How to identify and date vintage clothing

New to vintage clothing? Ever been at a thrift store and wonder if the dress is true vintage or modern? Or have you been confident something is vintage but just not sure how vintage? Well, you’re in good company. I, too, have to research often to date some garments. you’ll want to bookmark this blog because it will be FULL of useful information! 

Identifying and dating vintage clothing can overlap in regards to what to look for but we will start with the down & dirty basics of identifying. Since we deal in clothing from the 40s through the 70s (we do carry “80s does” an earlier decade as well so you might see some reference to the 80s as well). 

Here are the most common signs a garment is vintage;

- metal zipper

- zipper location

- closures made up of snaps only

- seam finishes

- hemming techniques 

- fabric content

- labels (or lack of)

- overall garment design


I know what you’re thinking.  “Well, that’s not much help”  No worries, I’ll break them down a bit and then when we get into actually trying to date the garment, we will really break it down.


Metal zippers are almost always a sure sign a garment is pre 1960.  Once in awhile a modern piece will have a metal zipper but the rule of thumb for that is they are generally used for decorative purposes on a modern garment.  Metal zippers at the nape of the neck or on the side are usually early 50s or older.  The use of snaps where a zipper would normally be tends to be early 40s or older but is sometimes homemade later pieces but that is rare.  

Hemming Techniques 

If you flip the hem on a dress or skirt and you see hem tape, you probably have a vintage garment.  Hem tape can be lace or what looks like a strip of ribbon. 

Fabric Content

We all know the 70s loved polyester, especially double knits but did you know the 40s used a lot of crepe and cold rayon? Prints and patterns can be a clue too  Bright, bold florals or psychedelic swirls of colors could be late 60s or 70s.  Combinations like tulle over acetate (a form synthetic fabric that is a bit thicker than fabric typically found in modern day linings of suits or dresses) was popular in the 50s.  


If it even has one, your possible vintage piece might have a single label.  It may be the designer’s label or the store’s label, sometimes both.  If it’s a specialty fabric, there might be a label for that as well. Lets see how these can be of use to you.

Designer labels:  Many designers change their label styles through the years and The Vintage Fashion Guild (link below) is a fantastic resource for searching for those.  The Fashion Conservatory also has a label resource so be sure to check there as well.

Store and specialty fabric labels:  Unfortunately, these might not be helpful, but a Google Lens search might crop up something for you.

Lets talk about other labels and how they can help you identify or give you at least a decade for your garment.

Union labels:  These were phased out in the 80s so if you see one, you know its at least that old!  The Fedora Lounge (link below) has a fantastic union label guide that is my go to for men's clothing.  Union labels changed styles frequently so this is a really good way to narrow down to a decade or even less.

Size Labels:  Occasionally there might be a size tag but commonly not, although sometimes sizes can be helpful. Sizing from the 30s through the 60s was pretty consistent.  So if you have a garment that is labeled a size 22 and has the measurements for a modern day size 14, its safe to say it was made between the 30s and 60s.  This is why I shake my head when I see the post about Marilyn Monroe being a size 14.  She was a size 14.  Vintage size 14, which is about a size 6 nowadays.  Vintage sizes are generally 4 sizes smaller than modern day sizes. After the 60s, designers started to wander off the reservation on this topic and consistency wasn't as important to them anymore. 

Country of Origin:  If your garment is labeled “Made in Korea “ or “Hong Kong”, it is probably vintage. Asian countries began to open textile mills and manufacturing clothing on a large scale during the 70s.  Taiwan and Japan are other good indicators that your piece is vintage.  Although there are quite a few pieces with these labels that are older than the 70s, but you will have to rely on other clues to determine that.  Made in USA is generally 80s or older if it has other clues that accompany label.  Made in Mexico is often times from the 50s.  If it says "Made in China", I'm sorry, it doesn't matter how vintage it looks, its from the 90s or newer.  I know, I know, technically the 90s is vintage, but those words might get you tossed out of the shop if I hear them. lol 

RN numbers:  These can help narrow things down as well.  The database (link below) will tell you when the RN number was issued (not when your garment was made) but you will then at least know how old it could possibly be. 

Care labels:  These weren’t a thing until 1971. You might sometimes see them for specialty fabric or they might say Dry Cleaning Recommended/Dry Clean Only, but if it has a care label, its from the 70s or newer.  If it has the little picture icons started in 1997.

Fabric content labels:  These were introduced in 1960. The exception is the specialty fabric label mentioned earlier, however, this label tends to be as nice as the designer label and not just affixed along a seam or neckline.  

If your garment has a size, care, fabric content, manufacturer country and designer labels, then it’s made post 70s.   


Ok, so you've determined that your garment is definitely vintage.  Now lets try to figure out what era its from.  We are going to break them down by decade. 


Closures:  Metal zipper at nape of neck or side.  Early 40s may have snap closures instead of side zip.

Design Style:  Dresses were commonly a V silhouette.  Boxy shoulders, often with shoulder pads. nipped waists and A line skirts that fall at or below the knee.  During the war years, no amount of fabric was wasted so during this time period you won't see pleats or embellishments that require additional fabric.  The later 40s pleating, especially on the shoulders, bodice and waist were popular.  Skirts were almost exclusively A line.  Wiggle or swing style weren't very common. 

Fabric:  Crepe was by far one of the most popular fabric types in the 40s.  Crepe is fabric that has a crinkly, almost bumpy appearance and can be made from a variety of fabrics, although rayon tends to be the most common in the 40s (mainly because of the silk rationing during the war).  Wool and wool blends were also widely used as was cotton.  In addition to typical solid colors, prints were becoming quite popular.  Ditzy (small and covering the entire garment) floral prints, large flowers, plaids, ginghams, and even novelty prints can be found in many 40s garments.  Cold rayon is is also widely popular and an early form of jersey style knits can be found in this decade as well. 

Seam Finishes:  French seams where the entire seam is encased was a popular style for higher end fashions, whereas unfinished seams are seen in homemade and off the rack garments.  Hems utilized hem tape. Serged or whipstitch/zigzag stitched seams can often be found on larger design house garments or major store brands.

Labels:  Often the only labels you will see is the designer or a union label. 

Embellishments:  The style trend incorporated pleats for a conservative look but pleasant appearance.  While the war stopped actual pleats (and we don't mean pleated skirts, think above the waist), faux pleating or gathers were created along the shoulders, at the waist and or top of the skirt.  Some sequins in the 40s may be gelatin.  


 Closures:  Still metal zippers, but most are now located on the back.  

Design style:  With the end of the war and the start of the atomic age, fashion really started to move in fun directions.  Wiggle/pencil dresses and skirts were coming into fashion along with full swing skirts.  Dresses started to have lots of embellishments such as draping, chiffon or lace overlays, plastic derived sequins, open front overskirts, and other lavish use of fabric and adornments were more common.  Strapless, sleeveless and lower cut necklines were also making more of an appearance.  For me, when identifying this decade by design, if it doesn't fit into the 40s or doesn't have a nylon zipper, I tend to assume its from the 50s.  There was such a wide variety of styles out there at this time that it can be difficult to precisely date garments from the 50s. 

Fabrics:  As with design styles from the 50s, fabric usage was a bit all over the place.  Tulle, cotton, acetate, silk, taffeta, satin, rayon, lace, chiffon, brocades, if it was available somewhere in the world, US designers were using it.  Especially since more synthetic fabrics were becoming available.

Seam Finishes:  Pinking shears were now being used and many garments using fabrics that fray easily will have pinked seams.  Encased seams are also seen during the 50s.  Hem tape is still the norm. 

Labels:  Union and designer labels are what you will see most, but occasionally small tags with lot #s or sizes (1/2 sizes are a clue) are found in late 50s garments.

Embellishments:  The sky is the limit this decade.  From rhinestones and pearls to embroidery and excessive fabric use.   


Closures: nylon back zippers

Design: The decade started out very similar to the late 50s evolving into Mod.  The shift dress became the rage and hemlines creeped upward! By the end of the 60s styles ranged from bold floral prints to boho casual  

Fabrics:  More and more manufacturers were using synthetics and trying to invent the next best fabric  

Seam finishes:  Serged seams are now the industry standard

Labels: Fabric content and RN numbers are seen regularly 


Closures:  nylon zippers

Design Style: Some popular styles include halter tops, crop tops, micro mini skirts, metallic fabric, maxi dresses, caftans, low rise pants, bell bottoms, long vests, spaghetti straps, wide/dagger collars, & jumpsuits.   

Fabrics: Hello polyester!  From double knits to thin and airy, polyester ruled this decade.  Metallic lame fabric and imprinted chiffon was also widely used.  

Seam Finishes:  Since most polyester fabrics don't fray easily, unfinished raw seams aren't uncommon. 

Labels:  The care label was introduced in 1971 and started to become the norm in addition to the union and designer labels.  

Embellishments:  Ruffles, lace trim, metal adornments, bishop or butterfly sleeves.  



Now lets look at some of the identifying elements to help narrow things down even more.  


As mentioned before, metal zippers were used prior to the 1960s and in 1963, nylon zippers were used.  Side zip tends to be 40s and center back 50s.  In the late 50s concealed zippers grew in popularity where flaps from both sides of the zipper were used to conceal the zipper.  Prior to that, it was only one side if at all. One way to help narrow down the year a garment might be from is to research the zipper manufacturer.  There are many resources that show the various zipper pulls from each year.  



The 30s and 40s 'plastic' buttons are almost always Bakelite.  To test for Bakelite, use Formula 409 and a q-tip.  Spray the q-tip with the Formula 409 and then rub the suspected Bakelite.  If it turns yellow, its authentic, if it does not, it is another subjects. The surefire way to test Bakelite in my opinion is to run the item under hot water for 30 seconds to a minute.  Immediately upon removal from the water, smell it.  If it smells like formaldehyde, its Bakelite.  This method doesn't work well for buttons attached to a garment though, so the Formula 409 will do.  Lucite buttons began to be used in the 50s, even though Lucite was around since the 30s.  The sixties is where you begin to see 'cheap' looking buttons.  These are plastic buttons that often have seam lines or are very lightweight.  Of course, leather, fabric covered and natural materials (bone or shell) were used during all of the decades and aren't much help with the dating process. 


Seam Finishes

We outlined the different types of seam finishes in the decades above but be wary.  I have seen garments that are definitely pre-1950 with pinked seams.  More than likely the owner of the garment pinked it themselves sometime after 1950.  Serged seams are seen in the 60s but to the untrained eye, a hand sewn whipstitch or blanket stitch might look like a serged seam.  Larger manufacturers or design houses (Montgomery Ward, Lane Bryant, Sears, etc) had the ability to invest in serging machines and serged seams can be seen as early as the 1930s.


Label Resources

Union labels - the following links are great guides to the various union labels and how to use them to date clothing.

Lingerie labels - the following link is great for dating lingerie labels

Designer labels through the decades - this site is the holy grail for designer labels!

 You can look up trademarks here

RN numbers can help narrow down an era



 Crossing over decades

In the late 40s Christian Dior came out with a collection called "The New Look".  It featured unrestricted usage of fabric to include full skirts, tailored jackets, and deeper V neck lines on collared tops.  This was the start of the trends seen in the 50s.  

Many of the styles from the early 60s look very similar to those in the late 50s.  To help place your garment in the right decade look for the zipper type and the hemline (50s leaned toward knee or below knee length and 60s started to creep upward to right at knee or just above knee length).  This might be able to put you into one decade or the other.  

The late 60s and early 70s also share a lot of trends.  The skirts got much higher in the mid 60s, shift styles became commonplace and bold colors dominated the fashion world.  Bright, bold floral patterns, geometric designs, paisley, and boho prairie prints crossed over from the late 60s to the early 70s.  This is also when bell bottoms started to be introduced.    


I hope this blog helps and should you stumble upon a garment that has you perplexed, send us an email or message on Facebook!  Include a photo and we can try to help you date your piece!  

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