What is Vintage Clothing?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Stores featuring vintage clothing have become very popular in recent years, but many potential customers are curious about the difference between vintage and just plain old. Generally speaking, clothing produced before 1920 is considered to be antique, worthy of collecting or displaying in a museum but not for daily wear. Most clothing produced between 1920 and the late 1970s is considered vintage by most dealers, but some will extend this cut-off date to the mid-1980s.

Vintage clothing can be found in boutiques and thrift shops.
Vintage clothing can be found in boutiques and thrift shops.

The term 'retro' is sometimes used interchangeably with vintage, but many vintage clothing stores only consider clothing of the 1960s and 1970s to be truly 'retro'. Clothing produced after the mid-1980s is generally considered to be bargain-priced or a charitable donation.

Tie dye was very popular in the 1960s and '70s.
Tie dye was very popular in the 1960s and '70s.

One of the few exceptions to the age rule is high-end designer gowns. One-of-a-kind designs by designers such as Halston or Versace can be considered vintage after two or three years. In fashion, vintage denotes an exceptional example of period clothing, or clothing which still has some commercial appeal despite its age. Having a designer gown declared vintage is an honor for high-end fashion designers.

In most cases, vintage clothing is not less expensive to own than contemporary fashions. A pair of hip-hugging jeans from the early 1970s in good condition may cost twice as much as a brand-new pair of Levi's. Vintage clothing stores should not be confused with thrift stores. Selections at discriminating vintage stores are generally in excellent condition and carefully restored. Great care is taken to make sure the items are originals, not cheaper reproductions sold in general clothing stores. This is especially important when it comes to highly-collectible clothing such as original Hawaiian print shirts and bowling shirts from the 1950s.

Authentic vintage clothing does have some value in the collectibles market, so buying a vintage blouse from the 1940s or a pair of bell-bottom jeans from the 1970s should be considered an investment as well as a fashion statement.

There is some debate over vintage designation in the foreseeable future. Some may argue that a Member's Only jacket from the late 1980s or parachute pants from the early 1990s may one day qualify as vintage clothing. But many vintage clothing purists say that the clothes must have some lasting value beyond the times in which they were created. While a zoot suit may have defined a specific time in the 1940s, it may not be seen as a true vintage item because of its trendiness and short period of popularity. Vintage clothing tends to hold up well even when removed from the context of its original era.

Cleaning out one's closet may reveal vintage pieces of clothing.
Cleaning out one's closet may reveal vintage pieces of clothing.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Yes, vintage clothing drives me crazy as well. Owning some one-of-a-kind stuffs can make me happy for few days.


It seems a bit silly to me that a dress that is only a few years old would be considered vintage. I think that even vintage designer clothing should have to be older before getting it's designation.

But, I suppose that if I had the honor of actually having a dress I created get named as vintage, my opinion would be a lot different!


I just love vintage clothing and accessories. My mom teases me sometimes, saying that I must have been born in the wrong time period, because I'm always wearing stuff from the past.

I don't know what it is that makes me like it so much. There's just something about knowing that someone in the past, who's life was so completely different than how we live today, wore the same exact thing. It's a connection to a different time.


How interesting. I always thought that vintage style clothing just meant that it was exceptionally old. I had no idea that the fact that it was only in style for a short period could make it be considered not vintage.

If a zoot suit from the 1940s is not vintage, is it just considered old? It doesn't seem old enough to be called antique.

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