A lot of people ask me how I tell if a piece of clothing is vintage, or how I tell what era it's from. This is something I absolutely understand, because it's something that baffled me in the beginning as well! It can be really difficult to tell since fashion goes through cycles, and often styles from past eras crop up again in a much different decade. In the 1980s, there was a resurgence of clothing done in 1950s styles, however, while the styles might be the same, there are several simple clues that will tell you whether you've got the genuine thing or a reproduction! There's absolutely nothing wrong with buying a repro, often the condition might be better and if you're wanting to wear it, then it might be perfect for your needs! Personally speaking, instead of buying an authentic Victorian couch, I went with a quality reproduction from the 1980s, so I didn't have to get it reupholstered and because it just made more sense in the grand scheme of things for me.
There are four basic things I look at when deciding whether or not I want to buy a piece while I'm out thrifting: style, fabric, tags and labels, and seams and stitching.
This is simple and something you're already looking at! Check out the silhouette of the piece and the details put into the garment, such as pleating, embroidery, etc. Researching silhouettes of the past can be very helpful, but even just watching old movies or present-day television shows with accurate styling such as Mad Men, can be extremely helpful! The 50s had two main silhouettes that are easy to identify: the circle skirt and the wiggle dress. Circle skirts and dresses with circle skirts are what you imagine with a poofy crinoline underneath, they have a lot of fabric to them and are the perfect silhouette for twirling (Any guesses what my favorite activity was as a little girl?). A wiggle dress fit tighter to the body and the bottom tapered down smaller and made a woman "wiggle" as she walked (no joking), because there wasn't a lot of room for leg movement. I guess you could think of the recent body-con dress trend, but these dresses were made out of a thicker and less stretchy fabric and were quite elegant, not your standard club-wear! The 60s had a lot of empire waists and shift style dresses, while the 70s was full of quirky details like dagger collars, belled sleeves, and renaissance influences. Don't expect clothing that looks like the Halloween costume version of the decade (but sometimes, maybe you should)!
Fabric is something you learn by feel. I don't understand what many different types of fabric are, but let me tell you, I can definitely feel the difference! Fragility is something you should expect from much older pieces, as often they've not had the best care taken of them in the long run. I find that fabric is often much heavier in vintage clothing, for example the lining for formal dresses is often stiffer. Fabric thickness doesn't always ring true; it depends on the decade, the style, and of course the purpose! The fabric is often just higher quality in older pieces, because clothing was meant to last longer, and it's often why many pieces will still look good today (unlike a Forever21 piece that will have probably disintegrated by even the time 40 years comes around). One of the biggest exceptions on thicker fabrics, is nightgowns or undergarments. For example, 50s and 60s nightgowns are often made of nylon that has an almost chiffon-like quality to it. This stuff is unlike anything I've seen used in present-day and is absolutely glorious stuff. You can single it out almost instantly once you know what it feels like. It's light and airy, but not totally sheer, it's got kind of a gauze-y look that feels like it's soft-focus. Even while looking light and airy, this stuff has staying power. I rarely see damaged pieces unless they're stained. They don't seem to "pull" like a lot of more modernly used sheer fabrics. If you get a chance to go to a vintage store, the best research is just to really "feel" the pieces, in my opinion, because it's going to help you single out things while thrifting much easier! You will also find that certain fabrics were much more prevalent in different decades, although cotton has been around for a LONG time! Manufactured fabrics, like Nylon and Polysester weren't really used until the 1940s and 1950s. This article by Julie of V for Vintage called "Nylon, a fashion history," is a really fascinating look at the history of man-made fabrics. Once you get the feel of vintage fabric down, you're going to be a lot closer to identifying if it's vintage and when it's from.
3) TAGS AND LABELS
Checking out any tags or labels a garment may have is REALLY helpful in dating the piece, and one of my most used methods. When a piece of clothing comes without labels, because they've been cut out, I get really sad as it is so helpful when learning the history of the garment! Some pieces might come without any labels though because they've been handmade. A piece of advice I've seen over and over again is that if a care label is included with direction on how to wash the garment, then it is not pre-70s, as this is when it became a requirement. Another very helpful tag to look for is one from the International Ladies Garment Worker Union, otherwise known as the ILGWU. These come in several types and a very helpful breakdown is included here. One of the best labels on a garment though, in my opinion, is the one telling you which company company/designer the garment was made by! Some companies will automatically give you the sign that it's a modern garment, like Forever21, Charlotte Russe, etc. However other companies we think of as modern might not be just up for current trends, such as Abercrombie & Fitch who actually have a long and proud history since 1904! Vanity Fair has also been around for a very long time, with the current company name being around since 1917. So, you ask yourself, "How am I supposed to tell between 1920's Vanity Fair and 2015's Vanity Fair?" Have no fear, while styles of garments change, the company labels in the garments also change! Your modern 2015 Vanity Fair tag looks much different than one in a 1950s nightie or the tag in a pair of tap panties from the 1920s. Vintage Fashion Guild has an incredible resource for your perusal that you can see here, that not only gives you a great blurb about each company but also has photos of many of the tags and labels you'll find and a close approximation for the decade the garment came from as well. Find a label you don't see? Send it to them along with some shots of the garment! This resource was made possible by people like you, and it can be even further expanded with your help. If it's a smaller company, it might not be included in their resource though, but it should be included in TESS, which is the Trademark Electronic Search System, which can tell you when the company was around!
4) SEAMS, STITCHING, ETC.
Quite honestly, I'm no expert at identifying seams and stitching in a garment, but keep in mind that a vintage garment might not have the same finishing as a modern garment. I was personally very confused by one dress I thrifted, because the seams had pinking sheared edges. My mom's observation was that it must have been handmade. However, a handmade dress isn't likely to have a label inside, which this one did! It turns out, that pinked seams were commonly used in the 1950s! Another helpful hint is that metal zippers were more often used in older garments. For example, a 50s dress is going to have a metal zipper, whereas the 80s repro is going to have a nylon zipper.
These are just a few quick and dirty tips for identifying and dating vintage that I've learned over the last few years! I really hope it was informative and helps you find out more about the your vintage clothing!
Here are some other great tips and guides from fellow vintage enthusiasts:
Some more helpful tips: Quick Tips for Dating Vintage by Hollis Jenkins-Evans
A very helpful guide to silhouettes: 20th century fashion eras by Tuppence Ha'Penny Vintage
How to Date vintage clothing by looking at zips by QueensofVintage