How to date vintage clothing guide

Identifying and Dating Vintage Clothing

Learning how to identify and date vintage clothing are essential skills for any vintage enthusiast. The best clue is the label, which we will get to below, but first, we'll look at what to examine on the garment itself. These are some brief tips to get you started but additional research will be required to learn more about each point. Understanding will come over time with practise and constant looking! 

Understand Eras

A knowledge of fashion history is a must. In fashion school, one of the first things you'll have to do is learn the basic silhouettes of the 20th century. There is, however, overlap. When we enter a new decade, people don't throw out all their clothes and start immediately dressing in a different way. We tend to straddle the decades on either side. Additionally, trends will do their recycling and we'll see older silhouettes coming back in. But in general, there are distinctive shapes that define each decade. From trouser cuts to sleeves, skirts, waistlines, shoulder and lapel widths; learning how these evolved over time, and came back in, will help you identify vintage. 


An intuition for fabric identification is your next tool. Knowing when different fabrics were popular and when certain synthetics came to the market will be very helpful. Clothing was mostly made from natural fabrics like cotton, linen, silk and wool before the 1960s, with the exception of rayon and nylon, which were used for dresses, blouses, ties and stockings from the 20s/30s onwards as an alternative to silk. Synthetics exploded in the 1970s and have continued to dominate since then. It seems polyester was used for almost everything in that decade, but early polyester is often much thicker and coarser than modern polyester. Lamé has been around since the 1940s but reached a high point in the 60s and 70s when companies like the Brunswick Corporation started manufacturing fine metallic lurex fibres. 


You might not be a dressmaker or tailor but having a basic grasp on how clothing was constructed is very useful in dating vintage. Seam finishes in particular are a telltale sign. Are they French, serged/overlocked or were pinking shears used? French seams dominated until the 1940s. Pinked seams replaced this in the 1950s and serged seams became popular in the 1960s when serging machines became more affordable for home use. Unfinished seams indicate not only a homemade garment but that the maker did not have access to pinking shears nor a serger. Home sewing was widespread in the 50s and 60s, so you'll often find homemade dresses from this period, however many women would have had pinking shears if they were making clothes at home during this time. The garment may pre-date the 1950s if the seam is raw and un-pinked. 

Another giveaway is the cut of the armholes (armscye) on women's clothing, which were tight and fitted close to the body prior to the 1970s, when things started to loosen up considerably. 

Is there a lining? Women wore slips before the 1970s, so there was not a great need for a lining in a dress before this. 


Are the buttons bakelite, lucite or modern plastic? Bakelite was common in the 30s/40s and lucite in the 50s. Buttons began to look cheaper in the 60s as modern plastics started to take hold.

Are the zippers metal or plastic or are there no zippers at all? Where are they placed?

Zippers didn't come into wide use in women's clothing until the 1940s. Before this, you will find buttons, hook and eyes, and snaps. Zippers were usually placed at the side seam in the 40s, and either the side or the back in the 50s. By the 60s, they were predominantly placed at the centre back. They were always metal up until the mid 60s and by the 1970s, almost all zippers were plastic and that has continued to the present day.  

Now, on to the labels!


Made In...

Where was it made? If the garment has a tag that says "Made in U.S.A." it is likely from the 1980s. Why?

In the mid 1970s, large garment factories opened up in Asia and Latin America. Domestic factories in countries like the USA started to disappear and a 'made in USA' label became a badge of honour. By the 1990s, American garment factories were all but non existent. The same happened in a lot of countries. 

A 'Made in Mexico' label might indicate the garment is from the 1950s as there was a surge in travel there after WWII and many American women brought home Mexican made clothing from their travels during this period. 

Union Tags 

The International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was founded in 1900 and continued as the ILGWU until 1995. These labels changed over the decades and are a surefire way to date a garment. Check out this resource for dating ILGWU and other union labels. 

Label Design

The label design itself and font used may give clues about the period. The Vintage Fashion Guild has a great database of labels which is a fantastic resource for researching by designer and company with many examples included of changing designs over the years.

Fabric Names 

Many companies developed their own brand names for different fabrics. Lycra is a brand name for spandex. Qiana nylon was produced between 1968 and the mid 70s. Acrylic had many names including Orlon and Zeran, as did polyester with Dacron and Vycron. Look up the names on the tag to search for company production dates. 


Woolmarks were introduced in 1964 as a way to encourage customers to choose wool over the acrylic fabric that was becoming popular on the market. The Woolmark blend logo was introduced in 1971 and the wool blend logo in 1999. 

Extinct Countries/Dominions

Pretty self explanatory. If the label was made in a country or dominion that no longer exists or that was under colonial rule, this gives a good basis for dating it. Some common examples include "British Hong Kong", "Newfoundland", "French Indonesia" and "East Germany".

RN & CA Numbers

Registered identification numbers are issued in the USA to businesses who sell, import, manufacture or distribute goods under the textile, wool and fur acts. CA numbers are used in Canada. You can search these numbers on online databases to find the company info. 

Between 1952 and 1959, the RN numbers 00101 to 04086 were used. The numbers started at 13670 from 1959 onwards. The numbers had 6 digits or more from the 1980s onwards. They can't tell you the date of the garment but they can give an indicator as to when the number was first issued to the business.

Be wary of the Canadian database which will give a 1997 issue date to all of the numbers as that is when the Canadian government digitized their files and failed to provide a place for the original issue date. 


Half sizes ran from the 40s to the 70s, so if you see sizes like 6 1/2 you can be sure it's from that period. Odd numbered sizing like 5,7,9 suggests it dates to before the 1980s when junior sizing came in. 

Lot Numbers 

Lot numbers were used in the 1970s for inventory management when mass production took over. This was phased out by 1979 when production moved overseas. So, generally, a lot number will indicate the 1970s decade. 

Care Labels

Written care labels were seen as early the 1950s when washing machines were becoming more common. However, they were not standardized or mandatory. They often appeared on a swing tag rather than sewn onto the garment. A high quality garment may include a sewn-on label, particularly if made from a fabric like lurex. These written instructions included advice like 'dry clean only' and 'do not use hot iron'. 

As more and more synthetics were hitting the market in the 1960s and tumble dryers were becoming more common, caring for textiles was becoming more complicated. Ginetex introduced care symbols to Europe in 1963 and North America and Japan followed suit shortly after. 

As international trade increased, a need for a cross border language became urgent. The International Standardization Organization introduced internationally standardized garment care symbols in the early 1970s. These are the symbols we all recognize today, although some of them changed design, or the order in which they appeared on the tag, over time.

Copyright Year

And sometimes you don't need to know any of that because the copyright year will be printed on the tag!

Happy hunting 😊

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