How to date vintage clothing
Establishing the year in which a particular vintage garment was made, can be a very tricky and daunting task, especially when there are no tags attached, as is the case with a lot of garments made in the 1930s-1950s which were often handmade or the tags did not survive the wear and tear of time. Some of my most valuable 1940s suits were clearly made to measure by a seamstress and judging by the fabrics used, as well as the incredible craft that went into making them, the clients were undoubtedly very well to do.
As much as the topic of the history of vintage clothes is a never-ending learning curve for me, there are certain ways by which I’m able to identify and date most but not all of my collected pieces. I’ve been asked many times by readers to write a post about that very topic and I hope my tips will be useful!
How to date vintage clothing
- Though the metal zipper was invented in the 1800s it was only first used in women’s clothes in the 1930s and placed either in the side seam or centre back of the dress, usually very short in length, concealed with a flap of fabric, as it was considered vulgar. You see, zippers made it too easy to take one’s garment off and clearly a real lady wouldn’t be in a hurry to undress. Or would she? 🙂
- I really struggle to find 1930s evening gowns that would be the right size and have a zipper, without which putting on a velvet or liquid satin gown is almost impossible, at least for me. Contrary to the popular belief that 1930s clothes did not have a front zipper, I’ve been able to find MANY examples of 1930s dresses and patterns with a zipper placed in front.
* Vintage patterns that can be found on Etsy and eBay are a great resource for learning about the different styles popular from the 1930s-1950s.
* Elsa Schiaparelli used plastic zippers in her 1935 collection and shocked everyone by placing them in very visible parts of her garments.
- In the 1940s metal zippers where wildly accepted in women’s clothes and the place to find them would be in the side seam, sleeves as well as at the back, but again they would be rather short. All of my 1940s dresses have either a zipper or buttons placed in the side seam.
- In the 1950s it was popular to place a long zipper at the centre back of the dress but always concealed.
- Metal zippers were replaced with plastic ones after 1963
NOTE that some zippers might have been replaced at a later stage! I’ve seen a 1940s dress, where the original but sadly broken zipper was replaced with a new one.
Dresses made from the 1920s-1960s didn’t have a lining because of the undergarments, in particular, slips that women wore at the time. Meanwhile, most if not all jackets in the 1940s and 1950s have a lining but never the skirt. Having said that I recently bought a dress from 1955, which I was able to identify thanks to the Union Label and the lower part and it did have a lining. I do wonder though if it’s possible, that the lining was added at a later stage.
This is actually the most difficult part for me to identify a vintage garment by, as I don’t know how to hand-sew, I’ve never used a sewing machine and even attaching a simple button is like a mission impossible. So… For me looking at different types of seams is like trying to read hieroglyphs. The one thing I’ve learned really fast though is that if a garment has unfinished seams it was most likely made before the 1950s.
The three seams you should familiarise yourself with are French, pinked and Serged seam.
- In a French seam, which I call the invisible seam, the raw edges of the fabric are completely enclosed and this type of seam was used from the 1900s through to the 1940s.
- Pinked seams are found on 1950s garments that were cut with pinking shears and the easiest way to identify them is by the zigzag teeth cut of these shears.
- Serged seams, which are an overlock stitch, replaced the pinked seams in the 1960s when the Serger sewing machine became widely available and affordable.
4. CARE TAG
- In 1971 the Care Labeling Rule was issued by the Federal Trade Commission. The rule states that manufacturers have to tag their apparel with at least one cleaning method such as “dry clean only” or “machine wash cold”.
- There are a lot of 1970s dresses inspired by the 1940s but if you see a “dry clean only” tag you can be sure that it’s NOT from the 1940s!
5. WHAT’S ON THE LABEL
If you see a brand’s name on the label, I strongly recommend that you check if it’s listed on the Vintage Fashion Guild’s website, as it’s an amazing source of information and they have pictures of vintage tags so you can compare with the one sewn in your garment.
CC41 (Controlled Commodity, 1941) – the utility logo (Rationing of clothing started in 1942 and lasted until 1952). Some garments had the CC41 logo on them which was synonymous with good quality for a low price.
- Read more about the Utility clothing scheme in Britain
- RN numbers (issued by the Federal Trade Commission to business in the U.S that manufacture, import or sell; textile, wool or fur products) can be very helpful in determining the age of your vintage garment.
RN numbers issued from 1952 through 1959 starting at 00101 and continue to 04086.
If the RN number is 13670 then your garment is younger than 1959!
PLEASE REMEMBER that RN number is NOT the number of the date when your garment was made but when the RN number was issued!
I use RN database to find more information.
- LOT NUMBERS
The lot numbers were a way for manufacturers to keep track of their garment. These numbers stopped being used in 1979.
6. ILGWU UNION TAGS (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union)
1900 – 1936 ILGWU AFL (The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was formed in 1900)
1936 – 1940 ILGWU CIO
1940 – 1955 ILGWU AFL
1955 – 1995 ILGWU AFL-CIO (In the picture below!)
You will see the words “UNION LABEL” right above the scalloped crest, a needle with thread and no R symbol, which appeared on this label in 1964.
1964 -1973 ILGWU AFL-CIO (The R symbol appeared and the word UNION MADE are now inside the circle)
May 1960 – Coat & Suit Industry Recovery Board Label and the ILGWU label were merged.
1975-1992 ILGWU AFL-CIO (Red colour is added)
1995 – 2004 UNITE!
2004 – UNITE HERE
* “R” TRADEMARK
The registered trademark symbol was introduced in the Trademark Act of 1946.
6. WOOLMARK LOGO
The Woolmark logo first appeared on tags of garments made of wool in 1964. Also, garments with a 100% Woolmark logo will be not older than 1964, if you see 60% Woolmark on the tag it means is that garment is no older than 1971 and 50% Woolmark is no older than 1999.
Through the years the logo has changed but you can see and compare the different tags on the Vintage Fashion Guild’s website!
None of my dresses from the 1930s and 1940s have a size tag, which shouldn’t come as a surprise as it wasn’t until 1958 when standardised sizes appeared on tags.
1910 – Rayon (very popular in the 1920s-1940s)
1924 – Acetate
1939 – Nylon (nylon was first commercially used in 1939 by E.I. du Pont) Qiana, a silky nylon fibre was developed in 1962 and introduced by the name of Qiana in 1968 by DuPont. That particular material was very popular in the 1970s in the production of faux-silk men’s shirts with bold patterns. A la Travolta “Saturday Night Fever” 😉
1950 – Acrylic (DuPont created the first acrylic fibres in 1941 and trademarked them under the name Orlon. It was developed in the 40s and wildly available in the 1950s. It’s a soft and worm wool-like fabric used for example as an alternative to expensive cashmere)
1953 – Polyester
1959 – Spandex
1961 – Polyolefin/polypropylene (in 1966, polyolefin wast the first and only Nobel Prize-winning fibre).
If you see rather unusual names of fabrics it usually means it’s vintage. For example;
Dacron Polyester appeared in garments from the late 1950s through to the 1970s. Polyester was very popular in the 1970s but first commercially used in 1953 and Celanese was an acetate fabric softer but stronger than satin or taffeta and most importantly much cheaper.
9. SEARCH FOR VINTAGE ADS
When you are lucky enough to have a tag with the brand’s name attached to the garment, look through Pinterest or Google for vintage ads with the brand in question and even if you don’t find the exact same model of a dress, suit or a coat that you have, it might help you to narrow down the date.
Being the tenacious person that I am, after two days of searching and going through countless Handmacher ads, I found a picture of my Handmacher suit in Harper’s Bazaar from 1952!
How to date vintage clothing! In the picture on the left, I’m wearing the exact same model of Handmacher suit which I later found in Harper’s Bazaar from 1952.
I hope this post was useful but if you have any additional tips on how to date vintage garment, please leave them in the comment section below!