Do you love styles from bygone eras like WWII dresses or 90s chokers and black sweaters? The world of vintage clothes offers a rich treasure trove of past styles. But not all old clothing is vintage, so what exactly are vintage clothes?
Name-brand, good-condition clothing more than 20 years old and less than 100 years old is considered vintage clothing. Some of the most popular categories of vintage clothing include garments from the 1950s and 1970s and haute couture from the 1930s. Today, recent eras like the 1990s have started to receive vintage labels as well.
In this article, you will learn about the history of buying and selling vintage clothing. You will find what vintage clothes from the past 100 years look like today. Finally, you will learn the difference between retro, classic, and vintage clothing.
Vintage Fashion History
The history of vintage fashion as retail began in the 1960s when the anticonsumerist philosophy of hippies and bohemians developed. Before that, people bought and sold used clothing, but only as a necessity–not a choice or a fashion statement.
Before scientists invented synthetic fabric, clothing cost so much that most poor and middle-class people would buy only a few outfits per year or even in their lifetimes. This meant that used clothes would get worn or handed down in a family until they wore away to nothing–and even then, people would find ways to keep using the scraps of fabric that remained!
Because richer people could afford to buy new outfits and keep up with the latest styles, wearing older clothes marked you as poor. It clearly indicated that you couldn’t afford to buy new clothes. This meant that wearing old styles of clothes had negative implications throughout most of fashion history.
The counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s began to change that because young people embraced the idea of living close to nature and wasting less. On top of that, celebrities took up the cause of “cool thrift” and pop culture began to embrace the idea. Characters like Carrie in Sex in the City greatly made this style popular among the general public.
Once the idea of reselling used clothing took on a positive spin, it rapidly became a pursuit for collectors. Today, vintage items like brand-name handbags from the 1950s can sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars, just like certain types of antiques. People run whole businesses finding and rehabilitating vintage garments for resale.
You can find many famous stores that sell vintage clothing and famous designers like Alexander McQueen who use repurposed vintage items in their work.
What are Vintage Clothes?
Vintage clothes are certain name-brand or high-quality clothes made more than twenty years ago but less than one hundred years ago. Anything made in the past twenty years falls into a modern category, and anything over one hundred years old gets classified as an antique.
This means that items can pass in and out of vintage status. Ten years ago, clothes made in 1910 would have had vintage status; today, you would call those clothes antiques!
Beyond the time frame, the definition of “vintage” can get a little murky. Generally speaking, an item with high value because of its brand or condition will get termed vintage, while an old, scruffy item from a less significant brand just gets called “used” “thrifted” or “second-hand.”
While you can certainly stumble across a lucky find at a thrift store or yardsale, most vintage clothing sales today pass through retailers who determine the value of each piece based on its provenance. They make this call based on the brand, the designer, the type of fabric used, and the condition of the piece–plus the amorphous quality of collectibility. Just like with antiques, some items have high prices just became they became a hot topic and everyone wanted to collect them.
Another way to definite vintage clothes is that they should embody the style of the era. This means that vintage clothes have an iconic appearance, too. For example, a poodle skirt has an iconic appearance and symbolizes the dress of the 1950s.
Why would you want to buy vintage clothing if it is both old and often expensive? Well, you might like the idea of wearing pre-loved clothing as a way to protect the environment and avoid giving in to the rampant consumerism of the modern world, just the like the hippies in the 60s. Or you might want to model your wardrobe on what you see famous celebrities wear, as plenty of Hollywood stars like Nicole Kidman frequently sport vintage outfits!
Wearing vintage clothes can help you develop a classic, timeless style of your own, too. Plus, many vintage clothes use all-natural, good-quality fabrics that don’t appear as much in ready-wear clothing today.
Finally, vintage clothing offers styles for everyone! Every era of vintage clothing sports its own unique style and value.
The earliest years of vintage clothing, from the 1920s to the 1940s, spanned the global recovery after WWI through the end of WWII. Clothes made during these decades used natural fabrics, as scientists did not invent synthetic fabric until WWII. Even then, these fabrics saw use in the war effort, not for the general public. Plus, while some clothing did get produced in factories, much of what people wore came from seamstresses, tailors, or housewives stitching away on individual sewing machines.
The 1920s introduced straight, loose silhouettes to the fashion world, with the famous flapper dresses, low-waisted, slender everyday dresses, and flat coats for men. This greatly contrasts the S-shaped corsets women wore in the early 1990s! Even hats shrunk in size to small close-fitting numbers.
The concept of brands did not exist back then as it does today, but many of these dramatic changes in fashion depended to some extent on a handful of big-name designers. Famous designers from this decade include Coco Chanel, Paul Poiret, and Elsa Schiaparelli.
The 1930s (probably known to some of you as the “Downton Abbey era”!) reintroduced higher waists but also initiated the concept of flowy, bias-cut gowns. Dresses got long again to make people look taller and more slender. Hats worn at a rakish angle, bolero jackets, Oxford shoes, and big fur collars on coats went on-trend, too.
Elsa Schiaparelli continued to influence fashion design during this decade, as did Madeline Vionnet. But so did something else–Hollywood actresses!
The 1930s saw the introduction of “talkies,” or movies where you could hear the actors talk, instead of silent films. This launched many men and women to stardom and was the beginning of celebrity culture. Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and other celebrities strongly influenced what styles everyone wanted to adopt.
In many ways, the advancement of fashion came to a grinding halt in the 1940s because of the horrors of WWII. Practicalities drove a lot of the trends in this decade, like short skirts for women who had to suddenly step into the workforce, padded shoulders to make women look more like the men whose roles they had to fill, and high-waisted, wide pants for easy movement.
Clothes did not contain much extra fabric because there was not much fabric to be had–a lot of resources went to the war effort, and thousands of soldiers needed uniforms during these years.
However, the 1940s did make space for American designers to grow into their own spotlight, with Parisian fashion inaccessible for many years. A few of these prominent designers include Bonnie Cashin and Claire McCardell.
The 1950s exploded with exciting new fashions as the world recovered again from a horrific war. For those who recognize fashion eras based on the period TV shows you watch, you can think of this decade as the “Mad Men” time period!
Fashions like circle and swing skirts that required yards of material presented a much more feminine silhouette than the boxy styles of the 40s. Skirts kept their short length, though, with most hems falling at the knee or mid-calf tea length. Cute items like Peter Pan collars on blouses and headscarves also added a more feminine vibe.
Christian Dior made a huge name for himself in the late 1940s and 1950s with designer gowns with full skirts in this style. Other famous designers from this decade include Audrey Hepburn’s favorite designers, Hubert de Givenchy and Christobel Balenciaga.
Of course, Hollywood continued to influence fashion strongly. Hugely famous actors like James Dean helped to launch the popularity of the t-shirt and jeans during this decade. Marilyn Monroe helped promote the hourglass figure for women, in contrast to the straighter silhouettes made popular in the 20s and 30s.
If you like the 50s style, some of the best vintage pieces to look for include Levis jeans, swing dresses and circle skirts (like the iconic poodle skirts), and lacy cocktail dresses. Make sure you test the hand or feel, of the fabric, though–” vintage-style” 1950s garb has a big market today as well, but these modern versions contain synthetic fabrics and do not have true vintage history.
The 1960s saw an about-face, as fashion trends so often do, and swapped out full circle skirts for shift dresses and cute for psychedelic. Button shirts and cardigans trended, as did vinyl shoes, thigh-high boots, and tall socks. Plus, of course, the counterculture movement saw the emergence of the hippie style!
This style took a lot of forms, like long hair, baggy shirts or tunics, and sandals instead of shoes. The whole idea of this movement was that young people who joined were “hip” and aware of the dangers of the modern world. They wanted to embrace a more natural, simple lifestyle with socialist instead of capitalist principles.
The fashion model Twiggy, with her long hair and waif-like form, helped influence the 60s style. So did actresses like Brigette Bardot and famous people like Jackie Kennedy and Janis Joplin. Several famous designers launched clothing lines during this decade, like Yves St Laurent and Emilio Pucci.
Besides these big names, you can look for other designer labels like Pierre Cardin, Bonnie Cashin and Coach, Givenchy, and Ossie Clark, who designed clothes for the Beatles!
The 1970s embraced color and warmth with bold synthetic fabrics, bell-bottom pants, cozy peasant blouses and maxi dresses. This decade brought us tie-dye, platform shoes, corduroy pants, and jumpsuits. Shirts with clashing patterns and big floppy collars, paired with leisure suits and circle sunglasses, had rockstar appeal.
The counter-culture movement of the 60s continued, especially as many people objected to the war in Vietnam. Buying used clothing began to gain popularity as part of this movement because hippies would buy old camo and decorate it with peace symbols as a sign of objection to the war.
Another important thing to know about clothes from the 70s is that this is the decade when synthetic fabric surged into the clothing industry. Man-made fabric like polyester made clothes insanely cheap and launched ready-wear fashion. This made it possible for people to embrace crazy fashions like jumpsuits and bold colors because they could afford to buy a dozen outfits a year instead of just one.
The trade-off of this is that vintage clothes from this era may or may not contain good-quality fabric.
Many designers and clothing brands hit it big this decade, including Halston, Diane von Furstenburg, and Thea Porter. Calvin Klein’s clothing line became famous in the 70s, too, as did Adidas.
Everything got big in 80s fashion, from giant blown-out hair to boxy shoulder pads and rectangular shirts and jackets to high-waisted jeans. The 80s celebrated a lot of clashing colors and textures, like legwarmers over pants, leather and velvet, and neon colors with everything. Big jewelry with popping colors came into style, as did enormous eyeglasses, Spandex, and workout gear for the first time.
While graphic t-shirts (meaning T-shirts with things printed onto them) did gain popularity in the 70s, they hit their stride in the 80s. Punk rock and grunge movements formed the counterculture during this decade, and fashion became a way for these groups to express their beliefs.
Of course, mainstream brands and designers made a big impact, too! Sasson, Jordache, Guess, Wrangler, Esprit, and Gucci hit their heyday in this decade. Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood, and other designers shaped the unique 80s look, as did celebrities like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Princess Di.
Look for power suits in bold colors, denim jackets, and statement t-shirts as you scrounge through vintage stores for authentic 80s clothing.
Anyone over twenty years old probably finds it tough to think of the 1990s as a “vintage” era–but technically, it is! Nineties fashion leaned hard on the grunge and punk rock movement for inspiration, with denim and leather jackets, ripped jeans, chunky boots, and lots and lots of plaid taking over. Scrunchies became popular, as did bomber jackets and slip dresses.
Athletic clothes continued to gain popularity, especially as textile sciences developed more advanced sports-performance fabrics. Shirts with horizontal stripes also gained an almost weird universal appeal, most of them made out of polyester jersey knit t-shirt fabric. Board shorts, colored sunglasses, and clothes layered on each other had a brief moment in the fashion spotlight, too.
If you like 90s style, look for brand names like Tommy Hilfiger, Pepe Jeans, Billabong, Nike, Hugo Boss, and Eddie Bauer.
Finding recent vintage clothes like these is easier than finding clothes from the 1950s because more of each style was mass-produced in the 90s and also because less time has passed and the clothes have not had as much time to get damaged or thrown away.
Examples of Vintage Clothes
Examples of vintage clothes include any good-quality, iconic item made between 1920 and 1990, such as:
- Flapper dresses, Mary Jane shoes, or anything designed by Chanel from the 1920s
- Bolero jackets, bias-cut dresses, and Oxford from the 1930s
- Wartime styles from the 1940s.
- Full-bodied swing dresses, circle skirts from the 1950s, and big-name designer labels like Christain Dior.
- Shift dresses and thigh-high boots from the 1960s.
- Bellbottoms from the 1970s.
- Shoulder pads and spandex from the 80s.
- Grunge and denim from the 90s.
Vintage Clothing Brands
You can find thousands of vintage clothing brands and designers from the past, many of them long extinct by now. The best way to find a vintage brand you like is by researching what fashion era suits your body type and personal style. Then pick a particular kind of clothing from that time period that you like, and research brands and designers who sold that item.
This way, you can shop for vintage clothes with confidence. For example, if you want a swing-dress-style evening gown from the 1950s, you can start by looking for authentic Christain Dior dresses at specialty stores.
How Long Before Clothes are Vintage?
Clothes need to be at least twenty years old to be considered vintage. This is a sliding scale because every year, the twenty-year mark shifts forward.
Ten-year-old clothes do not fall into the vintage category. These clothes remain modern and many of the same styles continue to sell in big box stores around the world.
Of course, you can still buy used or pre-loved ten-year-old clothes and often score great deals while at it! Boutique thrift stores build their businesses on selling barely used clothing like this. You can often find brand-name items or even clothes with tags still on and avoid paying the price you would have handed over for the same item in a regular clothing store.
At twenty years old, clothes can sometimes attain a vintage status. This does depend on other factors like the brand and condition of an individual garment.
Right now, the twenty-year rule means that clothing made in the 1990s has become vintage. In a few more years, clothes from the 2000s (leggings and skinny jeans, anyone?) will become vintage.
Clothes made fifty years ago, in the 1970s, are a popular choice for people who like vintage clothes. The 70s had flamboyant fashion trends like bellbottoms and tie-dyed maxi dresses, so who wouldn’t love this warm, colorful style?
The general rule for vintage vs antique is that clothes made more than 100 years ago get antique status, and clothes made between twenty and 100 years ago get vintage status.
Retro Vs Vintage Clothes
The main difference between retro and vintage clothes is that retro means “vintage style,” while vintage means a garment made in the past. This is a technical definition, though, and most people use the words retro and vintage interchangeably in everyday conversation.
The problem with this is that it can make shopping for real vintage clothes pretty confusing. Many modern brands and stores sell expensive retro clothes in historic styles like bell bottoms, swing skirts, or platform shoes. While there is nothing wrong with these clothes, the company had them made in a factory just a few months ago–they are not vintage!
Vintage Vs Secondhand Clothing
Technically speaking, vintage clothes form a specialized subcategory of second-hand clothes, and stores and shoppers use these two terms very distinctly.
- Second-hand typically means clothing bought at yard sales or thrift stores that cost less per garment than a new item of the same type and brand. In contrast, vintage clothes may cost significantly more than modern items in the same brand because of the collectibility of these items.
- Vintage clothing often has either a history (it belonged to a famous person) or a particular style (it looks like something worn by a famous person in the past). Used clothing is more generic and does not have a specific history or affiliation.
- In many cases, vintage clothes contain natural, high-quality fabrics. Used clothes more often contain cheaper synthetic fabrics.
- Vintage clothes usually feature name brands or famous designer labels, while second-hand clothes come from less expensive clothing brands.
Vintage Vs Classic
The difference between vintage and classic clothes is that vintage describes the age of a garment, while classic describes an enduring style of clothing. Many vintage garments have a classic style, but not all classic clothes are vintage.
Fashion experts typically describe a classic style as simple, timeless, and tailored. A classic outfit might feature a pencil skirt, crisp blouse, and pearl earrings paired with name-brand heels, for example.
Vintage clothes represent one time period, like the 1940s; classic clothes can come from any time period but remain “in style” forever.
How Can You Tell if Clothing is Vintage?
Some of the best ways to tell if clothing is vintage include checking the font used on labels, the copyright stamped on tags, and the fabric composition of the garment.
- Unique kinds of typography, or letter fonts, gained popularity at different points in history. Check the logos and tags in the garment to see if they use a typography like the distinctive Helvetica from the 1960s.
- Some clothing brands from the past included a copyright date on the manufacturer’s tag. This will tell you the manufacturing year of the garment.
- The tag inside most garments includes information about the fabric content. You can also do your best to guess the content by rubbing a fold of the cloth between your fingers–synthetics made post-70s will have a more plasticky feel than all-natural cloth.
Finally, here’s a simple tip that can quickly help you weed out many modern vintage-style knockoffs. Before 1971 most clothes did not include a care tag that tells you how to wash and iron a garment. So if you see that tag on a 1950s-style garment, you can bet your buttons that the garment is not authentically vintage!
Since the 1970s, shopping for vintage clothes has been a popular and stylish way to acquire iconic or timeless wardrobe staples. The term vintage clothes mean designer or high-quality garments made between twenty and 100 years ago. Most vintage clothes come pre-owned, but they must remain in excellent condition and often sell for a high price as collectible items.
A few examples of popular authentic vintage items to shop for include tie-die shirts and dresses from the 1970s, graphic tees from the 80s, and jeans from the 90s. When shopping for real vintage clothing, make sure you avoid retro clothing. This is just new clothing made in the same style as historic clothes.