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What is the definition of vintage clothing? Read on and learn!

October 14, 2018

Is Vintage fashion the same as retro-wear? Is it age-dependant? Are used clothing considered vintage? If not, then exactly what is the definition of vintage clothing?

So many opinions persist about what is the definition of vintage clothing, an equally diverse set of answers are available. In the post below, we’ll explain which items can rightly be called vintage, and why!

The Ladybirds, Bergen, 1968

The Ladybirds, Bergen, 1968

What really are vintage clothes?

If you are into dressing up in clothing from various by-gone periods, at some point you’ll probably wonder what vintage means?  Sure, you’ll know how people dressed in the 50s or 60s. And, since you are a period-fashionista, you’ll likely be able to tell if a piece of clothing is from the 1970s or the eighties.

But despite being able to peg an item to a specific era, do you truly know what is the definition of vintage clothing? Well, don’t feel bad if the answer is “No!”. Because there are as many interpretations of what vintage means, as there are opinions about politics or climate change.

For instance, some consider garments made 20 years ago, or earlier, to be vintage in character. Other’s tend to disagree. They don’t believe that twenty years is sufficient for fashion to be considered vintage.  If you ask them, they’ll tell you unequivocally that vintage garments are those that were made during or prior to WWII!

And then, there are those folks that say 20 or 30 years doesn’t go far enough for something to be classified as vintage. If you ask these “believers”, what is the definition of vintage clothing, they’ll tell you with great conviction that anything that’s 50 or 100 years or older has the right to be recognised as vintage fashion!

Magazine advert for The Leaves's single "Hey Joe", 1966

Magazine advert for The Leaves’s single “Hey Joe”, 1966

What vintage means is relative!

If you put all these folks into a room together and try to have a civilised discussion about what is the definition of vintage clothing and why, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get a convincing response. So, in the absence a definitive answer, we’ll need to rely on popular tradition about what clothes are called vintage, and which ones aren’t.

So, lets begin by discussing what IS NOT vintage fashion! Once we rule out certain characteristics that do not define vintage, it may be easier to zero in on what vintage means.

In wine-making, “2010” can be a vintage year. That’s because the use of the term “vintage” is relative to the year that the grapes were harvested to make the wine. However, that’s NOT how vintage fashion would be determined. Fashionistas and fashion connoisseurs would baulk if a garment made in 2010 were called vintage!

While in the wine industry, vintage means the date of grape harvesting, and “old” means anything that’s 10-years past vintage – that’s NOT how vintage garments are assessed!

So, the term “vintage” is in fact relative to the context in which it is used, and NOT pegged to a definite scale of reference.

Renée Zellweger, May 2010

Renée Zellweger, May 2010

Vintage fashion explained

So, what is the definition of vintage clothing if you were interested in buying vintage clothes?

Well, tradition has it that for something to be considered vintage, it has to be anywhere between 20 years and less than 30 to 50 years old. In that context then, vintage items would be those made anywhere from the late 1960s to the late 1990s.  So, if you walked into a thrift store or a Goodwill outlet, and wanted to buy vintage dresses or coats, you’ll need to look for items made in the 60s through the 90s.

I can already hear you gasp and say: But, THAT definition of vintage means the items will be thread bare and barely wearable! How come I’ve seen celebrities like Renée Zellweger, Kate Moss and Chloë Sevigny parading in “mint condition” vintage fashion recently?

That brings us to yet another twist to explaining what vintage means. You’d be well within your rights to counter: What is the definition of vintage clothing if they can be manufactured today and worn by contemporary models and celebrities on runways all across the world?

Well, “true” vintage garments really do need to have been created in a vintage era – at least 20 years or more ago! No piece of clothing that’s made today, or even 3 or 5 years ago, can be called vintage. However, that doesn’t explain the recent parade of “vintage clothes” we’ve been seeing on TV and YouTube videos – or doesn’t it?

Hess Brothers Fashion advert - Allentown, PA, 1970

Hess Brothers Fashion advert – Allentown, PA, 1970

It does – sort of!

Vintage era has a particular attraction for many – but not everyone likes to wear pre-owned garments. So, contemporary fashion designers have created a whole range of vintage inspired line-ups, that make use of patterns, designs and styles that go back 20 years or more, but which are manufactured using today’s techniques and technologies.

This hybrid, of clothing that looks vintage but are produced today, is typically called vintage retro. So, the next time someone asks you: What is the definition of vintage clothing? you can categorically say: Anything that was made 20+ years ago. But make sure you also tell them that vintage inspired clothing doesn’t actually need to be that old. They are garments that are based on vintage items, but that are made by contemporary designers to fuel the desire of people that want to wear vintage clothing that weren’t necessarily pre-owned or used previously by someone else.

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