a comprehensive guide to vintage clothing
Modern clothing in its most accessible form is not made like it was 30 years ago. Due to the influx of internationally made clothing and the increasing consumer demand for lower and lower prices, brands now cut costs in areas where many would be appalled if they possessed greater knowledge of what goes on behind closed doors.
Beginning in roughly the 1970s, clothing companies sought new ways to manufacture their products in ways that cut costs both on the production side as well as on the consumer side. This inevitably drove the process offshores to poor developing countries where workers do not receive the same rights and protections as they do domestically. Poor, inexpensive working conditions combined with wages set below even poverty level, enable manufacturing facilities to offer these services at a fraction of what they cost in the United States.
As demand increased for cheaper and cheaper clothing, so did it increase for cheaper and cheaper manufacturers, thus creating a competition for which facility can provide the lowest bid. In regards to new products, lower costs almost always correlates with a poorer quality product as, in total, less working hours are required to deliver a finished product. Less time spent working on a given article of clothing translates to answering the question, "What is the minimum amount of effort required to finish this article of clothing?" It translates to lesser quality seams, lesser quality fabric, and an overall minimum amount of handiwork.
Fabrics became thinner. Seams simplified. Cuts grew inconsistent (bulk cutting contributes to actual size variation despite the tag reading as the same). Thus, with quality deteriorating to the bare minimum, consumers began to regard their clothing as disposable. Hence, the $5 t-shirts and $10 jeans found at retail chains, where - being accustomed to these prices - customers rejoice at saving money rather than questioning how a finished product can cost so little.
This is not to say that cheap clothing is bad, per se, because of the far too many individuals living at/below the poverty line; clothing is a necessity just as much as food, water, and shelter. Cheap new clothing is the issue at hand.
As avid thrifters ourselves, it's immediately obvious how much "new" clothing is consumed and then discarded/donated - oftentimes with the original tags still attached, and then sold for a fraction of its original price. It forces shoppers to confront the idea of our compulsive mass consumerism and its impact - not just the trickle down effect from creation to purchase to donation to purchase, but everything else it touches outside of its origin story.
New clothing requires resources: agricultural labor (if the fabrics are natural), water, carbon dioxide, chemicals/dyes/treatments (usually dumped into local waterways in said poor developing countries), additional water during the prior process, labor to spin/weave the fabric, labor and equipment to cut, sew, package, and ship the garments, labor to receive the garments, facility to sell the product, and then finally the natural resources required to transport consumers from their homes to the buildings where these items are sold for far too little money.
Vintage clothing, on the other hand, is the most sustainable, and arguably ethical, purchase you can make.
To put it simply: you find a fresh piece of clothing to incorporate into your wardrobe that did not require any resources in order for you to acquire. Often, vintage pieces can be found at small nonprofit thrift stores where your purchase positively impact the lives of others in some capacity. Other times, vintage pieces are found at unique, curated specialty shops where your purchase helps a small, independently owned business.
Either way, shopping vintage is beneficial both for the planet and for other people.
That being said, what should you look for when you're out treasure hunting? What are key indicators of a great piece of vintage?
Keep reading for a thorough breakdown of what we look for both when we're out shopping for ourselves as well as when we receive donations for the store.
- One of the fastest ways to determine the approximate age of a garment is to check whether or not it has a Union Made tag somewhere on the inside. These are generally a small white (though they sometimes fade to brown over time) tag with a blue and red circle with the words, "Union Made ILGWU," in the center. What this tag tells us is that it was made in the United States some time between 1974 and 1995, although other variations predate that until 1900. The design changed 8 times in that timespan, so refer to this article from Sammy D Vintage for a detailed breakdown of each time period and its coordinating Union tag design.
- Additionally, check to see if the item has a garment care label or not. If so, that means it was made in 1971 or later. That year marks the beginning of clothing manufacturers being required to include a garment care and composition label, as ruled by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). It not, then it was either handmade or was made prior to 1971.
- Did you stumble upon a contemporary brand with an old tag? Many fashion houses today have a long, detailed history that can be traced back through their tag designs. The Vintage Fashion Guild assembled an amazing resource that allows consumers to identify exactly when their clothing was made based on the designer's tag. Brands are listed alphabetically and from there, by label design. We highly recommend using this resource if you're interested in the history behind your clothing.
- Does the fabric feel scratchy? If you answer yes, then you're likely holding a vintage piece. Polyester gained massive popularity starting in the 1970s (re: companies wanting to offer cheaper clothing), but they hadn't yet mastered the techniques found in modern polyester garments.
- Higher quality vintage clothing is more likely to come in silks, wools, and linens. Be sure to carefully inspect garments made from natural fibers as silks can deteriorate over time if the original owner(s) did not properly care for/store it. Wools are prone to moth holes, but these can repaired if you find someone who knows the proper technique. Yellowing can occur in lightly colored clothing that may be permanent.
- Overall trends per decade:
- Note: The farther back in time you go, the better quality seams and finishing you find.
- For a full guide on this timeline, which starts in the 1800's, we encourage you to read this guide on the Vintage Fashion Guild. To summarize starting in the 1930's, keep reading.
- 1930s: Metal zippers make their debut as a more efficient means of closing garments. Small shoulder pads become fashionable, setting the stage for future trends.
- 1940s: Wide shoulders, slim waists, and narrow hips. Extravagance is put on hold due to wartime efforts, and instead practicality is king. Slacks began to debut, although still not widely accepted.
- 1950s: Much of this clothing needs the proper undergarments in order to look like it fits correctly, i.e., bullet bras, corselets, waist-cinchers and girdles. "Practical but attractive housedresses." Mass production makes it major debut in clothing manufacturing as ready-to-wear collections began to be available in the market.
- 1960s: Inspiration drawn from French and British fashion from the babydoll silhouette to Twiggy's influence. Psychedelic patterns woven from silk. Fresh takes on suits. Mini skirts.
- 1970s: Maxi dresses, pantsuits, more masculine styles due to women joining the workforce more than ever before. Style icons included Diane Keaton's character Annie Hall, Cheryl Tiegs, and Farrah Fawcett, among others. Rich earthy tones. Polyester dominates the mainstream clothing market. Disco. Rock 'n' Roll. Denim. Woodstock.
- 1980s: Everything this decade is dramatic, from the ruffles to the colors to the shoulder pads. This decade marked one of the wealthiest in our nation's history, and people used that wealth to consume. Big labels included Izon, Lacost, and Ralph Lauren, worn by 'Yuppies." Dallas and Dynasty both inspired much of the bedazzled dresses, big hair, and bright makeup. Vivienne Westwood helped make accessible the corsets and bustiers now being worn as street clothing rather than undergarments. Style icons included Annie Lennox, Boy George, David Bowie, and Grace Jones.
- 1990s: Heroin chic and supermodel thin welcome us into the decade. High fashion worships the ultra skinny models, and Gianni Versace dons them in styles that somehow meld the opulent muchness of the late 80s with the alt rock future of the 90s. Grunge hits the scene in the mid 90s with bands like Nirvana gaining notoriety with their flannel, Doc Martens, and dirty t-shirts. Hip Hop finally broke into mainstream pop culture this decade, bringing with it its entirely own flavor.
- Zippers/snaps/seams (this is our source; read there for more details and identifiers):
- Questions to ask yourself: What is the button made of? Plastic or metal?
- If plastic, is it clear or colored?
- Clear buttons are made from lucite and, when on a vintage garment, are likely to be from the 1950s.
- If they're colored, try rubbing a small amount of 409 on it with a Q-tip. If the swab is yellow, then it is Bakelite, which is a type of plastic invented in 1909 and largely used on garments in the 1930s and 1940s.
- Unless altered by a modern tailor, you will never find a zipper on garments until the 1920s, and even then only sparingly.
- 1930s: if at all, the zipper will be metal and likely hidden in the side seam
- 1940s: always metal and found in the side seam
- 1950s: always metal and either found in the side seam or the back center seam
- 1960s: sometimes metal, sometimes plastic and almost always on the back center seam
- 1970s - current: plastic zippers almost always found on the back center seam
- Pre-1940s: French seams; these are the cleanest as no raw edge is exposed
- 1950s: Pinked seams where the edge was trimmed with pinking sheers to prevent fraying before being fastened down
- 1960s: Serged seams make their official debut as it can be done by machine and finishes garments efficiently without fraying edges
- Unfinished seams: likely made prior 1950 because pinking shears and serger machines weren't yet available to at-home seamstresses
- Know your measurements!
- This almost goes without saying. Size standardizations weren't widely used until the 1970s when they were mandated, which translates to a size 10 from 1965 will never match up to a modern size 10. We recommend knowing the following:
- In so doing, this information will enable you to purchase vintage both online and in person. Additionally, this is helpful information if you ever find a piece that you intend to tailor to your exact shape.
- Should you still buy a piece if it's damaged?
- The short answer: YES.
- Damage does not a death sentence make. Did you find a gorgeous white blouse with a stubborn yellow stain on it? Dye it. What about some incredible vintage Levi's 501's but they have some *inappropriate* rips in them? Patch them with a punchy statement fabric. And that gorgeous leather jacket with a giant rip in the sleeve? Take them off and turn it into a vest.
- The major takeaway here is to not be afraid of damage; if you're willing and able to put in a little bit of elbow grease, you literally take someone else's trash and turn it into your treasure. Repurposing is one of the great R's of sustainability and can be incorporated into your life in an infinite number of ways.
Please feel welcome to bookmark this page as a resource for you to use next time you go in search of your next vintage piece. Shopping with knowledge and intention allows us all to create wardrobes that feel like the most authentic expressions of ourselves. Vintage clothing can serve as a way to curate one-of-a-kind pieces that you won't find on anyone else while still caring for your wallet, garment workers, and the planet.
Go forth and conquer, friends <3
The Do Good team