The world of vintage fashion is a wild scape full of frocks that can confound and confuse even the most experienced of vintage buyers. While shopping your favorite vintage or thrift shops, or looking through Grandma's attic, it can be hard to be sure where a garment may be from. So many designers in every decade have borrowed from the past. Even now in 2022, we are seeing a resurgence of 80's and 90's styles, so how can you be sure of the when of your garment is actually from? We are here to help take you on a trip through the trends of the 20th century to show you the styles, silhouettes, and techniques that were used to create these vintage clothes.
First, let's take a refresher course on what vintage actually is.
For clothing to be considered vintage, a garment or accessory has to be more than 20 years old. This means there is plenty of vintage to be found in all sorts of places in a myriad of styles, maybe even in your Mom's closet.
Antique clothing is anything at or over a hundred years of age, making these pieces generally more fragile, and less suitable for daily wear. Due to the construction and materials of many antique garments, it may be a challenge to find one that is preserved well enough to be more than a gorgeous display piece.
Retro or Reproduction garments: these garments may be vintage or might be reproductions of vintage styles that harken back to a bygone era.
1910s (Edwardian Era)
For our trip through the 1900's, we will be dipping our toes into the early 1900's beginning in 1910 in the heart of the Edwardian Era of fashion.The 1910's were a fabulous time for women's fashion. These garments are rare to find in the wild due to their use of mostly natural materials and their susceptibility to dry rot. White and lace being very popular at the time are another contributing factor in the low survival rate of these garments. The silhouettes of the time reflected the growing suffragist movements of the time, leading to higher hemlines and less restrictive garments than ever before. The silhouettes of the time were often more columnar, moving away from the stereotypical S curve shape that garments in the late 1800's gave to women's forms. Often dresses of this time are one piece, with a lightly flowing skirt, and often are belted or hemmed in at the natural waist, with a hemline that sits just at the ankle. High necklines were still popular throughout the era. Many dresses from this time will be unlined due to the use of under-dresses, and slips and may come with matching jackets. When identifying pieces from this time remember that though the zipper had been invented, it wasn't used in women's garments just yet. It was seen as crass for its ability to swiftly remove the clothing from the body. Cloth covered, metal, carved wood, or bone buttons were often used instead to button these garments, usually from the back. Most of these garments will not have tags or identifying maker's marks, and often have hand stitched elements. Fashions from Asia had slowly trickled to the west as well, making kimono inspired looks a popular choice among women, especially for dressing gowns or items to be worn around the home. If you need some hints to help you narrow down the era, pop culture references can be a big help. The movie Titanic is set in 1912 and has a myriad of costumes that are authentically made to represent the era, which can help you look for similarities to the garments you may find in stores.
The 1940's brought with it World War Two, and with that came garment rationing and a request from the government for Americans to use as little metal as possible. At the same time, due to increased research into technologies and fabrics that could aid the military, new fabrics were coming onto the scene. Nylon was created by the DuPont company and replaced the use of silk during wartime, as that precious material was needed to make parachutes, and along with wool was a popular choice for garment making.
The trends of the 1940's can be broken into two segments, during the War, and Post-War. The wartime styles for women reflected their need for practicality and a strong appearance as they entered the workplace. Strong shoulder pads on tidy, masculine inspired skirt suits, often worn with more feminine lacy blouses that buttoned at the back, became a trend for women in office roles. Pants, T-shirts, and shorts became increasingly popular as the number of women in fields like mechanics and factory work rose. Many War Time garments will have buttons made of Bakelite, or cellulose, both forms of plastic as opposed to the metal buttons that were sometimes used in the 1950's onward. Only a few colors a year would be used to dye fabrics of the war time 40's, saving valuable chemicals needed for the military. Shorter skirts with no excess pleating or pockets were seen as patriotic as well due to their fabric saving designs.
Post-War, as women left their jobs, being replaced in their positions by returning soldiers, or leaving for marriage, Christian Dior's "New Look" came onto the scene. Contrasting to the wartime looks, the post-war look was seen as a return to femininity, with its fuller skirts, nipped in waistlines, and carefully coordinated accessories which carried this style on into the 1950's. Post-War, the fuller skirts and return to pleats, rouching, and puffed sleeves were a sheer treat for those who longed for more feminine fits. Household photography had become popular in the 1930's, so by the time the 40's rolled around, the camera was heavily in use. To see examples from clothing of this time and get a feel for the styles of the everyday people, take a look into the resources at your local library or historical society. Many have photos that will give you a great idea of the styles of the era.
The 1950's carried over the New Look ideas that had begun in the 1940s. Full skirts, wasp thin waistlines, bullet bras, and color coordinated accessories were all the rage. Women often had different outfits for leaving the home, versus running errands, or having a cocktail party. The house dresses and clothes of the time were often of cotton or nylon for ease of laundering and wear. These were often less full than the circle skirts, sometimes of a shirtwaist style, and were often worn with aprons while managing the home, or getting ready to go out. The casual clothing worn outside the home was always well tailored and coordinated, often matching jewelry, shoes, purse, hat and gloves with each other and the clothing at large. Kitten heeled pumps were popular as well as full circle skirts and dresses in feminine colors, with fruits and florals being common motifs. As Americans ventured for vacation, patio sets, and Mexican and Hawaiian influences were popular choices for American women. The "Novelty Print" became increasingly popular throughout the 50's, sometimes adding a humorous twist to outfits and styles. The hemline of pants rose with the introduction of cigarette pants and capris, and some outfits became tighter than ever with the arrival of the wiggle dress, a favorite of Marilyn Monroe.
Evening wear brought the glamour with many dresses and gowns using layers of sparkly or bedazzled tulle and chiffon, ruched and fitted bodices, sweetheart necklines, and halter necks for a bit of backless drama. Lame was a popular choice for evening wear as the love of glitz grew among people looking to shine after two decades of War and Depression.
To get a glimpse of 1950's style straight from the source, keep a lookout online for sewing patterns from the era, like McCall's. Garment making at home was still popular in thrifty households, and these pattern styles were always fashioned so that the lady making her own garments could stay on top of trends from fashion houses and celebrities.
The 1960's brought with it the invasion of British music and culture and the hippie movement began to sweep around the globe. Brighter colors and wilder patterns than ever before began to be used, and with the popularity of the miniskirt for women, it seemed anything was possible. Full skirts and petti-coated dresses were still in fashion, by not popularized by the youth. Higher necklines came back into style, and boat neck blouses were a popular choice for pairing with skirts and pants. Playsuits, which had been around since the 1940's began to get shorter, and were made in brighter patterns with sometimes neon bright colors. Floral prints got larger and less realistic in the 60's while still keeping a feminine look. Post 1965 the "Babydoll" look was in, bringing slightly puffed sleeves with short, but swaying above the knee hemlines in ultra-feminine cuts and colors.
With Mary Quaint's design of the miniskirt, the styles of fashion icons like Twiggy inspired the fashions of women around the globe, and with plaid prints and the beginning of the Hippie movement, fashion was incredibly relaxed when compared to the carefully coordinated looks of the 1950's. Just look for photos of concerts by The Beatles, The Yardbirds, or Pink Floyd in the 1960's to see their adoring fans decked out in the finest 1960's fashions.
Some of the evening looks of this time will be bejeweled with Aurora Borealis rhinestones, also known as AB rhinestones, which had recently been invented by Swarovski. These sparkly paste stones throw back an array of colors instead of just reflecting the color of the stone itself, and were very popular among women. Know that if you find garments with these stones, they are from 1958 or newer.
The 1970's was the era of Peace, Love and Disco. Bell bottom pants were a major hit with a crowd that was ready for freedom from restrictive clothing. Many blouses were looser and flowing at the sleeves to mimic the hem of pants, and vests that matched outfits were in. Skirts were still worn by the professional woman in most settings, however suits for women with pants were beginning to hit the market, often with that same bell bottom flare.
Many garments were clearly inspired by Edwardian and Victorian fashions, detailed in lace and embroidery. Gunne Sax by designer Jessica McClintock became ultra popular, and many dresses and looks were inspired by the popularity of the 1974 TV show "Little House on the Prairie" with Michael Landon. Inverted pleats, ponchos and spangled, shiny fabrics were in, and the fashion world went wild for the track suit and palazzo pants. Diane Von Furstenburg's wrap dresses entered the scene in the late 1970's. As she put it they were made to be "whipped off in an instant, and, more usefully, could be swiftly and silently pulled back on in a dark bedroom without waking last night’s sexual conquest.” Television shows of the time often used modern settings, and reruns of series such as "The Dukes of Hazard", 1970's "Soul Train" and "The Partridge Family" can give a you a great idea of popular styles.
In the 1980's, hip-hop, rap, and punk music influence was everywhere including the fashion world. Hammer pants, dolman sleeves and borrowing from the fashions of the 1940's with strong shoulder pads and ladies skirt suits were in. Bright colored, minimalist abstract designs were seen on everything from dresses, to pants to buildings, with bold shapes and contrasting colors. Clean lines to outfits were often favored for office-wear or events, while bomber and flight jackets with denim often used were casual favorites. Pants tended to be high-waisted and often pleated with famous companies like Jordache being worn by celebrities worldwide.
The track suit continued to be a favorite for athletic wear in this period, usually being a looser fit than the 70's versions and having wide, visible elastic bands at the waist, wrist and ankles. With the continued popularity of "Soul Train" came various African inspired trends like wild animal prints, turban style hats, geometric tribal patterns, and caftans as daywear. Plastic zippers were heavily used in the 1980's, and large metal, or plastic novelty buttons were also favored for closures. Almost all 1980's clothes will have at one point had tags since the trend of making your own clothing had been slowly petering out since the 1960's. Google Lens can be a great tool for helping to identify those hard to read tags. There are many fashion websites online that can be great resources for helping to identify 1980's clothing, such as The Vintage Fashion Guild.
Even the most seasoned fashion historian might have trouble pinning a garment down to an exact year, due to the passage of time, prevalence of homemaking and reusing old garments, and the repeating of styles in later decades. Often dates for garments are pinned down to a decade, or 5 year time-frame instead of an exact year or season. Identifying your vintage clothing can seem like a daunting task in the face of so many styles, and so much history, but with the help of our guide and the information available online, we are confident in your ability to narrow down the field.