Thrifting 101, Part 15: Dating vintage clothing by era 1920-1960

A few weeks ago, a reader left me a question on one of my Thrifting 101 posts that generated a lot of thought. Her question regarded how she could determine whether a thrifted item was vintage, or merely old. Today's vintage market encompasses more than 100 years of popular style. From silk flapper dresses from the twenties, to 1950's beaded sweaters, to 70's polyester day dresses, to shoulder-padded blazers from the 1980's, particular styles and fabrics have long been associated with particular eras in fashion history.

Generally speaking, an item of clothing is considered to be vintage if it is more than 25 years old. However, vintage is not just about age. It is a fashion term that also includes essence and style. Thrift and vintage stores sell a considerable amount of clothing that's more than two decades old, but  not every piece of thirty year-old double knit polyester deserves to be celebrated. Sure, it might meet the age requirement, but that's about it.

The undefinable element of vintage clothing is it's iconic, enduring style, which is why clothing that is not necessarily "old" is included in the category. Certain designs from the 1980's are becoming more popular among collectors today, such as oversized blazers with substantial shoulder pads, sequined tops, and poufy taffeta prom dresses. Iconic silhouettes include tailoring, in the form of Chanel's 1920's boxy suits in neutral colors, to something innovative, such as the invention and widespread use of rayon and viscose fabrics in the 1940's. Therefore, whether produced in the 1920's or in the 1980's, vintage fashion is about silhouettes that innovative and iconic as well as representative of their era.

A few weeks ago, Part 5 of my Thrifting 101 series discussed tips for thrifting for vintage. The presence of a union tag, type of zipper used, and the zipper placement are tools through which one can, determine whether a garment is vintage or not. This week, I'll go a little deeper and examine how silhouettes have changed throughout the history of fashion and use this information to help ascertain the era of a vintage garment. Understanding more about the history of modern dressing is a great way to figure out when a garment was made.

Missed any previous parts of the series? Up to this point, Thrifting 101 has focused on tips for newbies and those dealing with the squick factor, advice regarding how to shop at a thrift store, thrifting for the clothing snob, recommendations for finding the best thrift and consignment stores, tips for determining what days are the best for thrifting, a post where I explained my love for thrifting, advice regarding thrift store etiquette, tips for cleaning vintage leather, a post of my favorite thrifting and vintage blogs, tips for identifying and cleaning thrifted jewelry, advice for storing vintage and thrifted garments, and advice for shopping for vintage online.

The Roaring Twenties

1920 dressmaker model

The 1920's are the era in which fashion became modern. The end of World War I brought optimism to the country, and social customs and morals were relaxed. Historians have characterized the decade as a time of frivolity, abundance and happy-go-lucky attitudes.  Several years had passed since the end of World War I.  People felt free-spirited and wanted to have fun. As a result, fashions became less formal.

The 1920s saw the emergence of three major women's fashion magazines:  Vogue, The Queen, and Harper's Bazaar.  Vogue was first published in 1892, but its up-to-date fashion information did not have a marked impact on women's desires for fashionable garments until the 20's.  These magazines provided mass exposure for popular styles and fashions. Paris continued to be the seat of haute couture (high fashion). Coco Chanel exerted a great influence during the decade, appealing to the practical American woman through her use of simple ensembles, scarves and inexpensive jewelry.

The invention of rayon, known as artificial silk, in 1910 led to the creation of looser, more sensuous clothing.  The straight line chemise, accentuated with a drop waist and often embellished with Art Deco detailing, fringe and beading, is 0ne of the signature fashions of the time. Women also embraced sports, and fashion followed with shorter skirts and the introduction of pleats to allow for more freedom in movement. Many garments of the 1920s fastened with buttons. The closer-fitting flapper- style dresses fastened with a continuous lap, usually applied to the left side seam of the garment.  Hooks and eyes, buttons, or snaps were all utilized to fasten the lap. The zipper, first patented in 1893, was not utilized in garments until the latter part of the decade. It was originally known  as a ├Člocker├«, and did not receive its current name until 1926. It was not widely used until the late 1930s.

In addition, the women's rights movement had a strong effect on fashions. The confining corset was discarded and replaced by a chemise or camisole and bloomers, later shortened to panties or knickers.  For the first time in centuries, women's legs were seen with hemlines rising to the knee and dresses becoming more fitted. A more masculine look became popular, including flattened breasts and hips, short hairstyles such as the bob cut, Eton Crop and the Marcel Wave. Signature accessories included the cloche hat and narrow leather pumps with Louis-style heels.

Fashion from 1930-1939

Dallas, Texas woman 1934

The 1930's began with a world-wide depression that would color nearly all aspects of the decade's fashion. Fashion changed seemingly overnight as women sought the comfort and familiarity of modest dressing. A softer, more feminine style replaced the boyish, flapper look of the twenties. Hemlines once again fell to just above the ankle, and the waistlines rose to its natural place. A narrow line continued to remain in place, accentuated with bias-cut dresses that fell in gentle folds and drapes. The incorporation of zippers (replacing buttons, snaps, and complicated hook-and-eye closures) and emergence of belts encouraged more form-fitting silhouettes. Clothes were simple, with little embellishment, and often made from cotton, rayon, garbardine and crepe.

Sharp-shouldered jackets with shoulder pads became popular, and were embraced by Hollywood stars such as Lauren Bacall and Katherine Hepburn. The entertainment industry began to exert a strong influence over fashion. Movies were one of the few escapes from the harsh reality of the Depression, and movie star endorsements of styles and accessories became common, especially with evening wear. A popular formal look was the empire-waisted gown, with ties at the back. The dress might boast butterfly or large, puffy sleeves. Hemlines fell at the ankle and trains added a further formal touch. Fabric flowers might be placed at the neckline, on one shoulder, or at the center waist or center neckline. Bows were another popular accent. The peplum made its debut in the late thirties evening wear. Fur of all kinds was worn extensively during this era, both during the day and at night. Fur capes, coats, stoles wraps, accessories and trimmings adorned women's dresses. Pelts in demand were sable, mink, chinchilla, Persian lamb and silver fox.


Wartime fashion show, ca. 1943

The emergence of World War II brought wartime restrictions on material, decorative trim, patch pockets and oversized sleeves, and resulted in streamlined fashions. One quote from a fashion magazine notes: "The Silhouette for 1943 is slim, pillar-like, with not a bit of extra material that could be used by Uncle Sam." While the decade of the thirties saw the theme of thrift in purchasing garments, the theme of the forties was a conservative look which would remain fashionable through multiple seasons. Women's magazines were abundant with articles on proper care of garments for maximum wear.

In an effort to comply with the restrictions outlined in the regulation, American designers created a new style of suits for women. Skirts were short and straight topped by short jackets of twenty-five inches or less in length. Cardigans matched skirts and sheath evening dresses replaced the long flowing gowns of the thirties. Hemlines rose to just below the knee, and skirts were slim over the hips. Fashion separates were embraced by women of all ages - skirts and sweaters, tailored blouses, and jumpers became increasingly popular. High-waisted trousers became increasingly popular as well, and blue jeans, once reserved for farm or factory, became a fad.

Short hair remained fashionable in the early 1930s, but gradually hair was worn longer in soft or hard curls. Most hairstyles were smooth at the crown to accommodate a hat, with curls framing the face and at the ends. Manufacturers and retailers introduced coordinating ensembles of hat, gloves and shoes, or gloves and scarf, or hat and bag, often in striking colors.

The 1950's

College fashion, early 1950's

Magazine models, late 1950;s

Fashion in the years following World War II is characterized by the reemergence of haute couture after the austerity of the war years. Square shoulders and short skirts were replaced by the soft femininity of Christian Dior's "New Look" silhouette, with its sweeping longer skirts, fitted waist, and rounded shoulders, which in turn gave way to an unfitted, structural look in the later 1950s.

A flood of synthetic fabrics and easy-care processes emerged in the 1950's. "Drip-dry" nylon, orlon and dacron, which could retain heat-set pleats after washing, became immensely popular. Acrylic, polyester, triacetate and spandex were all introduced, and utilized in sportswear. Designers emphasized a new hour-glass shape, in contrast with the wartime silhouette with extended shoulders and straight shapes. 1950's clothing demanded a thin waist, sloping shoulders, and portly bust combined with rounded womanly hips.

Tailored suits had fitted jackets with peplums, usually worn with a long, narrow pencil skirt. Day dresses had fitted bodices and full skirts, with jewel or low-cut necklines or Peter Pan collars. Shirt dresses, with a shirt-like bodice, were popular, as were halter-top sundresses. Skirts were narrow or very full, held out with petticoats; poodle skirts were a brief fad. Evening gowns were often the same length as day dresses (called "ballerina length"), with full, frothy skirts. Cocktail dresses, "smarter than a day dress but not as formal as a dinner or evening dress", were worn for early-evening parties. Short shrugs and bolero jackets, often made to match low-cut dresses, were worn. Casual wear included slim, cropped pants and rompers. Shorts were very short in the early '50s, and mid-thigh length Bermuda shorts appeared around 1954 and remained fashionable through the remainder of the decade. Loose printed or knit tops were fashionable with pants or shorts. Swimsuits were one- or two-piece; some had loose bottoms like shorts with short skirts. A tailored, feminine look was prized and accessories such as gloves and pearls were popular.

Sources used for this post:
  • Fortier, Melanie: The Little Guide to Vintage Shopping Quirk Books (2009) 
  • Milbank; Caroline Rennolds: New York Fashion Publisher: Harry N. Abrams (1996)
  • Odulate, Funmi: Shopping for Vintage: The Definitive Guide to Vintage Fashion  Publisher: St. Martins Griffin (2008)
  • Tortora, Phyllis and Eubank, Kevin: Survey of Historic Costume, Fourth Edition Publisher: Fairchild Publications, Inc. (1998)


  1. That last photo gives me life! I prefer vintage looks the more I get older. IT's so fun!

  2. Such an informative post! Thanks for sharing. I sometimes feel skeptical of calling things vintage, so I tend to just say thrifted (unless I am really sure).

  3. I am so impressed with your Thrifting 101 series. You deserve some serious kudos. I hope you compile it into a book someday - it is worthy.


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