Vintage Series: How to Date an Item
Vintage clothing encompasses all clothing made between 1940 and 1998 (20 years before the present). Anything created before that time period is considered “antique” while anything created after is considered “thrift”. Knowing how to date the items that you find can help ensure you’re adding true vintage pieces to your wardrobe.
There are a few ways to do this…
Check the Label
The label contains valuable information that can help you determine whether or not an item is vintage.
Label material – If the label is made from a thin, papery material or from the same fabric as the garment, this is a good indicator that it’s vintage. If the label feels like it’s made from a synthetic material and the text looks fresh and new, this can be an immediate giveaway that the garment is new.
Label text – Once you get into a rhythm of looking for vintage clothing, you wil start to notice patterns and recognizable fonts that are used in vintage labels. Large, retro-looking letters and thicker text are typically associated with vintage pieces while clean, precise lettering is used more often in new clothing.
Label yellowing – If the label is white (and old enough) sometimes there will be a slight yellowing to it. Take a look at the front and back of the label to check for yellowing.
Search the brand on the Vintage Fashion Guild’s label resource to see how the brand’s labels changed through time. Match up the label to one of the labels in the timeline to check the date.
Care tag - In 1972, it became standard for garments to come with a care tag instructing the wearer on how to wash the garment. So if it has a care tag, chances are it was made after 1972.
Check for a “Made in USA” tag. This is a good indicator that the item was made between 1940 and 1990.
Check the Materials
The material that a garment is made of can be found on the fiber content tag. However, including the exact fiber content on a tag (with percentages) became required in the 60’s. In the 50’s, a vague description would often be included on the tag and it was common for fiber not to be mentioned anywhere on the garment in prior decades.
Woolmark - These symbols were first introduced in 1964 to promote the consumption of natural fibers over synthetic fibers (see below). The garment isn’t older than 1964 if it has the first Woolmark logo, no older than 1971 if it has the second, and no older than 1999 if it has the third.
The material that a garment is made of can usually be found on either the main label or on another secondary label. Since different materials and blends were popular in different decades, this can be a great indicator of when the garment was made. For example, pure natural fabrics were more popular in the 50’s and earlier while synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon were introduced in later decades.
In the early 1900’s and in the decades that followed, it was not uncommon for people to make their own clothes. Check the garment’s seams and the quality of construction in general to decipher how it was made. You’ll usually be able to tell right away whether a garment was handmade or machine-made.
Seams - Serged seams (see photo below) became popular in the 1960s, so if you see a serged seam in your garment, you know it was probably made after 1960.
Elastic - Prior to the 1960s, elastic was solely used in swimwear and undergarments.
Shoulder pads - While shoulder pads are commonly associated with the 80s, they were also popular in the 40s. So, don’t automatically assume your shoulder-padded garment is from the 80s.
Hardware - Check out the zipper on the garment. Is it metal or plastic? If it’s metal, it’s probably from the early 60’s or before since nylon and plastic zippers were introduced in 1963.
Check the insides of the garment for a union tag. These tags are a good indicator that the item is vintage and was made in the US.
Specific Qualities According to Brand
Some brands have specific giveaways that can help you discover whether or not an item is vintage. For example, vintage Levi’s jeans that were made before 1971 have a capitol “E” in the word “LEVI’S”on the small red back pocket tab. If you’re on the hunt for a specific brand or item, familiarize your self with these vintage characteristics.
WPL & RN numbers
According to the Federal Trade Commission, “A registered identification number or RN is a number issued by the Federal Trade Commission, upon request, to a business residing in the U.S. that is engaged in the manufacture, importing, distribution, or sale of textile, wool, or fur products. Such businesses are not required to have RNs. They may, however, use the RN in place of a name on the label or tag that is required to be affixed to these products.”
These numbers can’t tell you how old the garment is, but they can tell you the earliest possible date they could have been made (the date that the manufacturing company registered). A quick formula will tell you the earliest the garment could have been made, or the year that the company first produced clothing after registering.
Find the RN number on one of the tags on the garment and follow this formula to find the earliest year it could have been made:
(Your RN# - 13670) / 2635 = # of years since issue date
1959 + # of years since issue date = estimated year of issue
Keep in mind that none of these tips are hard-and-fast rules when it comes to dating a vintage item - usually, multiple factors go into determining when an item was made. Once you start dating more and more items, you will start to notice patterns in vintage indicators such as styles of specific decades and how a material from a specific era feels.
Check out my new online vintage store, Wornable for some hand-picked vintage goodies. Thanks so much for reading and happy vintage shopping!