Care and Cleaning
Dating Vintage Clothing

Tips for Dating Vintage Clothing

Ever vintage fashion lover will encounter this scenario at some point of her collecting experience. You stumble upon a lovely vintage garment in a consignment shop, vintage clothing retailer, or online boutique, but the seller appears clueless, shady or mum as to the details of the piece, including the actual date. How can you be sure the antique lace blouse you are purchasing is truly one from the Victorian era, or merely a cleverly fashioned knockoff from the 1970s or even later? Nothing can replace an understanding of the quality of a garment, of fabrics, trimmings, construction methods and sewing techniques. This combined with a knowledge of fashion history gained over time will eventually help you to develop an eye for dating items and for sorting the desirable vintage piece from the undesirable.

First, get familiar with fashion and costume history books that give reliable, logically presented information. There is no one way to date vintage clothing, but over time and with experience you will develop a feel for dating items. One clue may lie in the date of the silhouette of your item. Many fashion history books include line drawings or fashion plates that should give you an understanding of the changing lines and the variety of silhouettes during various periods. Look for the length of necklines and hems, width of sleeves and skirts, etc., for initial clues.

If the item has a label or designer name, this may provide clues to the age as well. Some labels, especially in beautifully made clothes, may be well hidden underneath layers of linings up side seams. See if you can find out anything about the brand and when certain lines were produced. In any event, a garment with a label sewn into it cannot be any older than the mid-19th century. In 1858, Charles Frederick Worth became the first tailor to sew his label into the garments that he created. Worth revolutionized fashion because he did not allow the customer to dictate the design, as had previously been dressmaking practice, but instead displayed model dresses at fashion shows four times per year. His patronesses picked a model, which would then be sewn in fabrics of their choice and tailored to their figure. Worth's sons, Jean-Philippe and Gaston, carried on the label after the death of their father, and enjoyed an enormous export business in large part due to American clients.

Keep in mind, also, that sewn-in labels that indicate the type of care were first required in the United States in 1972, when the Federal Trade Commission introduced the Care Labeling Rule. Similarly, care labels were introduced into the United Kingdom by the Home Laundering Consultative Council around 1975. From this time on, it would be considered unfair and deceptive for manufacturers or importers to sell items without care labels, and as far as dating goes, most garments with such labels were made no earlier than the mid 1970s. (Before this time, some brands often included a swing booklet with information on hand washing, bleaching, machine washing or dry cleaning).

Some collectors also look for the presence of a zipper or its absence to help indicate the age of an item. Zippers were usually put in the side seams of dresses, skirts and trousers until the 1950s. Later they were used in the center back of dresses, skirts and the center front of trousers. In vintage terms, many enthusiasts believe that a metal zipper in a garment is a good rule of thumb that along with other factors indicate a garment is probably pre-1960. However, plastic zippers were available beginning in the 1930s (but made with individual teeth molded onto them in the exact same way as metal zippers were constructed). Concealed zippers, which are very fine, were introduced in 1958. Of course, the zipper may not always be a reliable clue for dating a garment. Some tailors recycle zippers from garments or even buy thrift garments just to remove zippers and buttons to make an item appear older than its actual age. Likewise, a vintage garment may have had its metal zipper replaced at some time with a nylon coil zipper.