How to date vintage clothing!
Establishing the year in which a particular vintage garment was made, can be a very tricky and daunting task, sometimes impossible, 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. Readers have asked me many times to write a post about that very topic and I hope my tips will be useful!
The older I get, the more vintage I buy and the deeper I fall into the rabbit hole of research, the more I realize that there is still so much to learn!
BEFORE YOU READ!!!
Please, do understand that when dating vintage garments, you should look at many different clues rather than focusing on just one!
YOU MIGHT BE ALSO INTERESTED IN MY ARTICLE ABOUT HOW TO TAKE CARE OF VINTAGE CLOTHES!
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 velvet or liquid satin gown is almost impossible, at least for me.
AND THAT BRINGS ME TO THE POINT OF ALTERATIONS AND REMIND YOU TO LOOK AT MORE THAN ONE CLUE WHEN DATING VINTAGE. YOU MIGHT FIND AN ORIGINAL VERY EARLY 1930S DRESS WITH A MODERN ZIPPER BECAUSE A BUYER CHOSE TO INSERT IT.
- Contrary to the popular belief of many people on the internet that 1930s clothes did not have a front zipper, there are MANY examples of 1930s dresses, blouses 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 to-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 were wildly accepted in women’s clothes and the place to find them would be in the side seam, sleeves as well as at 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 many 1940s dresses, where the original zipper was replaced with a new one.
Dresses made in the 1920s to late 1940s didn’t have a lining because of the undergarments, in particular, slips that women wore at the time. Meanwhile, most jackets/blazers in the 1940s and 1950s did have a lining. Don’t be surprised if you find a 1950s winter skirt with a lining only at back of the skirt like in my favourite Copeland Skirts of California in the photograph below.
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.
*Please note that the overlock/serger machine was developed in the 19th Century by Merrow Machine Company and a line of “A Class” machines produced in 1932. Don’t be surprised if you find an overlock stitch in garments pre-dating the 1960s. I’ve seen it on breeches and a skirt from the 1930s.
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 tag bearing the words “dry clean only”, and the dress happens to have a lining, and it’s made of polyester, you can be sure that it’s NOT from the 1940s!
*The lining would be your second clue that the dress is not from the 1940s
*The polyester fabric would be the third clue
Care instructions on clothing from the 1950s and 1940s were not that uncommon but the wording on the tag will be most likely ” DRY CLEANING RECOMMENDED” rather than “DRY CLEAN ONLY”. I once bought a deadstock 1950s dress with a removable care tag attached to the dress and kept the tag. I will post a picture of it as soon as I find it!
*If you happen to have a vintage garment predating the 1950s with “dry cleaning” as a recommended method of cleaning on a tag, please let me know! I would love to post more examples on my website.
According to GINETEX ( the International Association for Textile Care Labelling), the care symbols were introduced in 1963.
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 a good source of information and they have pictures of vintage tags so you can compare with the one sewn in your garment.
- TRADEMARK ELECTRONIC SEARCH SYSTEM (TESS)
- If you are lucky enough to have a manufacturer’s or designer’s name attached to your garment, check TESS to see when it was registered. It won’t help with establishing the exact date of when your vintage piece was made, but you will at least find out when the brand was registered. This is a database for American companies.
- Example of a St Michael Label courtesy of Emma from NYLON NOSTALGIA. You can read an in-depth article about how to date St Michael labels on her website!
CC41-The Utility Clothing Scheme
- CC41 (Civilian Clothing, Orders 1941) – the utility logo (Rationing of clothing started in 1941 and lasted until 1949). The utility clothing scheme started in 1942 and lasted till 1952. Garments with the CC41 logo on them were synonymous with good quality for a low price.
- RN numbers (issued by the Federal Trade Commission to businesses 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 continued to 04086.
If the RN number is 13670 then your garment is younger than 1959!
PLEASE REMEMBER that the 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 ON AMERICAN MADE GARMENTS
The lot numbers were a way for manufacturers to keep track of their garments. I’m still gathering information on when they were first used and if they really ceased to exist post-1979.
Mary, in the comment section, pointed out that LOT numbers didn’t cease to exist after 1979 and are still in use. I have never seen a tag with a LOT number on contemporary American clothes so this topic need further investigation.
ILGWU UNION TAGS (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union)
1900 – 1936 ILGWU AFL (The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was formed in 1900)
1933-1935 NRA (National Recovery Act) with Blue Eagle
1936 – 1940 ILGWU CIO
1940 – 1955 ILGWU AFL
1941 – New York Dress Institute Label created
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.
1963 -1973 ILGWU AFL-CIO (The R symbol appeared and the word UNION MADE is 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.
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 from 1964. The Woolmark blend logo was introduced in 1971.
Through the years the logo has changed but you can see and compare the different tags on the Vintage Fashion Guild’s website!
This particular tag is from my 1952 Handmacher suit. As you see, it says “100% WOOL SUPER-FINE WORSTED.”
None of my dresses and skirt-suits 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.
When buying vintage online pay attention to the measurements given in the description, and allow 2 inches for ease of wear.
For example, if a blazer measures 36 ” across bust it will be suitable for someone who is 32″ or 34″. Don’t forget to ask about the shoulder to shoulder measurement if it’s not already in the description.
1911 – Rayon, invented in 1846, began to be manufactured in the United States in 1911. (very popular in the 1920s-1940s). Rayon, which was a cheaper alternative to silk, was called artificial silk until 1924. Other names used to describe rayon were; artificial silk, art silk, rayon silk, chemical silk, manufactured silk.
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 warm 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.
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 to you! If you have any additional tips on how to date vintage garment, please leave them in the comment section below!
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