How to Spot the Vintage
Finding a fabulous piece takes some serious digging and a critical eye to separate the treasure from the trash. People are always asking, "well, where do you get your stuff?" Or "what do you consider vintage?"
Defining what true a vintage “treasure” is remains up to you — but here are some tips about how we spot a vintage piece of clothing, treasure or not!
Vintage identification is like anything in life: practice makes perfect. Many industry professionals will tell you vintage is “two decades or older”. So yes, your parents are vintage and times catch up with us fast. Just give anyone a good wine analogy when they don't like the definition of vintage - it works for us!
1. UNION LABELS
What am I looking at? : A union label is proof that the piece was produced and supported by a United States clothing union, which existed before the overseas boom of clothing production.
Where? : Below the inside brand label near the size is a “union” label that looks similar to what you see above.
They’re usually square and about 1/2-inch-by-1/2-inch; red, white, and blue; and state the name of the union, like “The Ladies Garment Workers Union” which is abbreviated on the label with LGWU.
You can also try to date an item more specifically by which union label you see, as they changed it bit by bit every few years going back!
2. ONE SIZE FITS ALL
What am I looking at? : Tags that proudly state “one size fits all”
Have you seen a tag that says this lately? Chances are, probably not. The “one size fits all” was a fad in the ’80s — think oversized tees, sweatshirts, pants, dresses … you name it, and there was a “one size fits all” version of it!
The ’80s were a time of abundant oversize made wearable with big, bold belts, leg warmers and big hair. Everything was big … but like the tag said, everything “fit all”!
3. LOT or STYLE NUMBERS
What am I looking at? : Below the brand label, an additional label that gives a “lot” or “style” number.
Factories of decades ago kept track of clothing production not by computerized high technology, but by appending a numerical value to each item produced so that it was sorted and distributed properly. The “lot” number is the number attached to the group of pieces mass produced for a store.
So your vintage dress would be lot 10, which was the tenth group of that exact same dress produced in a certain factory. Lots 1-5 may have gone to department stores out west, while lots 6-10 may have stayed local.
The style number is different than lot because it’s referring to that piece’s exact design, i.e. style 49085 produced by that brand. It was a way for the brand to document the various styles of fashions it was producing.
4. LABELS NOTE BRAND CITIES OR ORIGIN OF MAKE
What am I looking at? : Brand labels with major cities cited alongside the brand name. Think “New York,” “Philadelphia,” “San Francisco,” “Paris,” “London,” etc.
The trend of appending a city to a brand’s label speaks to the fact that women wanted to know that they were buying a piece originating from a major urban center. Today, our pieces are from mostly Asian countries. There is no style “panache” in seeing that your H&M dress was made in Taiwan.
In times of era’s past, purchasing your season’s styles from a brand that designed and made the pieces in San Franciso was something to speak of. If you lived in New York, getting those “west coast styles” may have been your fashion prerogative.
The same can be said for European designs. Woman wanted their clothing to be associated to a geographic location because the mass communications which exist today were non-existent then. We couldn’t, for example, Google “Parisian fashions” and click to buy.
In other words, styles from Paris stayed in Paris; styles from New York stayed in New York, etc. They were not duplicated and mass produced for a global fashion economy, because one had yet to formulate yet.
5. MADE IN THE USA
What am I looking at? : Any reference to being “Made in the USA” or “Made in America.” Label usually includes image of colored US flag, but sometimes only states “Made in USA.”
As unions lost production strength with the increased outsourcing of manufacturing to Asia and other countries abroad, companies opted to produce in the USA (but not with a union) which had higher production costs because of associated wages for employees. Brands would label clothing with this patriotic fact almost as compensation for not being made by a Union.
The “Made in USA” declaration became almost a fad with brands. Consumers, increasingly aware that their clothing was being made in China by the boatload, were looking for “American quality.” While the quality difference may have been minimal, purchasing American-made became a top priority for consumers, thus declaring “Made in USA” on labels helped brand image by boosting sales. We are now seeing this trend circle back around, so it can be a more difficult identifier. However, pair a "Made in America" tag with a lot number and you are sure to have an old piece of clothing.
6. MADE IN COUNTRIES THAT NO LONGER EXIST
What am I looking at? : Labels that state item was made in a country that no longer exists.
For a history buff like myself, this one will really send me into geek mode. You will have be well versed in your international history to spot these! For example - Yugoslavia was a Russian country which quite literally disappeared in the early ’90s when it was renamed “The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,” consisting of countries Serbia and Montenegro. In 2003, the “Federal Republic” part was completely dropped, and Serbia and Montenegro are what remain. So when looking at a label that reads “Yugoslavia,” you are looking at a piece that pre-dates at least 1992.
Other rare but exciting examples include, the Soviet Union or the British Crown Colonies of Hong Kong.
7. BRAND LABEL REDESIGN
What am I looking at? : Brand’s redesigning their labels as they re-aligned with the relevant style of the times and fashion culture.
When researching a vintage piece, many online expert sources will identify the various tags used by brands over the course of history. You can, for example, know if a piece was Givenchy '60s, ’70s or ’80s based on knowledge about the tag design alone - much like the union labels.
You can see these differences evolve over the years with designers who remain contemporary today — think Emilio Pucci and Ralph Lauren. The people behind these design houses were branding their name as much as their apparel, so like we would change our personal style over the decades, they would change the design of their labels too.
8. THE PRICE ON ORIGINAL TAGS
What am I looking at? : The original price on a tag, along with unusual construction/ink/materials.
When you are lucky enough to stumble upon a vintage piece with the original tag, search hard for the price and for any “hole” markings that look like braille writing.
First, noting the price will give you a general understanding of when this piece might have been made, and its “quality” value during that era. The two-piece suit pictured above cost $40. This is about 1/8 the value of most department store quality suits today.
Looking at the price, I’d guess the suit dates from the early ’80s and sold in a privately owned store based on the fact that someone hand wrote on the tag itself.
Note the ink and staples used on this tag too: You’ll see that the machinery clearly was from another time, with stark differences in quality when compared to those clean, crisp contemporary tags we’re used to seeing.
Second, if you find a tag with what appears to be holes in it — it looks a lot like braille writing for the blind — you’ve found a piece that pre-dates the ’80s for sure. These holes were read by the equivalent of a cash register for price and documentation.
These are truly special tags and if you ever find a piece with one, you know for sure that you’ve got a vintage piece on your hand that is most likely from the ’60s or ’70s.
Ready, set, go!