Winters Past

20th Century Fashion from Deco to Disco

April 7, 2015
by Winters Past

Here’s a post for true vintage geeks. How do you arrive at your best guess as to how old a garment is?  Here is the Cliff notes version:

check the style, the label, the care label, the seams, the zipper, and the fabric. 

And here are the details:

  1. First, what is the  silhouette of the garment?  In other words, what’s its general shape?  A fit-and-flare dress with a tiny waist and huge, below-knee skirt is likely from the 1950s, while a slim-fit dress with huge shoulder pads is probably from the 1980s. Spend a little time  exploring the arc of fashion, which will help you pinpoint the era.

Of course, styles of one decade are reworked in other times periods. For example, fifties style dresses were popular in the late seventies and early eighties.

If you google “fashion history infographics” you’ll see lots of cool charts that show the silhouette of each era, like this one (which inexplicably skips the fifties):

fashion history infographic

Fashion history infographic


  1. Check the seams.  If your garment has “serged” seams, it probably dates to after the mid-1960s.  Serged seams were uncommon before the mid-1960s, when manufacturers began using sergers routinely to finish seams. Older garments also sometimes had very large seams to allow for alterations.  They might also be finished by “pinking,” or cutting with zig-zag scissors.

However, homemade clothing often doesn’t have serged seams, so it can look vintage even if it’s not. If your item’s seams aren’t serged, look for a manufacturer’s tag to see if it’s commercially made.

  1. Look for labels.  Start with the obvious:  if your label says Made in China or has a note on it, the piece is clearly not vintage.

Since 1960, clothes have been required to carry labels saying the fiber content (with percentages) and place of manufacture.  If your garment has a retro-looking label without any fiber content, it might be older than 1960.  Lots of garments from the 1950s will have a fiber tag without a percentage–for instance, simply “Cotton.”

Of course, people sometimes just cut tags out, so lack of a tag doesn’t always equal vintage.

You may also see a Woolmark symbol, which first appeared in 1964. These are still being used.

Union labels are a good clue but they don’t always mean vintage. They have been appearing in US-made clothing for over a hundred years–so it’s true that a lot of vintage clothing has them. Look for labels that contain the letters ILGWU (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union), which likely indicates vintage. After 1995, the union adopted a label that says “UNITE” on it.  Union labels that say UNITE are not vintage.

Another excellent resource for labels is the Vintage Fashion Guild’s label resource. Here, dedicated vintage fashion lovers have collected and compiled histories of the labels of hundreds of vintage clothing manufacturers, often giving you dates when a certain maker’s label was used.

  1. Check zippers.  Metal zippers often indicate an item made before 1960, when plastic zippers for dressmaking became more common.  Metal zippers are still routinely used for heavy-duty uses like jeans and jackets.  But a metal zipper in a dress is often a good clue for vintage status.  Keep in mind that an old dress could have a plastic zipper if the original one was replaced.  And a newer item with a metal zipper could have been homemade.
  1. Look for care labels. If your garment has a sewn-in label stating how to care for it, it was probably manufactured after 1972. The US government started requiring full care labels that year, and many clothes made before then did not have them.

Keep in mind, though, that a lack of care label doesn’t necessarily mean the piece is older than 1972. Sometimes people cut them out. And not all clothes were made in the US, obviously.

  1. Look at the fabric and feel the weight and quality of it. Even if there is no label, you can learn to know by feel if it’s an older or newer cloth. Most pre-fifties cloth is a natural fiber, and usually not blended. If it’s not a natural fiber and it’s an older piece, it would be made of nylon.   “Wash and wear” fabric, a blend of cotton and acrylic, started to be used in the fifties and by the sixties, more polyester was used.