HOW TO DATE VINTAGE CLOTHING


Expert Tips and Resources




Wondering how to figure out whether your item is really vintage? 

Great!

I've rounded up the most important tips I've found as a vintage shop owner about how to date your vintage finds.

When I was setting up my business, I really wanted to finding the best and most reliable resources so I could offer the best possible product to my customers.

My day job is business research, so it was easy to find a lot of great sources. I read a ton of books and talked to lots of people. Since then, I've practiced on hundreds and hundreds of items.

So I hope you'll use these ideas with confidence. I've also included other sources to contact at the bottom of the page.

Top Tips for Dating Your Vintage Clothing.

1.  First, what is the silhouette of the garment?  In other words, what's its general shape?  A dress with a tiny waist and huge, below-knee skirt screams 1950s, while a slim-fit dress with huge shoulder pads is probably from the 1980s.  See the "Retro Fashion History" and "Vintage Fashion and Art" links below to learn more about silhouettes and see lots of great photos by decade.

2.  Check the seams.  If your garment has "serged" seams, it probably dates to after the mid-1960s.  Serged seams were uncommon before the mid-1960s, when manufacturers began using sergers routinely to finish seams. Older garments also sometimes had very large seams to allow for alterations.  They might also be finished by "pinking," or cutting with zig-zag scissors.  

--->  However, homemade clothing often doesn't have serged seams, so it can look vintage even if it's not. If your item's seams aren't serged, look for a manufacturer's tag to see if it's commercially made.


      SERGED SEAM--uncommon before 1960s


3.  Look for labels.  Start with the obvious:  if your label has a www.brandname.com note on it, the piece is not vintage.

--->  Since 1960, clothes have been required to carry labels saying the fiber content (with percentages) and place of manufacture.  If your garment has a retro-looking label without any fiber content, it might be older than 1960.  Lots of garments from the 1950s will have a fiber tag without a percentage--for instance, simply "Cotton."

Of course, people sometimes just cut tags out, so lack of a tag doesn't always equal vintage.   

--->  You may also see a Woolmark symbol, which first appeared in 1964. These are still being used.  

--->  There's a common misperception that if a garment has a "union label," it's always vintage. Union labels are a good clue but they don't always mean vintage.  Here's why. 

Union labels have been appearing in US-made clothing for over a hundred years--so it's true that a lot of vintage clothing has them.  But, in fact the labels show up in clothes made after 2000.  The key is knowing what the labels mean.  

Look for labels that contain the letters ILGWU (International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union).  These come in different colors and may also include the letters AFL, AFL/CIO, or CIO.  These variations of ILGWU labels were used through 1995--close to the current vintage cutoff year of 1993.  Therefore, a ILGWU label likely indicates vintage.

  UNION LABEL USED FROM 1955-1945 (with AFL-CIO)

After 1995, the union adopted a label that says "UNITE" on it.  Union labels that say UNITE are not vintage.  For more details on when each kind of union label was used, see the Vintage Fashion Guild's guide to union labels, here.

--->   Another excellent resource for labels is the Vintage Fashion Guild's label resource. Here, dedicated vintage fashion lovers have collected and compiled histories of the labels of hundreds of vintage clothing manufacturers, often giving you dates when a certain maker's label was used.  

4.  Check zippers.  Metal zippers often indicate an item made before 1960, when plastic zippers for dressmaking became more common.  Metal zippers are still routinely used for heavy-duty uses like jeans and jackets.  But a metal zipper in a dress is often a good clue for vintage status.  Keep in mind that an old dress could have a plastic zipper if the original one was replaced.  And a newer item with a metal zipper could have been homemade.

5.  Look for care labels. If your garment has a sewn-in label stating how to care for it, it was probably manufactured after 1972. The US government started requiring full care labels that year, and many clothes made before then did not have them.

Keep in mind, though, that a lack of care label doesn't necessarily mean the piece is older than 1972. Sometimes people cut them out. And not all clothes were made in the US, obviously.

6. If you're still not sure, you might check out the Vintage Fashion Guild forums.   

You might also enjoy Melody Fortier's book, The Little Guide to Vintage Shopping. I highly recommend this if you want a short, one-stop reference for vintage shopping. 


Check out the other resources below for more education. 


1. Archivia Vintage Fashion and Textiles Blog.  Perpetually updated bibliography of resources on almost anything you can imagine dealing with vintage styles, textiles, and clothing care.    

2.  Retro Fashion History, 1948-1979.  An index of photos of popular styles, searchable by year.  Covers 1948-1979.  Great for educating yourself to what popular silhouettes were in any year. 

3.  Vintage Fashion and Art.   Look at the "Exhibits" page on this fabulous website for a decade-by-decade look at vintage dress silhouettes. This is an outstanding study resource, featuring tons of beautiful photos of vintage dresses from museums around the world.


updated January 2016

5 comments:

Wanda Pepin said...

Another resource for dating vintage clothing are museums. There is a website called VintageFashionandArt.com that has compiled photos of vintage designer dresses from museums around the world. You can see gorgeous vintage dresses from all around the world in one spot. It would be a good one to add to your resource list.

Admiral said...

We live in a house built in 1866 and recently the previous owners sent us a gift (we are preserving the heritage and history) of two old shirts they found in the spring house. They are single stitch button shirts (1x male and 1x female) and have odd stitching I haven't ever seen. I'd like to send some pictures if possible as I'm interested to know the date range. I can be reached at Michael.mock@gmail.com

sallymandy said...

Wanda: I've visited the page you recommended, and it's fantastic. Thanks tons for that reference.

tommygirl69 said...

I have two vintage dresses, one I found at St. Vinney's, the other from eBay. The one from St Vinney's is in excellent shape and I paid less than $10. The only tag in it is a small "paper" tag, similar to the (paper used in manilla folders). Lot: followed by a hand written number 12; Size, 16 (these are permanently printed on the garment. Seams are not surged, but a pinking shears were used.

The other dress, was advertised as a 40's dress and is in like new condition. There is also a paper tag sewn into the the lining of the dress. the first line says order # 0331(in red). The next line indicates a style number, either 966 or 966 16. However the 16 could also be the size, . Handwritten on the style is the number 14.

Gwen Kubberness said...

I have photos of a top and skirt can someone tell the era they are from???