How to Identify & Date Vintage Clothing

Written by christina riopelle
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How to Identify & Date Vintage Clothing
(Oli Scarff/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

When a clothing item is 75 years or older, it is designated as an antique. Clothing is designated as vintage when it is not yet old enough to be considered antique, yet is from a previous fashion era. In general, clothing is classified as vintage when it is 25 years or older.

Modern fashion tends to borrow ideas from prior eras, so it may be challenging to determine if a garment is vintage. By using the tips below, determining a garment's vintage status is possible, but the date can be narrowed as well.

Skill level:
Moderately Challenging

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  1. 1

    Ask relatives about who wore the item, if it was passed down in the family. Ask if they remember when the garment was worn. Look through dated family photos to verify it. If the original owner is deceased, that will tell you the most recent date the garment could have been purchased new. Keep in mind that someone may have worn a sweater for decades, so this method is not always foolproof. This method will not work if the garment was a present or was purchased from a shop or another family.

  2. 2

    Hunt for the care label and union label. The absence of a care label may not point to an item being vintage, as it could have been removed. If there is a label present, certain information may help narrow down the date. If there are care symbols present, the garment dates to 1971, when care symbols were introduced, or later. Fabric content labels date to the USA Textile Products Identifications Act of 1960. In men's suit coats, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America label can often be found. Variations of the label appeared stitched in garments from 1914 to 1976. Refer to Reference 2 for a complete list.

  3. 3

    Assess the size. For men's clothing, the sizing is identical to modern suit sizes. For ladies wear, the numerical sizes are different from those in modern clothing. Standardised sizing scales have changed several times over the decades and continue to fluctuate. Not only have the proportions of garments changed when waist cinchers made way for a more natural silhouette, but due to vanity sizing. Number sizes have been changed to appear smaller. A size 14 in the 1950s, a 10 in the 1970s and a size 6 in 2010 may be comparable in proportions.

  4. 4

    Identify the fabric. Read garment labels, compare the fabric to identified fabrics in your closet, compare them against examples at the fabric store or conduct a burn test. If the fabric is synthetic, the garment was most likely produced after World War II. Nylon, the first synthetic fabric, was available to the public in 1940 in the form of hosiery. General garments made of nylon were not widely available until the 1950s.

  5. 5

    Examine the zipper. Zipper location changed throughout the decades. A zipper in the centre of the back of the dress indicates the garment dates to the late 1950s or later. A zipper starting under the sleeve and ending at the waist or the hem indicates the dress was made anywhere from the 1930s to the 1960s. Before the late 1930s, women's dresses were fastened with buttons, ties or clasps.

  6. 6

    Observe the cut. Hemlines and sleeves changed throughout the decades. Hems did not rise above the knee until the 1960s. Armholes were very narrow during the 1950s and 1970s. In ladies wear, waist measurements of dresses were much smaller in proportion to hip and bust measurements in the 1940s and 1950s than in the decades that followed and directly preceded.

  7. 7

    Read fashion magazines of the past. Look for them in the public library. Often antique and older vintage catalogues are published in book form and give an overview of the garments worn in different decades. Examine small details such as fit and pattern. Advertisements provide an education on when various synthetics were introduced and advertised.

  8. 8

    Assess the data collected in all the previous steps. Use the labels, fabric type, cut and historical photos to narrow down the decade, or date as closely as possible.

Tips and warnings

  • Zippers and snaps may have been replaced over the years. If a plastic zipper is present, it may mean that the garment was made more recently, or that the zipper has simply been replaced with a plastic one.
  • If a garment has been altered, look inside to determine the original hem line.

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