How to date your thrifted vintage pieces
When I dived headfirst into selling vintage I really didn’t have any idea what I was doing. Sure, I had bought items that looked like they belonged in my parents and grandparents wardrobes, but I really was clueless when it came to dating textiles and understanding vintage craftsmanship. The only thing I knew was “Made in USA” usually meant “old.”
When my partner and I launched Vessel Vintage in 2015, we had been buying vintage on a weekly basis for nearly a year. For the first few months it wasn’t exactly easy. We spent nights researching and scouring the web for unknown brands and the smallest indicators of its era. It became so habitual that it was almost like teaching ourselves a year-long course.
And trust me, we’re still learning.
Some of the most common questions I have received as a business owner and storefront operator of a vintage clothing store is “What is vintage?” or “What makes it vintage?” or “How old is vintage?”
The answer: 20 years old (at least according to etsy.com). This has become a guide for many entrepreneurs selling vintage (including myself), as Etsy is one of the leading marketplaces for procuring vintage wares — especially clothing.
An item is considered vintage if it is at least 20 years old and is 100 years from then, so anything from 1916-1996. If you’ve heard the word “retro” being used, chances are it was in the wrong capacity. Retro, as I’ve learned, is a term used to define something that is meant to appear vintage, such as a 2016 IKEA recreation of a classic Eames chair. If the item is antique, it’s at least 100 years old. Of course this is all debatable, but I stick to this theory when dating items.
There’s also the questioning of vintage vs. “true” vintage. Some vintage dealers (and clients) only buy “true” vintage, vintage not including the 80s or 90s (some even the 70s). I’m a fan of it all. I prefer the style and luxury of 1970s fashions, though my own closet reflects a little bit of everything. If you’re new to buying vintage, incorporating it into your wardrobe can be easy if you know what you’re looking for. I personally don’t wear many vintage pants because the shape isn’t always flattering, so I usually pair a modern jean with a vintage coat and shirt. Once the argument is finally settled on what’s really vintage, it’s time to hit the stores and start buying.
Does your garment pass The Vintage Test?
Can you easily identify the age of your piece? If this is your first time thrifting a vintage clothing item, here are a few things to look for.
What tags are on your item? Department store labels, sizing tags and union tags are all indicators of what time period your garment might be from. Many garments that are “Made in USA” are often vintage. If a International Ladies Garment Worker Union tag is present, your item is definitely vintage (though “true” is arguable — ILGWU continued until 1995).
Zippers. Talon is one of the most popular vintage brands, but narrowing down the exact year is a bit harder. Metal zippers often indicate the item was made before 1960, though they’re still featured on many denim pieces and coats. If a zipper is in the side seam, chances are it’s from the mid-40s through the 50s. If it’s center back, these can go through the 90s (but if it’s metal, that’s a definite tip off). Regardless, nylon plastic zippers are sure to tell you the piece is post-1960.
What is the shape? A lot times you’ll find vintage pieces that look vintage, but aren’t — or it’s the classic 80s-does-50s cyclical look. Certain shapes and silhouettes harken a time of yesteryear, but don’t be fooled by reproductions. Here’s a quick breakdown:
1920s-30s: Dresses were longer, somewhere between the ankle and knee.
1940s: Most skirts and dresses were A-line. Look for structure. Many blouses and dresses will have small shoulder pads.
1950s: Full, circle skirts. Dropped hemlines. High waisted pants with side zippers.
1960s: Skirts began to sit at the knee and higher.
1970s: Bold patterns and polyester FTW.
1980s: Elastic waistbands, bulky shoulder pads and oversized.
Seams and hems. My favorite rule of thumb: the wider the seam, the older the garment. Vintage garments were meant to last longer and to be tailored to your body. Most narrow hems are featured in garments produced in the 1970s through today.
Fabric. Polyester was invented in the 1950s and used through today. Double-knit polyester is a great way to identify your garment (as it will be most likely from the 1970s). Acrylic has been popular since the 50s, but had a reprise during the 1980s with sweaters and other outerwear. Rayon has been around since the 1920s and was most popular during the 40s.
If you still need help dating your garment, you can always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (or use the contact form on this site). One of my favorite sources for all things vintage is the Vintage Fashion Guild. They have a great article on dating vintage fashion and have been very helpful in my journey with buying vintage.
Do you have any tips or tricks you use to date vintage finds? Share them in the comments!