In this guide we’ll be discussing vintage suits for men including:
- what they are,
- how to wear them,
- and where to buy them.
Vintage clothing has had a cult following for many years, but that cult following started going mainstream some time in the early 2000’s. To be clear, we’re not talking about your Urban Outfitters, “made to look vintage but actually brand new and really expensive” vintage.
We’re talking about true vintage items.
What Does “Vintage” Mean & How Can You Tell?
Merriam-Webster defines vintage as “a period of origin or manufacture.” This is easy in the world of, say, wine. ABC wine is a 2002 vintage, XYZ wine is a rare 1974 vintage, and so on.
With clothing, the classification is a bit more nebulous.
Technically speaking, items become vintage once they’ve reached twenty years of age. Insiders and many vintage sellers balk at this idea, as this means that something manufactured as recently as 1997 (as of this writing) would be considered vintage. In fact, the Wall Street Journal wrote about 90’s “vintage” and the hilarity that has ensued from calling it such.
Many sellers nowadays use the phrase “true vintage” to denote items that are at least 40 years of age or older.
How To Discern Vintage Clothing
There are a few ways to tell what’s vintage versus what isn’t:
- Union labels: Back when manufacturing was still big in the U.S., many garments were union-made. Labels denoting these unions were often sewn into the inside of the garments, giving us a window into its provenance.
- Menswear shop label (see photo at right): The local menswear shop is a dying (nearly-dead, even) breed. Decades ago, when men dressed in tailored clothing more routinely than they do nowadays, most cities and towns had local menswear shops that carried their own lines, in addition to clothing from various brands specifically made for that shop. That label can unlock a trove of information for you.
- Aesthetic details: Look at things like lapel width, button stance, presence or absence of darts, and overall heft (garments got lighter as manufacturing technology improved). Certain details are associated with certain eras and can indicate to you the approximate age of a garment.
If you’re into books, there’s one tome that stands superior to any others on the subject: Esquire’s Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Men’s Fashions. In it you’ll find a wealth of information about just about every garment made for men in the 1900’s.
The rub? The one and only edition was published in 1973, so the book is pretty expensive. It’s available on Amazon for over $200.
If you’re not into spending that much money on a book, we suggest hitting up your local library.
How To Wear Vintage To Work
It can be tough to pull off vintage clothing in an office environment. The two main reasons for this are:
- Offices are too casual nowadays. Many offices have a dress code that will have people looking at you funny for wearing a collared shirt, let alone a vintage suit.
- Dressy offices are too conservative. We know, wearing vintage is uber-conservative if you think about it. No matter. If you’re in law, government, or another sartorially conservative profession, you’ll generally do well to avoid wearing head-to-toe vintage.
Ok, so that’s what not to do. Here’s how you can successfully wear vintage items to most offices:
Mix Up Time Periods
If you dress head-to-toe in 1930’s garb like the gentleman pictured on the left, you’ll look like a time traveler. Worse, you could look like Joe Pesci from My Cousin Vinny when he couldn’t pick up his suit from the cleaners.
This is fine if you’re just dressing for yourself or for a party, own your own business, or in some other way aren’t beholden to anyone else. For most of us, though, it’s best to mix up time periods. This will look less costume-y and can be achieved by…
Wearing One Or Two Vintage Pieces At A Time
Another option is to flex one or two vintage pieces into an otherwise modern outfit. Your new, made-in-2017 suit may very well pair beautifully with a 1960’s necktie and your dad’s overcoat he bought in 1985.
Below, Mike pairs a vintage sport coat (in need of alterations, for sure) with modern trousers, shoes, shirt, hanky, and sunglasses. The jacket is bold, but is tempered by the otherwise workaday items paired with it.
This is a great way to add some interest to an outfit, and it can be a great conversation starter with someone who knows a little something about clothes.
Where To Buy Vintage Suits
If you live in most urban centers, there are likely various shops that you can check out, most of which will be second-hand or consignment shops. We also offer plenty of information of various markets in Philadelphia and London (Brick Lane and Portobello Road). We strongly encourage you to check out our reviews!
As with just about everything else in the world, you can buy vintage items online too. As buying online has its own set of pitfalls and drawbacks, we have a standalone guide for buying suits on the Internet. We highly suggest you take a look at that as well.
The world of suits -vintage and otherwise- can be complex and confusing. Furthermore, not all suits are vintage ones! Check out our comprehensive list of suit guides to get you through the suit-buying process with confidence. Our detailed guides include helpful resrouces such as:
Furthermore, we have other sections of the site that offer guidance on other aspects of style including: grooming, face shapes, fragrances, and more. At your leisure, we encourage you to take a read through our guides to truly round out you personal sense of style.