How to Identify Vintage Clothing

Searching for vintage clothing is just as fun as wearing the retro finds. However, a lot of clothing these days is influenced by vintage styles. The dress you absolutely know was made in the seventies might actually be from Urban Outfitters. Knowing what to look for is the best solution to obtain your perfect vintage closet.

I run a small vintage clothing store on Etsy called Dizzy Dreamer Vintage. Dizzy Dreamer started out with my exploding closet of vintage threads. However, to run a vintage clothing shop, I had to learn a thing or two about vintage clothes.

First things first, what does vintage mean?

Usually, vintage refers to any clothing that is twenty years or older. Therefore, your dress from 1995 now counts as vintage. However, not all vintage is stylish. You must have somewhat of a ‘vintage eye’ to decipher the difference between one dreaded 80’s secretary blouse from another coveted 80’s secretary blouse. If you are looking to sell vintage online, you must have a ‘vintage eye’ or your shop will suffer. If you just want to update (or should I say outdate..) your wardrobe, then feed on modern styles for inspiration as you look for your personal vintage threads.

But, where do I find vintage?

Now, if you are looking for something specific and lack the time to search awhile, Etsy is your best bet to find the vintage garment you seek.

However, if it’s the hunt you are after, it’s time to thrift. You must keep in mind that older finds are harder to come by, especially from your run-of-the-mill thrift store. If you are hoping to spot a classic 1950’s rockabilly dress straight from your local thrift shop, think again. My best luck is when I ditch the store and thrift the outlet.

Thrift outlets are chaos but I do seem to find one-of-a-kind vintage garments that are usually grabbed off the rack within seconds at the busiest Goodwill. Why is this? Thrift outlets offer a variety of items but lack any kind of order. You must dig through bins. You must go where no other vintage lover has gone before, Goodwill Outlet. Check out this source for a Goodwill Outlet World near you.

How do I know it’s vintage?

This is the question of the day. As modern styles seek inspiration from clothes of the past, a new vintage hunter might be tricked simply from the garment’s style. Therefore, you must check the item’s little characteristics to truly determine if your find is vintage and from what decade.

1. Check the tag

If you are on the hunt for true vintage (versus vintage inspired or reproduced), then you must ALWAYS check the tag. The tag will give you your first clue. It is a good sign if the tag is old or worn but this is not always your most reliable clue.

Identify true vintage garments by these label characteristics:

  • Union Made
    • new ILGWU, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union
      • Clothes that are made from this union are marked with ILGWU. This union was formed in 1900 in New York City. If you find the ILGWU tag to be red, white, and blue, then this garment is dated later than 1974 but earlier than 1995. ILGWU has changed their label eight times since 1900 so the design of your ILGWU garment’s label could give you an idea of the approximate date. Visit this source for tag photos and more information on ILGWU tags.
    • ACTWU, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America
      • This union is common for men’s vintage attire. As I don’t necessarily sell much men’s clothing, I haven’t come across this tag (yet!). Check out this site for more information on this union tag.
  • Garment Care Label
    • If your piece of clothing has garment care instructions, then your garment is dated at 1971 or later. In 1971, the Federal Trade Commission required all clothing manufacturers to include a garment care label.
  • Lot or Style Number Tag
    • Sometimes I will find a vintage garment that lacks any recognizable label but does have a small tag that classifies a string of numbers as the lot and style numbers. To be more precise, this tag usually has an older font not used by modern manufacturers. The lot and style numbers were a way for earlier manufacturers to keep track of their garment. The lot and style number tag is also popularly placed underneath the brand label. These numbers stopped being used in 1979.
  • Label Font
    • This might be a long shot for beginners but vintage garments do have different typography on their labels. If you grew up in the 70’s or 80’s, identifying vintage by label typography might be easier for you. This takes practice. The labels of today are different from the labels of yesteryear. Also, some familiar brands of today have produced clothes for decades. If you see a label with the same brand name as a modern manufacturer but with a different design than the modern label, you have just found some vintage my friend!

2. Check the zipper

  • Metal Zipper
    • If your garment does not have a tag, you can still identify your garment’s authenticity and date by the zipper. If the garment’s zipper teeth are metal, then the piece of clothing is most likely dated at 1963 or earlier. After 1963, zippers became available in plastic. By 1968, plastic zippers were used in nearly every mass produced garment.
  • Zipper Placement
    • The zipper will be either on the side or down the middle of the back. In the 30’s and 40’s, the zipper was mostly likely placed on the side. A middle back zipper is common for the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. The 70’s most predominantly produced garments with zippers in the middle back.

3. Examine the sewing job

  • Handmade
    • If your garment does not have a tag or a zipper to use for identification, then check the sewing job! From the 50’s to the 70’s, women were sewing their own clothes. In the 60’s, home sewn garments had increased by 50 percent compared to the previous decade. Home sewn garments might not have perfect lines or strong seams. Time to do some investigating!
  • Seams
    • The finishing on the interior seams can tell you a lot about the vintage garment. A ‘pinked seam’ will most likely be on a homemade item or a garment from the 50’s. The pinked seam looks like teeth, using the pinking shears as a way to reduce fraying.
  • t00249-14-pinked-seam_lg
    • Seams finished with a serger date from the 1960’s to the present. The serger leaves a secure seam finish resembling a zig zag type stitch.
    • If the seams are unfinished, then your garment predates the 1950’s. Pinking shears and sergers were not readily available to home seamstresses before the 50’s.

4. Look at the style and construction

As of now, I can identify a garment’s decade simply from the style. Below will help you figure out specific decade’s designs.

  • Sleeves
    • Sleeve designs have changed over the years. Before the late 60’s, women’s garment sleeves were made to fit the wearer.
      • Late 60’s to 1970’s sleeves: Sleeves in the 70’s began to expand. Bishop sleeves and bell sleeves became extremely popular.
      • 1980’s sleeves: Sleeves in the 80’s are pretty iconic. The 80’s sleeve styles are batwing, dolman, or puffy shoulder.
  • Lining
    • If a dress has lining, this garment is most likely dated after 1970. Dresses were made without lining because women usually wore slips underneath. However, you might find a dress from the 70’s without a lining as well. If this is the case, feel the fabric. Polyester in the 70’s was very popular. If your dress does not have lining but is polyester, then bet on your vintage find to be from the 70’s.
  • Style
    • If you truly love vintage clothing, you have an idea of what styles are most iconic for what decades. This will help you on your hunt.
      • 50’s: Fifties women’s fashion focused on the hourglass silhouette. Full skirts and pencil skirts were not uncommon. Hats and gloves were essential accessories. At this time in history, women wore clothes for the house and their husband. Girdles were very popular.
      • 60’s: Mod styles with boxy cuts, high necklines, bright colors, large buttons, go-go boots, mini skirts, and simple construction was the 60’s. The late 60’s introduced bell bottoms, paisley, and psychedelic colors to the masses. The sixties grew in fashion throughout the decade. The early sixties started out with quite conservative fashion and ended the decade with pops of color, tie-dye, and ultimately, the hippie movement. This fashion transition has all to do with the social movements that were happening during this decade.
      • 60's mod dress with fitted sleeves
        60’s mod dress with fitted sleeves
      • 70’s: The 70’s expanded on the late 60’s fashion. However, polyester fabrics had exploded in popularity. The 70’s was disco era. Yes, mini skirts and bell bottoms transitioned from the 60’s to the 70’s. However, platform shoes, hot pants, tight halter tops, and sequin-adored attire was what made the 70’s great.
      • 70's polyester shirt
        70’s polyester shirt
      • 80’s: Eighties fashion did not adhere to less is more. Layered garments, loads of jewelry, and colorful makeup wins this decade. There is no distinct line between men’s and women’s clothing here. Converse chucks, parachute pants, and Wayfarer sunglasses were enjoyed by all. Women would wear shoulder pads, off-the-shoulder sweat shirts, and plastic jewelry.
      • 80's dress with small shoulder pads
        80’s dress with small shoulder pads
      • 90’s: In the 90’s, grunge was alive. Casual chic was, and still is, a thing. Nineties fashion was definitely inspired by all the past decades. Think overalls, neon colors, leggings with stirrups, tube tops, boot cut pants, platform sandals, puca shell necklaces, and Mary Jane shoes.

I hope this guide will help your on your journey to a full vintage closet! I am giving ALL my followers 20% off my vintage garments in my Etsy shop, Dizzy Dreamer Vintage! Just enter InAnyDirection during checkout as well as send me your wordpress blog or email so I can identify you as my follower! Happy Hunting!

8 thoughts on “How to Identify Vintage Clothing”

  1. This is a really damn good article! For me, it’s that sewing job that says it all. lol Also, I learned something interesting about Nylon fabric. Ya know the stuff that was sheer and popular pre 1970s.. Well that stuff is HIGHLY flammable. it melts with the mere grace of a candle. Pretty crazy!!

    1. Whoa! I feel like that sounds familiar. I think I might have something in the listing queue that is like that… Eeks! Gotta check my things out!

  2. Are you at all knowledgeable in vintage men’s clothing as well? I copped a leather jacket a few years back from the local Good Will. I looked into it a bit when I got it but haven’t since.
    It’s a beautiful old black leather bomber jacket but doesn’t appear to have any tags or branding to help with identification other than the zipper which is a metal YKK zipper.
    I can send pictures if you’d be willing to take a peak. Any and all help would be greatly appreciated! 8^)

  3. I’ve got an ACTWU tag on a Blazer that I picked up at Goodwill last week for .99 cents! It is in almost immaculate condition-I’m talking could but it from a store good. I can send you a pic of the tag so you have it as a reference.

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