looks like a black-and-white, loose-fitting dress. It's actually a swimsuit from 1919.
Dressing vintage doesn't really have any hard and fast rules, and mixing and matching periods definitely isn't forbidden, but for many, there are standards when classifying something as vintage.
"People think if it's used or older, it's vintage," said Kerstin Block, the president and co-owner of Buffalo Exchange, a vintage and used-clothing company that started in Tucson. "True vintage clothing is period clothing."
Ballesteros recommends buying classic pieces on the cheap, from thrift shops and yard sales. That frees up space in the pocketbook to splurge on eye candy.
"If you see it and want it, it's always a good idea to buy it," Block said. "You have to see if it fits you the way it's made … It's hard to find vintage that's perfect."
Boufelfel has noticed increasing numbers of university students coming into Desert Vintage for sundresses or western button-ups. Jewelry is another big seller, as it does not need a specific fit.
Not everything vintage is wearable on a daily basis. A dress from the 1920s or 1930s might only make appearances for special occasions. Some pieces, such as a gorilla fur coat from the 1940s, find homes in collections.
The coat came into Buffalo Exchange years ago. The seller brought along a photograph of Bianca Jagger, Mick Jagger's former wife, wearing a similar jacket. That very coat, alleged the seller, had once clothed celebrity royalty. Someone snatched it up for around $40, Block said.
Compared with other cities - especially big ones such as New York and Los Angeles - shopping vintage in Tucson should not break the bank.
Erin Hinton, 53, grew up in Tucson and has shopped for eye-catching vintage clothing her entire life. She pops into Desert Vintage and other shops frequently, ready for whatever strikes her fancy.
"I've always lived here and always loved it," Hinton said.
She found her favorite piece at Desert Vintage about 20 years ago. For around $70 she added a mustard yellow mariachi jacket to her wardrobe. With Gila monsters embroidered on the sleeves and a saguaro cactus on the back, the iconic jacket could advertise Tucson's collection of eclectic vintage.
The combination of Tucson's bent toward artistic expression and the snowbird population makes for a community enthusiastic about this style.
"People use fashion as a walking piece of art," Ballesteros said. "Your personality and style comes out."
That style can seep into everything. Ballesteros wears a glittering, diamond and white gold wedding ring from the 1940s. She and her husband found it at a pawn shop. The owner was surprised they wanted it. For Ballesteros, "vintage is a lifestyle that you choose to indulge in."
It goes beyond clothing and even fashion to preserving snippets of history.
"It's a way to share our stories with people," Boufelfel said, "It gives substance because you're not just selling pieces that are mass-produced, but you're selling pieces with a history."
VINTAGE IN TUCSON
- Buffalo Exchange: 2001 E. Speedway and other locations; 795-0508; buffaloexchange.com
- Desert Vintage: 636 N. Fourth Ave.; closed during July; 620-1570.
- How Sweet It Was: 419 N. Fourth Ave.; 623-9854; howsweetitwas.com