EDIT: I’ve gotten a few comments to the tune of “ModCloth does sell vintage clothing!” This is true; the site has a small section devoted to vintage items. However, the company is best known for its reproduction styles – Esther Williams, Bea & Dot, etc. – which, though decidedly not vintage, are often considered such.
Talky post ahead!
Over the past few days, I’ve been hitting Etsy hard and fast, trying to find a vintage swimsuit before warm weather ratchets up the prices. The more ink I get, the less I want covering it. Ideally, I’d love something like this or this – but under $50, plz? (Self Service Announcement: If you spot any in sizes 10-14, send the links my way!) Sadly, however, this is not a post about coquettish vintage swimwear or setting surfers’ hearts aflutter. I’d like to speak to the pervasive misunderstandings I’ve been witnessing re: what vintage actually is. I see many, MANY items on Etsy (and Swapdom, and eBay) labeled “vintage” when a cursory analysis would roundly declare otherwise. And I’m frustrated, both as someone who collects actual vintage and as a more general know-it-all. Misinformation gives me cancer, so I thought I would put together a little guide, both to set y’all straight and to make myself feel better.
Here is what vintage is:
- Any garment or accessory that is 20 years old or older. This surprises many people. “Vintage” carries such a connotation of exotic climes and times; it can be disappointing to learn that the label covers many things made during your own lifetime. (Not to mention that while 1994 is the current vintage cutoff year, most of us still think the 90s were ten years ago.)
Here is what vintage is NOT:
- Anything not 20 years old or older (including, until May, yours truly)
- Reproduction garments, like ’80s-does-’40s or ’90s-does-’50s
- Anything “retro” or “vintage-inspired” (these are often dogwhistles for scams, which I’ll get to in a bit)
- Hell Bunny
- Sold in multiple colors and sizes (unless it’s new old stock, but that is fairly rare). Vintage pieces are usually hit or miss.
- OH DID I MENTION MODCLOTH
“Retro” (def. “imitative of a style, fashion, or design from the recent past”) is often used interchangeably with “vintage”. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this in daily life. Colloquialisms gonna colloquial – though I’ll probably side-eye you a little if you’re a fellow fashion blogger. What’s inexcusable, though, is vendors confusing the two. Let’s ask Google about vintage swimsuits and see what we come up with.
Do you see why I’m annoyed here? Not one of the top five results for “vintage swimsuit” turns up any actual vintage. Retro, yes. To (filthy, filthy) casuals, the distinction may be unnecessarily pedantic. “Yeah, but the styles are the same. Who cares if it’s actually from the ’50s?” In many cases, they’re right. Some people like the look of old-timey clothes but don’t necessarily care if they’re authentic. That’s fine – whatever floats ya. But many people, myself included, appreciate vintage not just for the aesthetics but for the history inherent in each piece. When I shop for vintage, I’m shopping for collectors’ items as much as for pretty dresses. And I know how cheated I would feel to be sold some flimsy fast fashion reproduction piece under the guise of an actual historical garment.
Over my collector years, I’ve learned enough about fashion to successfully date clothes, which has spared me more than a few scams. Not everyone has my knowledge, though. I’ve seen many a blogger fooled by a well-designed reproduction piece. Again, I have no problem with choosing reproduction garments over period ones. But I want everyone’s choices to be well-informed. So bookmark, Facebook, and spam this far and wide, ’cause here is My Kingdom for a Hat’s official guide to sorting the champs from the casuals. The sirens from the wenches. The…okay, you get it.
It might not be vintage if…
- It was made in China. The cutoff year for vintage is currently 1994. Americans were importing from China before then, but not by much. There’s a chance your “Made in China” garment is vintage, but only if the rest of your evidence comes out strongly in favor.
- It has a plastic zipper. Plastic zippers came into widespread use in 1968, so plenty of vintage items will have them. However, if the garment in question appears pre-1968 but has a plastic zipper, there’s an excellent chance you’re looking at a reproduction. I’ve been warned away from more than one ’40s-style dress by examining the zipper.
- It comes in multiple colors and sizes. I’m sure some smart-ass commenter will show off their Etsy full of new old stock and make me eat my words. It’s possible to find a whole rack of a particular item at a thrift store or boutique. Overstock happens. That said, if you run into something like this online, hiss and run away. No way will an actual vintage dealer be able to find the exact size and color for every customer. I refuse to shop at Unique Vintage on principle.
- It’s a size 12 and fits like a modern 12. Body-image enthusiasts like to harp about how Marilyn Monroe was a size 12. Well, she was … but a size 12 in 1950 fit more or less like a 2 today. I’m all for body image, but come on – get your facts in order. A size 4 today was approximately 14 then; a 6 was a 16; etc. The rules aren’t nailed down (sizes have always been pretty subjective), but the general gist is that you’ll probably have to size up significantly in genuine vintage. If you’re a size 12 in 2014 and that size-12 New Look dress fits like a glove, you’ve probably fallen victim to a repro – and a vanity-sized one at that. This particular era is tricky, though, because the ’80s saw a resurgence of ’50s-inspired styles. An ’80s-does-’50s dress is technically vintage, but it’s not the kind of vintage many vendors will claim.
- It’s polyester. Polyester’s been around since the ’40s, so it can definitely be present in vintage garments. Be wary of garments advertised as pre-4os, though. If your genuine (or so you thought) flapper dress is suspiciously shiny and unwrinkled, you should do some sleuthing.
- Its label is very detailed. Garment care labels weren’t mandatory until 1971.
- It’s ModCloth. Okay, I like ModCloth. But for the love of blasphemy, you are not fooling anyone. Stop posting Bea & Dot dresses on Etsy like no one will notice. I ought to report your ass.
Finally, and most fundamentally, it’s not vintage just because it looks vintage. We tend to associate certain styles with certain eras, forgetting that fashion subcultures existed then just as now. Not all poufy New Look dresses come from the ’50s. In fact, if a piece goes way over the top in employing staples of a certain style, that can itself be a hint that it’s fake. For instance, here are three outfits that might be easily labeled “vintage”, even though they’re emphatically not:
I’d like to keep updating this list as I think of more criteria. Comment with anything you’d like me to add!