More than seven years and 620 blog posts later, I think it could be time to write an informative blog post for those starting out in vintage – what to look for, and how to date fashion.
Here’s the disclaimer:
There is an unlimited amount of information you can know on this topic. It’s been my focus for almost 35 years and I still find items that give me pause for thought. That’s a big part of why I love it: you could never be bored with vintage fashion, there is so much to see and learn. What I hope to offer is a solid starting point for you to explore from.
Identifying vintage is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle and putting the pieces together in the right way to come to the most likely conclusion about what it is. There are a few different elements to consider and weight needs to be given to each:
1 – Fabric
2 – Construction
3 – Style
4 – Detailing (if any)
5 – Labels (if any)
6 – Openings and Fastenings (if any)
General notes on dating items:
– I always date items as the most recent they could be, because the likelihood is towards recent over older. Older garments have had more time to wear out or be thrown away and so rarity increases.
– Certainties are rare in fashion so they always outweigh other factors.
– Never rely on a seller’s opinion of a date, not even if she wore it “back in the day” or is an expert. There’s an enormous quantity of mis-dated or even fraudulent vintage available and it’s best to increase your knowledge so you can feel confident of your own opinion. This is particularly important for expensive items. If in doubt, ask questions or seek a second opinion.
1 – Fabric.
Vintage fabric is one of the best things about vintage fashion: often luxury materials are used that are sought after and expensive. Many fabrics aren’t even made any more. Your enjoyment wearing it will be dictated to a large degree by how nice the material is.
Here’s where technology is important – when a fabric was invented or introduced is a certainty. For example, if nylon wasn’t used until ’47, then that cute little nylon ’20s dress is not going to be a real ’20s dress (so it should be priced accordingly). Likewise a Victorian dress made of polyester must be a more modern revival style.
Pay particular attention to fabric when you acquire an item because if you want to wear it, or invest in it as a collectable it is imperative than the condition be good.
Sometimes in vintage you will find “deadstock” or “new old stock” – these are vintage pieces that have not been worn. They’re more sought after and collectable but their condition reflects their storage, not their wear, and it’s not uncommon for these items to show stains, rips and other deterioration.
Any deterioration can provide clues to age but more importantly, diminish the value and life of the garment. Think carefully before buying anything that either needs major work, or can not be repaired. If you don’t sew, you might like to consider every missing button or stitch as well, as it can get costly to replace and repair these items if you’re paying someone else.
Don’t take the sellers word for it when they say “an easy fix” because they often lack the skill and experience to know what’s involved and leave it up to you to take the risk.
Hand beaded and embroidered alaskine (silk and wool mix) evening dress from the 1960s.
On the other hand, if you’re okay with flaws (or handy with a needle and thread) you can pick up some serious bargains because a high proportion of vintage is damaged, and should be priced significantly cheaper for it.
Every fabric is comprised of the fibre (or textile) and the weave (what the fibre is made into). For example, silk satin – silk is the fibre and satin is the weave, so you can also get polyester satin and rayon satin.
An effective way to test for fabric composition is to (carefully) burn a snippet – Instructions and results can be found at the Vintage Fashion Guild.
Another way is to build up your knowledge through touching fabrics and looking at the labels, but as many fabrics are mixes of fibres, the burn test will provide more accurate results.
Here’s a quick low down on fibre types:
Natural fibres (cottons, wools, silks, rubber, linens, leathers, furs etc)
Available during any time period, although the weaves vary with fashion and can help with dating eg, silk shantung had a real moment in the early ’60s especially in teal and orange colours.
Silk organza was popular in the ’50s. Silk crepe was a staple of ’30s dinner dresses, and silk chiffon often found in ’20s beaded evening dresses.
Note that natural fibres are the most comfortable to wear and easy to restore, but are more expensive to buy, especially new.
Man-made fibres (rayons and viscoses)
Invented in the late Victorian era as “artificial silk” or “art silk”, rayon (also called viscose, especially in the UK) developed into a wide range of natural fibre fabric imitators in the ’30s, when they were particularly popular during the Great Depression and later during WW2. Eg, faux linen, faux silk.
Pre ’50s rayons have a different composition than post ’50s rayons and require hand-washing (or in the case of crepe, dry cleaning). Rayons mirror the nice qualities of natural fibres and you can soak out stains – unless they’re crepe, which will shrink and rip – but lack their strenth so be gentle especially if they’re very old.
They’re beautiful fabrics though, and many of us seek them out.
Underarm protectors (small crescent shaped shields that are affixed to the interior and washed between uses, available from haberdashers) are recommended to best preserve the underarms, which rip when they’ve absorbed perspiration. Swing dancers take note please!
Rayons are named for the slight sheen their fibres can produce, although it’s hard to see in some weaves.
Synthetic fibres (nylons, polyesters, polyamids, lycras etc)
Nylon first appeared as a silk substitute in the late ’30s for hosiery and was developed into fashion fabrics for clothes post WW2 (1947 was when the industry got back into the swing).
I’ll confess that I originally dated this dress as late ’30s but a burn test revealed its late ’40s origins.
Polyesters were introduced into ladieswear in the ’50s and quickly become popular in the U.S.A. but were rarely used in Australia until the next decade when they really took off.
Until the mid ’60s each factory used its own trademarked name for the fibre: Dacron (an early acrylic which imitates wool), Terylene, Crimplene….if you find a fabric name on a label you don’t recognise, it’s likely to be a type of polyester, the umbrella term that was introduced in the ’60s.
There is an issue with early synthetics in that they’re prone to breaking down, especially when in sponge forms, linings and paddings like bras and swimwear, hats and furs. I recommend my blog post on Devil Dust – the grainy red or brownish-orange coloured residue that can form is unpleasant and irreversible. If your garment shows any sign of this effect, tread with caution. Many sensational ’60s frocks have been lost to this issue, at all levels of quality. I can only hope that they’ve solved the problem or we’ll all be drowning in Devil Dust in a few decades.
In recent years we also see polyamids. Most modern garments are made of synthetics: they’re generally robust but prone to pilling and hard to remove oil-based stains. From an investment point of view, they don’t hold their value as well as natural fibres or early man-made fibres either. It’s no secret that I prefer natural fibres.
Synthetics feel warmer to the touch than natural or man-made materials, but can otherwise imitate other fibres. Modern synthetics can be quite luxurious too: they’ve come a long way from Crimplene.
More on the other topics – Construction, Style, Detailing, Labels and Openings and Fastenings – soon!
Here are some useful links:
– If you’d like to look at more specific fabric deterioration topics like shattering, dry rot and iron mordant please check out my series of Vintage 101 posts.
– If you’d like to know more about particular fabrics and how to identify them, please see the Vintage Fashion Guild’s excellent Fabric Resource.