Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Thrifting Tips 3: Finding Vintage

Finding vintage in a thrift store requires research.
You have to know the tell tail signs that the dress your holding is from the 50's and not an "80's does 50's" dress (that is a great link about "80's does" pieces) or a modern repro.
One could write a novel on how to identify vintage clothing (and there are many incredible books on the subject). I'm going to give you an overview and provide you with some resource links to help get you started.

1. Find your "decade".
    Finding the decade which speaks to you can take time. I've dabbled in many eras before I discovered my love of clothes between 1947-1963.Which is also proof that you don't have to settle on "the 20's" or "the 60's", fashion is fluid and doesn't start and stop at the beginning of a decade. Don't be afraid to make mistakes - it's just fashion - I don't restrict my vintage choices to those specific dates either. I have a 20's cloche I love wearing with my 50's dresses and I also own some great evening wear from the 80's - buy what speaks to you and you can't go wrong. Also allow your taste to change. I loved casual clothes from the 70's in high school and I wouldn't be caught dead in them now.
    As I said, research is key to finding your decade and knowing whether a piece of clothing is from that era.
    I know whether something is vintage or not from years and years of shopping practice, working in a vintage store and in a costume shop - in short, handling the real deal and learning about fashion history. If you're new to vintage and want to know more I would strongly suggest visiting a brick and mortar vintage shop if there is one in your city/town. Look at the clothes and how they are constructed, ask the shop owner questions - tell them you're interested in wearing vintage (I've never met a mean vintage shop owner!!) and try on things that fit you. 
    Watching old movies can be helpful. Find out when the movie was made and study what's worn. Same goes for old photographs.
    Have an older family member? Do they have any of their old clothes? If yes, ask to see them and find out about when they were worn.
    Have you bought something vintage and don't know when it's from? Scour eBay and Etsy for similar items and compare (Note that this is not always fool-proof way to date something as sellers sometimes do not know what they have either, but it's a good start).
2. Silhouette
    Silhouette is another great way to date a piece of vintage. Google images from that time and see what people were wearing. Every decade has a signature silhouette - the straight, androgynous look of the 20's; the sleek, feminine look of the 30's; structured, military influenced looks of the 40's; the hourglass, new look of the 50's and beyond…

    Sleeve shape can also help determine the age of an article of clothing.

    Some examples of sleeve shapes in certain decades from the diagram above:
       1920s: Sleeveless, Set-in, Long, Cuff, Bell (narrower than 60's styles), Flounce
       1930s: Butterfly, Cape, Puff, Set-in
       1940s: Puff (pre-war), Three-Quarter, Long, Cuff, Cap, Set-in, Kimono (late 40s)
       1950s: Cap, Set-in, Raglan, Dolman, Puff, Kimono, Three-Quarter, Sleeveless
       1960s: Sleeveless, Set-in, Cap, Raglan, Bell (late 60s)
       1970s: Angel, Butterfly, Cape, Bell, Leg-of-Mutton, Flounce, Ruffle
       1980s: Dolman, French Cuff, Ruffle, Set-in
    A quick note about set-in sleeves: armholes were much smaller and fit closer to the body before the 1970's. Armholes started to get larger in the 70's and really expanded in the 80's.

    The length of the skirt can also be an indication of age.

    The 20's was the dawn of the modern age of fashion. It was the first time skirts were worn well above the ankle - everyone is familiar with the look of a flapper dress. In the 30's skirts were long, and typically cut on the bias with hemlines shortening by the end of the decade. WWII and rationing made skirts narrower and brought the length of them to just below the knee in much of the 40's. Dior's New Look in 1947 brought fullness back into the skirt both in width and length - sometimes using up to 20 yards of fabric for couture garments. Skirts were typically still full in the beginning of the 60's, but shorter, hitting just below the knee again. By the mid 60's skirts had reached a new height when the mini was invented. The 70's found a variety of skirt lengths from the maxi to the mini. 

   Knowing the overall silhouette of a decade - and the details therein is a great place to start when dating a piece.

3. Fabric
    Fabric is a great way to determine if something is vintage or not. It's a bit difficult to put into words, but there is something about the look and feel of older fabrics. Once you've handled some vintage clothing you will know what I mean.
    Certain fabrics types are indicative of an era. Becoming familiar with them will help you determine if something is vintage and help you figure out when it was made.
    Feedsack prints were popular for daywear in 1930's America due to the Great Depression. Alternately, glamorous silk, rayon and and satin was used in evening wear - think classic Hollywood starlet from a black and white movie.
    Rationing was adopted in nearly every country in the world during WWII and most fabrics were rationed for the war effort. This left few options for civilian clothing. For example: silk was used in parachutes, wool for military uniforms. Rayon became the number one fabric for garments in the 40's. It was made to resemble a multitude of other fabrics during the war. Vintage rayon has a very specific hand feel and can be a key clue to placing a garment in the 40's.
    Post-war and the end of rationing saw a resurgence in silk, wool and cotton during the 50's. Synthetics such as acrylic and nylon were also growing in popularity. Taffeta, tulle and chiffon were popular for evening wear - think iconic 50's prom dress.
    The beginning of the 60's saw little change in fashion - clothes closely resemble those of the 50's. The mid 60's, however, saw drastic changes to fashion with the space age and mod movements, bringing bright bold prints and lots of synthetic materials including PVC and vinyl. The end of the decade saw the hippie movement which brought an ethnic vibe to clothes with batik prints. Blended fabrics (eg. 50% polyester/50% cotton) began to appear at the end of the 60's as well.
    The hippie movement at the end of the 60's continued into mainstream fashion at the beginning of the 70's. Synthetic fabrics and blended fabrics continued to be popular throughout the 70's. Disco brought us clothing containing spandex and lycra with tons of sparkle. Denim was also a popular fabric in the 70's.

4. Inside: Seams, Lining and Hem
    The inside of a garment has many clues to dating a vintage piece of clothing. There are a number of things to look at when inspecting the inside of an item.

  • French Seams were typically used in the 20's, 30's and 40's on finely tailored items. They never stopped being used, but alternate methods became more popular in later years.
  • Raw Edged Seams (no finishing at all, usually the fabric is a bit frayed) indicates a handmade item. Many handmade garments from the 30's have raw edged seams, but this type of seam can be found in handmade garments from the 40's and 50's as well. 
  • Pinked Seams can be seen in some 30's garments, but also appear in 40's items as well. Pinked seams became the norm and can be found on most garments - handmade and machine manufactured - in the 50's. 
  • Serged Seams replaced pinked seams in the 60's. Sergers were invented at the turn of the 20th century, but at home machines weren't affordable until 60's. Serged seams continue to be the preferred method for finishing seams until today.
 Great resource for dating seams from the 20's to the 50's here.  

      Most garments pre-1970's were unlined because women wore a slip beneath her clothes. By the 70's clothing was typically more free-flowing and women were not wearing the complicated girdles and underpinnings and no longer required a slip between them and their clothes to smooth out the body line. Lining became poplar in the 80's - replacing the need for a slip - when styles became more body conscious again.

       Hem binding is a good indication that an item is vintage. The width of the hem can also be an indication of era. A wider hem - 2" or more - can be a clue that the item your holding is 50's. 30's and 40's garments would have narrower hems due to rationing during WWII and conservation in the Depression. 

5. Zipper
    Zippers are a great, quick way to identify a piece of vintage clothing. Keep in mind though, that zippers can be replaced so this is not a foolproof way to determine the age of an item.
    The zipper was invented in the late 1800s, but was not used in clothing until the 20's and then, only in men and children's clothes.
    Ladies clothes were generally closed with snaps or buttons until the 40's. If a garment used a zipper in the 30's it would typically be on the side seam and would be metal.
    Garments from the 40's to the early 50's have zippers located on the side seam and are always metal.
    Zippers started to move to the centre back of garments in the 50's, but often did not extend all the way to the neck. Metal zippers and side seam zips were still the norm in the 50's.
    By the 60's the zipper had permanently moved to the centre back on dresses and unzipped from the neck down. Side zippers were only used on pants and skirts.  Metal zippers started to be replaced by plastic zippers after 1963 with the invention of nylon.
    Plastic zippers placed in the centre back continued to be a trend in the 1970's through to today.
    Invisible zippers became widely used in the 80's and continue to be used in modern garment construction.
    This is a great quick reference guide to zippers with more detail than I've outlined here. 

6. Labels
    There are several different kinds of labels that can appear in a vintage garment: maker, designer and manufacturer labels; union labels; size tags and care labels.
    That being said, labels of any kind are not always present in vintage garments for various reasons. Labels are absent often due to a garment being handmade - if you believe that your item is vintage, but does not have any labels to help you identify its age you will have to use the other methods of detection listed in this post to help you identify and date an item of clothing as vintage.
    You certainly don't have to know the entire history behind vintage labels to identify one while you're out thrift shopping. Like knowing how to identify vintage fabric by its unique feel, you must only be able to recognize that a label has a different look than a modern one to know something is vintage and snap up a bargain. The real beauty in labels is that there is a plethora of resource material online to help you narrow down the specific date of a piece of clothing by its label.

   Maker/Designer/Manufacturer Labels
  • Vintage maker labels are sometimes larger than modern labels and the writing on vintage labels is almost always embroidered, not screen printed. 
  • Obscure shop names with local, domestic city and town names can be an indication an item is vintage
  • Check the tag for "Made in Canada" or "Made in the USA" - offshore manufacturing for clothing didn't become popular in North America until the 80's, but keep in mind that this is not a hard and fast rule, many 60's and 70's handbags have "Made in China" or "Made in Japan" labels in them.  Also remember that people brought home items they found as souvenirs from trips overseas and those special items have survived along with the locally made products. I have a beautiful 30's evening handbag that was made in France that I found at a local thrift shop right here in Winnipeg. 
  •  Just like the feel of vintage fabric, there is something about the look of a vintage makers label that stands out once you know what you're looking for. This is another thing to familiarize yourself with when you make your research trip to a vintage shop - look at the tags!
  • The Vintage Fashion Guild has an incredible A-Z label resource if you are looking to date your item. It's not all inclusive, but it is definitely a good place to start and an excellent place to see vintage labels from many eras. 

    Union Labels
  • A union labels is a sure sign the item you're holding is vintage. Union labels indicate that the item you've got was made by a group of unionized workers in North America. Due to more overseas manufacturing in the 80's these labels began to disappear from our clothing. If a union label is not present, but the piece appears to be vintage it is likely it was made in a dressmakers shop, or handmade at home. 
  • Union labels appear in many places on a garment. Sometimes they are near the makers label, or sewn into the hem, I have also found them sewn into the side seam in the skirt of a dress. 
  • Here is an example of what a vintage union label looks like. Not all union labels are identical to this one though, they came in many different colours and had many different looks over the years. 

  • Here is a great resource for identifying union labels on eBay
  • Here is another resource from Sammy Davis Vintage

    Size Labels
  • If an item seems small, but has a double digit size tag it's probably vintage. For example: I fit a size 12 in vintage clothing, but I am a modern size 6 with a  27 1/2" waist. 
  • Don't disregard something because the size label doesn't match what you wear in modern clothes. This is another reason to try everything on!
  • Here is a size chart comparing modern sizes and measurements with a vintage size chart:

Women's Vintage Clothing Conversion Chart - pre 1970s


   Care Labels
  • Washing care labels were not mandatory in clothing until the 1971. If your piece is missing washing instructions you can be pretty sure it's pre-1971.

7. Reference Material
    Here are some more incredible sites to help you learn more about dating vintage:

From Mintage :
  Intro & 1930's

From TuppenceHapenny:
  History of Synthetics
  Vintage Fashion for Beginners great images in this post

And a few others:
  Fashion Era
  Vintage Fashion Guild Quick Tips for Dating Vintage This site also has great resources for dating and identifying vintage fabric, furs and lingerie. 
  Vintage Textile This is a shop, but they have incredible pictures of the construction of garments. This website helped me so much when I was starting to collect
These books have been helpful to me too:
  Vintage Fashion
  Vintage Shoes
  Vintage Handbags

Tomorrow I'll deal with care and maintenance of your new finds - be they vintage or not.

Check out the rest of this series:




  1. Absolutely flat out fantastic body of information here, dear Lisa. Each of these posts clearly took a lot of time and thought to put together and have been such a wonderful read (eagerly looking forward to the final installments in this series). Thank you very much for including my post about 80s does 50s fashions here. I'm so touched!

    ♥ Jessica

  2. Wonderful post! Thank you for putting it together, it is VERY helpful for someone like me who is interested in vintage, but finds it somewhat intimidating - so many eras, details to keep in mind. Thanks to your guide, I can learn so much in one place!


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