The fascination with vintage and retro clothing has grown so much over the past few years that an entire community of bloggers, vloggers and collectors have sprung up to discuss the trend and sell clothing and home wares that range from the 20's all the way to the 80's.
In this burgeoning subculture of people in love with bygone eras, second hand shops are becoming a fashionable hangout. There are many hidden treasures to be found on the clothing racks of op shops and for vintage lovers it's important to know exactly what era their find comes from. There are a few important clues to look for when sourcing the age of a garment.
Often, the tag will be a give away to the authenticity of the vintage clothing. For beginners to the vintage trend, Google can be a powerful aid in determining what decade a particular brand is from. The below tips and tricks will certainly put you on the right path to determining the age of a garment.
If there is a tag, there are quite a number of things that can indicate the age of the item.
Firstly, a Copyright clothing label is the most obvious give away. Using this date you can age the piece as the year noted on the tag or a few years later. It's important to note that the copyright date isn't always the year the garment was produced, but rather the date the brand was copyrighted.
The second indicator is a Made In The U.S.A label or the design of an American flag on or near the brand tag. This usually indicates the clothing to be from the 1980's.
The reason this indicates an item as vintage is that a much smaller percentage of clothing is actually made in America these days and if they are the Made In U.S.A label is typically found behind the tag, not front side as found on vintage clothing.
Thirdly, look for a boutique's address on the label with an absence of a zip code.
This is a clear sign and dates the clothing as being produced prior to the 1960's (zip codes were not invented until 1963).
Pre-1939 garments will be without a Woolmark logo; which was first placed on the tags of wool clothing in the early sixties as a marketing technique to encourage consumers to buy the natural fibre of wool over polyester and acrylic. Any clothing item with a 100% Woolmark logo will not be older than 1964, 60% Woolmark is no older than 1971 and 50% Woolmark is no older than 1999.
Along this line, the type of material listed on the garment can be an indicator of age, particularly if it has an unusual name like "Dacron Polyester".
Generally Dacron Polyester indicates the clothing was produced between 1958 and 1970
Polyester was invented in 1941 but first commercially used in 1953 and was the most popular in the 1970s. Look for vintage names such as Celanese, Kodel and Vycron.
Nylon was first commercially used in 1939, however Qiana Nylon was found on garments from approximately 1968 to the early 1970s.
Lycra was invented in 1959 and is also referred to as Spandex.
Acrylic was first used in 1950 and goes by the names of Orlon, Acrilan, Zeran and Creslan as well.
Vintage labels will sometimes have the names of countries or colonies that no longer exist.
For example, you can deduce that a clothing item was produced prior to 1999 if they have the British Colony of Hong Kong on the label, considering this colony gained independence before the dawn of the new millennium.
Another indicator would be any label that has a half size on it. The use of half sizes - with the 1/2 after the whole number - was used pre-1970's and no earlier than the 1940's.
These were introduced into sewing patterns for shorter women with the half size denoting the items shorter length. They are always after an even number, as odd numbers were then used to indicate junior sizing for petite women.
RN Numbers were first used in 1952 and are a fairly reliable way to determine the era. Numbers listed 00101 to 04086 indicate clothing 1959 and earlier and post 1959, numbers listed as 13670 and larger.
The best rule of thumb is that if an RN number is 6 digits can be aged from the 80's, while numbers of 5 digits can be dated around the 60's and 70's. So, for example, an RN number of 17272 would put the garment in the mid 60's.
Lot numbers on vintage clothing labels were used to process and track garments as they were produced in factories. They ceased to be put on labels since 1979, so this will put you on a closer track to dating an item.
As stated before, odd numbers were used to indicate junior sizing for petite women pre-1980s. So, if your item is sized 3, 5, 7, 9 etc you can be certain the garment was produced before 1980 (when odd number sizing ceased to be used as separate petite clothing lines began to be created).
Along the lines of the Made In The U.S.A tag, Made In Mexico is another vintage label. Although you can buy modern clothing that was made in Mexico, vintage clothing made in Mexico is most likely from the 1950s as travel to Mexico was quite popular and Mexican styles, particularly circle skirts, caught on as a trend.
It is important that you combine this indicator with another sign that the item is vintage to avoid confusing it with a modern article of clothing made in Mexico.
Prior to 1971, garment labels did no come with care instructions, so check your labels and tags and if there is absolutely no care instructions this will indicate the item is older than 1971.
If the tag has one suggested instruction on how to wash/"care for" the garment it is older than 1971.
Lastly, Union tags are a giveaway for vintage clothing and typically dates the item from between 1920 and sometime in the 1980s depending on the tag design.
A union label will be from either the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) or from one of the other six union or union subgroups. Google, again, is a brilliant aid to identify the union and design of the tag.
Lastly, look for "At Home Wear" or "Hostess Wear" written on the garment's tag. This will age the item between the 1960's and late 1970's.
When women began to dress more casually for their by-day lifestyles, clothing companies began to market more relaxed styles of clothing through the branding of "at home wear". These styles included muumuu dresses, jumpsuits with wide style culotte pants and polyester separates.
Hostess wear was relaxed in fit and material, but considered elegant and designed with the intention of it to be worn by the woman-of-the-household when hosting a social gathering at her home.
All of these tricks of the trade will assist you in picking out vintage clothing, whether it be Online or in a thrift store, and ensure that in this world where all things old are new again, yours are genuine vintage.
Hi Caitlin, thanks for the article. I was wondering about your claim that odd numbered sizing stopped in the 80s. In the US, we still use odd numbering for contemporary junior sized clothing. However, in the US "junior" clothing refers to clothing for teenage girls rather than petite women.
The RN info is incorrect. I was using this guide to help me date my inventory. I stopped after coming across a Miley Cyrus by max Azria and Selena Gomez brand clothing had 5 digit RN numbers. Neither of these girls were even born in the 60s or 70s