How to tell If my dress is vintage

Ever wanted to know if something really is vintage? Well our Laura has gone to town (this is a super long, highly informative read so bag your spot on the sofa for this one guys!) to create a ‘know how’ on figuring out if your favourite dress is actually vintage! (eeek!)

With designers often using vintage fashion as inspiration for newer pieces (Jaeger, Marc Jacobs to name a few) to the untrained eye it can be tricky to know whether an item is actually ‘vintage’ or not. This post takes some tips and advice from Melody Fortier’s ‘The Little Guide to Vintage Shopping’ to help you spot which era your vintage finds are really from, which are vintage gems (and replica pieces boohoo), and where you can bag a bargain.


The first thing to look for when identifying an era is the silhouette. Advancing from the full-length, cinched-waist from the turn of the century, to the drop waist flapper dresses of the 20’s, then rectangular shaped shift dresses of the 60’s, not forgetting everything in between and beyond. However, as mentioned previously current designers look to these past fashions as inspiration for new lines so it wouldn’t be wise to rely solely on the silhouette to identify your garments.

1900mccallsbThe 1900’s silhouette – note the cinched waist, full-length skirt, and high neck!

So…what next? Well, one of the easiest ways to discover which era your piece is from is to look at the label. Earlier pieces of clothing will be more likely to have a paper tag pinned onto the item, whereas later ones will be sewn into a hidden seam somewhere, so you may need to have a search to find it. Once you’ve got it, have a look to see what’s on it. Is it just the company logo? Or does it have a full list of materials and washing instructions? If you find the latter, chances are the piece was made after 1960, by which time all Garments were required to identify the materials used and their percentages. From the 40’s onwards, manufacturers were required to provide information on the percentage of wool used, but little other information. Extensive care instructions were then added in the early 70’s, prior to which sewn in labels weren’t a common find, and any limited care advice was given rarely. It’s all in the label folks!

A fab 1929 label which was sewn into the pocket of a bespoke W.G Brinkman waistcoat.

vintageHongKongLabelsCommon labels seen in the 50s and 60s!

However, it’s not just the labels that are a big give away, lets talk BUTTONS! Pre 1930’s zips weren’t often used on clothing so buttons were one of the main fastenings used, along with hook and eyes and press-studs.

If your garment has buttons made from natural materials, such as mother of pearl, bone, glass or tortoise shell, it was most likely made in the early 1900s when these kinds of materials were popular. Moving into the 20s early plastics like Bakelite and Celluloid were beginning to be used, and gained a greater popularity in the 30s and 40s. With both materials being easily sculpted and shaped, large and colourful buttons were being fashioned from these as a more affordable alternative to natural materials.

buttons_sears1938 Late 1930s novelty buttons – note the Disney style shapes! 

During World War II rationing has a huge influence on all aspects of life, and clothing was no exception. (Did you know a mans suit was only allowed to have 3 buttons!) Due to these restrictions, more and more people were making and revamping their clothes at home during the war. This is where the cloth-covered buttons became very popular, as they were easy to make using old buttons and left over material (so easy you can make your own by following this tutorial here). This type of button remained popular well into the 50s, but by then cheaper and more versatile plastics became readily available and began being used. These are the most common materials found on modern clothing.

images-5A great example of war era buttons!

But how can you tell the difference between modern plastics, and the more valuable and authentic earlier plastics I hear you ask? By doing a simple experiment on the sly at the vintage shop/stall you’re visiting is my answer! Both Bakelite and Celluloid have distinctive smells when heated, so all you need to do is rub the button until you feel it warming up, and then give it a sniff! Celluloid has a similar smell to menthol or mothballs, and Bakelite smells like Formaldehyde (a strong gaseous smell). Another characteristic of celluloid is that it is light and fragile, so there may be cracks, in which case, be careful doing the rub test!

Be aware that buttons have a tendency to fall off and people like to personalise/modernise their clothes, so do make sure you do some investigating. If you find that the original buttons are missing you may be able to knock yourself a few pennies off the price!

From "Stitchcraft" May 1959Lets talk zips!

Next stop … Zips!  Zips have evolved a lot over their 100+ years in existence, which makes them another useful indicator of when an item was made. They were invented in the late 1800s and were used on boots and shoes as an alternative for fussy and hard-to-fasten buttons. At this point they were made of metal and were big and bulky – definitely not suitable for use on clothing! In the early 1930s they were used on bags, outerwear, and sportswear, but were still too big and unsightly to be used for dresses. Most 1930s dresses will be identifiable by the fastening of press-studs down the left hand side, unless of course a zip was added at a later date. The majority of zips pre 60s were still made with metal teeth, however some designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli risked trying plastic ones out – these are a rare find so make sure you double check as they could be worth a bob or 2! By the end of the 30s zips were becoming more reliable and designers began fitting them in the side seams of dresses to replace press-studs. Post 50s dresses can usually be identified by the change in placement of zips with them being fitted to the centre back of dresses and skirts, and the centre front of trousers. 60s onwards, plastic zips became more common, but we still see metal ones being used today.

 So folks, there you have it! Now you’re equipped to go examining zips, experimenting with buttons and researching labels in vintage shops, fairs, your wardrobe and well…wherever you may find an opportunity! But before we leave you, a big thank you to Laura for her fab research and a reminder to you all that vintage classics are hard to come by, so if you see something you like, chances are you wont find it again! Love vintage and have fun!

We’ll be back soon with more pre-loved inspiration and humbling stories! Alex and Sam x

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