Probably the most common question that I get asked is how to date vintage clothing: how can you tell when it was made?
This is a good question to ask because it helps determine how rare it is, how much you should pay for it and most importantly, how you can care for it.
It’s a big topic and although I’ve been doing this for over forty years, studied the history of dress and read hundreds of books, I’m still learning because there is an unlimited variety of clothing that can, and is, made at any given time – but there are patterns and absolutes you can rely upon. Here’s an introduction.
When you look at a garment, it tells you many stories – I like to think of it as a jigsaw puzzle. Here are the main ones:
- garment type
- silhouette (or shape it makes when being worn)
- construction methods used
- labels: care, country of origin and size
- detailing and embellishment
- openings and fasteners
The answers to these questions add up to give you an approximate date, usually within five years and sometimes even down to a year or season.
Let’s look at this dress, worn by Becky Lou and what it tells us about these categories.
- Garment type – evening gown
- Silhouette – Sleeveless, full length, fitted bodice, slightly full skirt, lower backline than neckline, soft dart-style pleats into the waistline, small armscyes (armholes).
- Fabric – rayon (fibre), satin (weave). Acetate lining.
- Colour – dark tealy bottle green
- Construction – professional dressmaker
- Labels – none
- Detailing – self-covered cording to waist, large bow to centre back waist, diamante trim to bow centre
- Openings – centre back zipper (metal), kick vent to centre back skirt
Don’t worry if your skill level isn’t up to identifying some of the elements; you can probably still discern enough to narrow down the date quite a bit and every experience is valuable.
Some of these are common elements and some are less so: while most fashion (especially that worn by younger women) is affected by trends, some styles are resilient to changes. Remember that garments made by the home or professional dressmaker may use older styles, materials and components, so these are elements should carry less weight than they do in commercial apparel. In general I always date as the most recent date possible, to err on the side of caution, as the older a garment is, the rarer it is and hence, less likely.
Here’s a chart of those elements, alongside possible rough dates.
You’ll note that a lot of these elements are common, with only a few that stand out: in particular, small armscyes, which is a distinctive style element of the ’60s. It’s the only time, apparently, we were happy to restrict our arm movement in the cause of beauty – and ever since armscyes became very large in the ’80s, we’ve become used to looseness. It’s a big giveaway when ’60s styles returned in the ’90s if you want a trick to tell the difference.
As an example, see the enormous armscyes in this ’80s Burberry suit, worn by Clare St Clare. So much room!
Another unusual style element is the lower backline than neckline: we also saw this in the ’30s but I haven’t included that decade in the consideration because nothing else about this dress says it’s that early. You, can, however, see the lower backline as worn by Audrey Hepburn in her “My Fair Lady” costumes in 1964 (performance costumes, even when set in other times, often reflect elements of current fashion).
The lower back thing is a handy way to tell the difference between an early ’50s and a late ’50s (or early ’60s) because the styles can otherwise look quite similar. There’s also hem length but hems were often taken up during this time so determining the original hem length requires some skill).
So analysing this particular dress, the likelihood is that it was made in the early to mid 1960s, which was also a special moment for teal as a popular colour.
Let’s have a look at a labelled garment: they’re easier because labels tell you so much. But first, I have to add the disclaimer that labels can be added or replaced, so I recommend checking the stitching to see if it matches and looks original. This is particularly important when you’re looking at a designer garment. I’ve seen some shocking fakes (a 1920s Dior!), and at least two seemingly reputable vintage clothing dealers who’ve done this at times, so caution is advised when you’re investing heavily.
So let’s apply the same system:
- Garment type – tennis dress
- Silhouette – sleeveless, loose hourglass, short full skirt, built in knickers
- Fabric – cotton (fibre), waffleweave (weave)
- Colour – white
- Construction – commercial
- Labels – maker/designer, size
- Detailing – Ruched, elasticated shoulder straps
- Openings – centre front plastic buttons
We have an added bonus with this one: it’s new old stock, what we call ‘deadstock’ (unsold, and stored away for decades: how nice for us!) and comes with its original swing tag, providing more clues. “It’s your Blouse Madame!” tells us that ‘Hobby-Styles” are blouse-makers, or maybe they put the wrong tag on this time? The style, graphic and name ‘House of styles and novelties’ sounds like a product from a different age, you might already have a good idea of when this garment originates.
See what you can find on the fashion company: google is a good start, but as it’s an Australian company (because it has an Aus size and pre-decimal price) you’ll probably find Trove more useful. You can also try the Business Name Register but it’s not good for older companies. Some words are common and so it is with ‘Hobby-Styles’: a search doesn’t turn up anything useful.
I love and frequently use the Vintage Fashion Guild’s Label Resource (note to self: must add more Aus labels) and garments made in other countries sometimes have numbers on them that you can search, for example, those from the USA might have RN numbers. Most of the information on labels is useful to you (although some are internal codes that elude us).
I then searched ebay and etsy and other online marketplaces to see if there’s anything else with the label: this can help you narrow down dates, by comparing the label font and style. Be cautious when accepting online seller’s dates though: there’s a lot of misdated vintage out there, so it’s best to make your own mind up.
In this case, I only found one thing online: a Melbourne vintage seller offering a gorgeous silver and black mini dress. She hasn’t shared a photo of the label but it’s reassuring that she’s in the same city as I am, suggesting that it’s probably a Melbourne label, the home of Australian manufacturing in the mid-century.
I’m lucky to have my own database of thousands of garments from my collection and ex-shop, so I search there and find another three garments: a stripy ’50s romper, a cotton floral ’60s sundress and a lace ’50s top. It’s looking like they were operating in the ’50s and ’60s and focused on casualwear, which tallies with this garment and the style of the swing tag.
Here’s the chart:
Sportswear can be hard to date, because it’s purpose-built and not as prone to fashion trends as other garment types so the chart not surprisingly backs up what we’ve already learned; that the dress likely dates somewhere between the ’50s and the mid ’60s.
I suspect that this particular brand was owned by a larger fashion company, so if you found that name, a lot more information would be available. If the company imports, you should find it in importer lists but most mid-century Australian fashion houses didn’t do much of that, especially at the budget end of things (useful for higher end, or ’60s and onwards though). You can also search hard-copy archival newspapers and magazines (Trove, as much as I love and depend upon it, doesn’t have everything, bless them).
This is an inexhaustive topic, but I hope this introduction has helped in your own search and understanding for the truth in our vintage wardrobes. If you’d like to know more about identification using vintage labels look here, vintage sizes look here and vintage fabrics here.