What Does “Vintage” Mean & How Can You Tell?
Merriam-Webster defines vintage as “a period of origin or manufacture.” It stems from wine-making and is a corruption of the French word “vendange”, which refers to the yearly wine grape harvest.
In this context, the word is still used today when referring to the wine’s age even though the French instead use the term “millésime“.
Meanwhile, the classification is a bit more nebulous with clothing.
Technically speaking, items become vintage once they’ve reached twenty years of age. However, insiders and many vintage sellers balk at this idea, as this means that something manufactured as recently as the late nineties would be considered vintage.
In fact, the Wall Street Journal wrote about ’90s “vintage”, which drew a lot of criticism.
Within vintage communities, items are considered vintage when 40 years or older. Furthermore, sellers will often use the phrase “true vintage” to make this distinction. Alternatively, anything between 20 and 40 years may commonly be referred to as “retro”.
How To Identify Vintage Clothing
There are a few ways to tell what’s vintage versus what isn’t. While it may vary between countries, you can use the following considerations for vintage garments in the USA:
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.
Local Shop Label
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.
Many of these even 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.
In fact, many big brands today may have had humble beginnings. If you’re lucky, you might even stumble upon an vintage garment from the brand with and older logo.
Indeed, if you’re lucky, you may find references or information that may allow you to pinpoint the garment’s age and source with surprising accuracy.
For instance, Harris Tweed is a particular brand that’s known to offer a lot of detail on its garments as you can see in the image above.
Aesthetic Details & Fabrics
Vintage “Thornproof” Tweed Suit
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.
Furthermore, the creative use of different fabrics, patterns, and the way that they’re marketed on the label may also indicate a garment’s age. For instance, certain types of tweed that were labelled as “thornproof” were particularly popular in parts of the United Kingdom in the 1970s.
Similarly, gabardine is a fabric that is mostly associated with trench coats today. However, it didn’t experience a period of popularity as a material for making suits.
Reading About Vintage Fashion
If you’re into books, Esquire’s Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Men’s Fashions is a one tome that stands superior to any others on the subject. 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. For instance, it’s available on Amazon for over $300.
If you’re not into spending that much money on a book, we suggest hitting up your local library.
Otherwise, we offer a number of detailed fabric and pattern guides where you can learn more about both. As we’re particularly passionate about menswear history, the majority of our resources will often provide an insight into the background of both fashion trends and garments.
How To Wear Vintage At The Office
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.
As such, it can be challenging to find ways to easily integrate vintage garments into your weekly wardrobe rotation. However, here are a few pointers on 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, you can risk looking like a Time Lord. Worse, you could look like Joe Pesci from My Cousin Vinny when he couldn’t pick up his suit from the cleaners.
While this can be sometimes be successfully pulled off if you own the style, it can also be very challenging. If you live and work in a particularly open and tolerant environment, it might be accepted. However, it’s important to gauge your surroundings and whether you risk being too much out of place.
Generally, it’s 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.
Wear 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.
Of course, this faces its own challenges as you need to take care that the garments don’t clash. Every style carries with it its own persona and connotations, which project a particular persona.
If they are too far removed, they may simply clash too much. However, it is possible to curate garments from different periods that offer a touch of contrast.
Getting it right consists sometimes of a little practice as well as some trial and error. Nevertheless, it’s very satisfying when you’re able to combine two garments from very different periods.
This is also 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.
How & Where To Buy Vintage Suits
We essentially break down sourcing vintage clothing into three different categories:
Each has its own own benefits and drawbacks, which we will detail below.
Buying Clothes In Vintage Shops
Hopkinson 21, Nottingham, UK
If you live in most urban centres, there are likely various shops that you can check out, most of which will be second-hand or consignment shops. The number of shops and the quality of their stock can fluctuate given that it’s a trade that’s largely dependant on what’s available.
In some areas, the market was particularly dynamic with lots of shops that sold unique pieces at very affordable prices.
As mid-20th Century clothing has become more antique, it is now harder to come by. Furthermore, vintage clothing grew exponentially in popularity and became considerably more fashionable.
Unfortunately, a lot of vintage shops may have since closed during this transition. However, those that survived did so by providing a more premium yet reliable service for their clients.
Consequently, some vintage shops today tend to feature more expensive albeit better-curated stocks. Although the prices may now be higher, quality vintage shops offer a more stable selection on every visit.
Indeed, visiting professional vintage shops is much more convenient and can save a lot of stress in finding the right garment. However, there is a more affordable alternative for adventurous spirits.
How To Thrift For Vintage Clothing
Once a practice treated with considerable snobbery, thrifting has grown to become quite fashionable. Although this can make it more competitive to find the right garments for you, the increased demand has helped in encouraging more traders.
There are a number of places that you can thrift from dedicated stores, charity shops to markets. If you’re interested in the latter, we 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!
The Positives & Negatives of Thrifting
As with all things in this life, there are upsides and downsides to thrifting for suits.
Firstly, there is the potential to find super cool, one-of-a-kind vintage clothing that you will never find anywhere else. Furthermore, these garments will often be incredibly inexpensive. So inexpensive that you’re excited to tell people the prices you paid.
Among certain communities, the price paid can actually become something of great pride, which adds to the competition between enthusiasts.
However, it’s important to know that thrifting a wearable suit takes a lot of time, much more time than regular shopping. It’s important to make sure that you’re not pressed for time and that you’re well-fed and rested.
If you’re anything like us, you’re liable to get hangry when you find a great jacket in one section only to find that the matching pants don’t exist. Furthermore, it can get somewhat stressful or frustrating if you’ve already left a number of shops empty-handed.
While you will likely have to dry clean and alter whatever you buy, some clothing makes it into thrift shops that is permanently stained or otherwise damaged. Sure, that Harris tweed jacket is amazing but the ink pen blot on the chest isn’t going anywhere, so just put it back.
Tips for Thrifting
Thrift shopping isn’t like regular shopping. While there are some higher-end second-hand stores that do a better job of replicating nicer retail stores, some thrift shops are disorganized and poorly kept. The following tips should be applied anytime you’re thrifting just so you have all your bases covered.
- Know your alterations: Refer to our tailoring and alterations guide before leaving the house. Print out a copy if you like. The point is that to be successful, you’ll need to be familiar with what your tailor is capable of and what the average cost will be because it’s extremely unlikely that you’re going to throw on a 35-year-old suit that was likely altered for someone else and have it fit you like a glove.
- Check the whole store: Sometimes you’ll stumble upon an orphan: a jacket or pair of pants that is missing its mate. Just because you don’t find the mate with the original garment doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Check in sections where your size wouldn’t normally be. Check the entire women’s department. Search the fitting rooms. Ask an employee. You never know where good fortune will strike.
- Have a good dry cleaner: Because you don’t know where any of these clothes came from, you should have them dry cleaned before wearing them for sanitary reasons. If they haven’t been worn for a long time, they may also smell a little funky. As mentioned above, sometimes you’ll run into some beautiful, well-fitting duds that have some unfortunate stains on them. You need a guy who can get those out.
- Diligently inspect EVERYTHING: Found a suit you like? Great? Now is the time to inspect every square inch of it for repair call-outs: rips, tears, holes, etc. If you see a small tear at a seam, no big deal, your tailor can fix that for you. Moth hole on the lapel, though? You might want to consider if it bothers you because repairing that, if possible, would be very, very expensive.
- Find thrift stores near affluent areas: You are much more likely to find higher-quality (and often brand-name) merchandise if your thrift shop is located in or near a neighborhood in which the residents do well for themselves. Prices may be a bit higher, but still well within the thrift-shopping realm.
Armed with this information, you’re now ready to thrift. Have a good meal (consider carbo-loading), bring a bottle of water, and wear comfortable shoes. The hunt is on.
Buying Vintage Clothes Online
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.
One of the most popular online sources is eBay, which is both a treasure trove and a Pandora’s box for vintage shopping. Otherwise, there is also Etsy, which is similar but does have its own unique benefits and drawbacks.
Given that our online guide is a general primer, we’ve written another one that explores specifically buying suits on eBay and touches on eBay. We highly suggest you take a look at that as well.
Vintage and thrift shopping can be an emotional roller coaster. Oftentimes you’ll come up empty-handed, but when you hit, you hit big. You have to be a guy who’s in it for the thrill of the hunt and who won’t get discouraged with repeated failure to come up with anything purchase-worthy (which is likely to happen with suits).
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: