Dating Vintage Clothing
These techniques will work best for vintage clothing-lovers shopping for themselves at a thrift store or estate sale. They’ll help you quickly determine whether or not a piece is vintage and discern the general era of the garment. If you’re buying for a vintage shop, you’ll want to get just a little more in-depth, so you can give your customers full information with full confidence.
1. Your First Impression
Don’t downplay love at first sight. Smitten immediately? That’s a good sign. This will help you know later down the line that you’re not buying just because it’s old.
However, there will be times when you have to talk yourself into a piece, especially when the garment is particularly trendy or outside of your comfort zone. In this case, fit and price become more significant. If you have to talk yourself into a piece, it ought to fit very well and come with a great price. If you’re buying for yourself, don’t buy pieces that don’t fit well, unless you’re willing to alter it yourself or pay to have it tailored. If fit and price aren’t stellar on a piece you have to talk yourself into, move along.
Moral of the story? Trust your gut. Over time, you’ll develop a sharper eye, and this process will go faster. But starting out, go with what you think looks great right off the bat.
My personal shopping habit consists of grabbing every love-at-first-sight piece and gradually whittling down my haul to what I really love, fits, has a reasonable price, and is either currently on trend or would fit into my wardrobe as a classic wardrobe staple.
2. The Appearance of the Tag or Brand Label
Checking the appearance of the tag or the brand label. There’s no true science to dating a piece of clothing by the appearance of its tag, but you can probably already trust your gut somewhat when it comes to dating a tag.
Consider the typography–bubbly rounded fonts were popular in the 60s. Script was popular in the 50s and early 60s. If you spend even a few seconds looking just at the tag, you’ll be able to get a better idea of when the piece of clothing was made.
The more tags you look at, the better you’ll be able to date the clothes and the faster you’ll be able to get through a huge thrift store or estate sale.
3. Union Label
Unions were popular before the boom of overseas manufacturing in the 80s, and they’re a good indicator to whether or not a piece of clothing is vintage. However, some garments have been made by unions within the last twenty years, so you can’t rely completely on the existence of a union tag.
However, you’ll likely be able to tell if the union tag is recent by its modern appearance, in which case I’d recommend digging deeper before calling it vintage. Check out this article for more information on the appearance of union labels.
For now, remember this. Look for a union label. If the label is black and white, it’s certainly vintage. If there’s color–blue and red–there’s still a great probability that it’s vintage, but analyze the modern look of the tag for more clues.
Still not sure? Check out this site for the exact years certain labels were produced.
4. Care Tag
Is there an interior care tag, telling you how to wash or dry clean the garment?
Clothing manufacturers were not required to include garment care instructions on an interior tag until 1971, so when analyzing a piece of clothing made a brand–not homemade–look for a care tag. If you see the brand tag but are missing the care label, you can determine that the garment was made before 1971 and is vintage.
But don’t forget all those itchy tags you’ve cut out of your own clothes! There’s a possibility that a care tag was removed, and it’s also possible that care instructions were included before it was a federal requirement.
Use this step in conjunction with other steps in determining whether or not something is truly vintage.
5. Location of Manufacture
Where was the garment made?
This step only applies to mass-produced pieces of clothing, so designer and union-made garments can’t be governed by this rule.
However, in general, you can determine when a garment was made by where it was made. I use a general timeline I found that works quite well.
Made in Japan? 1960s.
Korea or Taiwain? 1970s.
Taiwan, some China, Easter Europe (like Yugoslavia)? 1980s.
Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and tons from China? 1990s.
6. TESS Database
If all else fails, use the trademark database TESS to inquire about your brand.
TESS shows when American trademarks and patents were filed and when they expired. For instance, you might think a piece was made in the 50s, but if you search TESS, you might see that the brand didn’t even exist until the early 70s.
TESS won’t always tell you exactly when the garment was made, but it will help you get an idea of when it couldn’t have been made. I typically use TESS for almost all of my pieces to help me accurately date vintage pieces for the shop.136