Anyone who buys and wears vintage clothing will be quite familiar with a number of rules of the thumb for identifying and dating clothing. However, are they as generally applicable as we all think? We look here at a number of myths surrounding vintage clothing, which we feel everyone needs to be aware of.
- Overlocking / Serging was only used from the 1960s!
We are all very familiar with the appearance of serged seams in modern clothing. It is a technique to reduce the required seam allowance by finishing off the edges of fabric to prevent fraying.
Many a vintage collector will tell you that overlocked seams were not used until the 1960s and this technique can be used to date a garment to this period or later. However, overlock stitching was actually invented by the Merrow Machine Company in 1881 with the first overlocking machine having been manufactured in 1889. This this much earlier than many collectors would think, and it is true that, despite its early origin, this technique was not very common until the 1960s. In 1964 Japanese engineers designed a smaller and lighter weight version of the industrial overlocker which became popular with home sewers.
However overlockers were in commercial use much sooner than they became available to home sewers and there are many examples dating back as early as the 1920s where seams have been finished with overlock stitching. We tend to see this on pieces where serging makes a tangible difference to the life of the garment, such as sports and swimwear which experiences significantly greater seamstress. Some fabrics are also more likely to show early serging, such as rayon jerseys, which are otherwise prone to fraying and rolled seams. We have shown below some examples of early overlocking in pieces we have handled.
Another reason why a period piece may have overlocked seams can relate to subsequent alterations. Many pieces were worn long beyond the decade in which they originated and were passed on to other family members. When home sergers became popular in the 1960s, seamstresses and home sewers alike started to use them to reinforce the fraying seams of their favourite earlier pieces. In fact, we have clients now, you will routinely ask their seamstresses to overlock any vintage garment they purchase to extend its life. Usually such subsequent overlocking was only applied to the most likely to fray seams, such as side seams, collars, armholes and hems and sometimes it is possible to tell the stitching apart from the original seams through the use of different thread. However, this can cause significant confusion when dating a piece and anyone who presumes that the presence of any overlocking dates a piece to the 1960s, is likely missing out on many a wonderful garment.
- It’s got a plastic zipper, so it must be 1960s!
The zipper itself was invented in 1851 by Elias Howe and his concept, along with the spiral zipper concept by Max Wolff and the work of Whitcomb Judson resulted in the filing of a patent for the separable fastener by Gideon Sundback in 1917. This separable fastener looks essentially like the zipper we know today and the company for which Sundback worked at the time, later became Talon Inc of metal zipper fame.
However, it was Wolff’s spiral zipper that is the forerunner of the modern plastic zipper, but at the time it was not widely produced due to the lack of available materials. In the 1940s (yes, a full 20 years before we all think it to be the case) the modern nylon coil zipper was invented. Whilst it was not widely used until the late 1950s / early 1960s, there are other, earlier examples of plastic zippers. One such example is the early celluloid zipper. It is very rare to find these nowadays as they are rather fragile and were often broken and replaced, but they are the earliest known plastic zippers.
In fact, designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli were well known for using large plastic zippers as decorative design elements in the 1930s.
And of course, as with overlocking, it is often possible that plastic zippers were added at a later stage to replace a broken original or following alterations to a piece. So, it usually makes more sense to look at the position of the closures than at the fastening itself.
- That fabric couldn’t possibly be this old!
Whilst it is true that earlier vintage favours more natural fibres, it is by no means a rule. Yes, silk, rayon, gabardine and crepe were frequently used in the early 20th century, however there are modern pieces made of fabrics every bit as beautiful. Equally, it is not as straightforward as excluding something because it was made of a certain fabric. Cotton velvet for example, whilst more popular in the 1950s and 1960s, was still used in the earlier part of the century for heavier wearing velvet garments. Equally, both polyester and nylon were actually invented in the late 1930s and there were many “novelty fabrics” and fabric treatments used in the 1940s and 1950s that can feel similar to the touch.
- It has puff sleeves, so it must be 1930s!
Whilst design styles can be very helpful in narrowing down the time period of a garment, generalising these can have many pitfalls.
Firstly, decades do not tend to be defined by a single style. Take the 1930s for example, the decade started off with loose fitting, low waisted styles we would more typically associate wit the flapper era. It then moved towards longer hems and slim fitting bias cuts and ended the decade in shorter lengths and puff sleeves. So a lot of detailed research, looking at styles, necklines, sleeves and internal construction is required to pin a garment down to a specific period.
Secondly, garment styles continued to be popular well beyond their original decade. Like today, not everyone follows fashion, some customers instead prefer classic styles that they know suit them. We have often seen garments made with 1950s construction but using 1930s or 1940s designs and styles. These were often made by seamstresses and tailors to the specification of their older clientele, who had found the style that suited them and wished to continue to wear this style despite the changing fashions
Thirdly, designs were often recycled. We have all seen 70s does 40s and 80s does 50s pieces in abundance with more recent decades borrowing heavily from previous designs. Often the more modern versions can be identified by their construction and their design tends to be slightly more exaggerated.
Original 1930s dress set 1980s does 1930s velvet dress
However, some homemade pieces that are produced to older pattern with faithful techniques and findings can be almost impossible to distinguish from originals, especially when they have been made from period fabrics or plain coloured fabrics of matching quality.
Finally, several fashions often ran in parallel, differing between regions and societal levels. A wealthy New York socialite’s wardrobe would have been very different indeed from that of a Mid-West housewife. The below images are a great example of this, both taken in 1939, one of a housewife showing off her feedsack dresses (handmade using recycled fabric from flour and animal feed sacks) and the other of fashionable ladies attending the 1939 New York World Fair.
Whilst the upper and middle classes were able to afford to buy a new coat each year, sometimes twice a year, in line with the changing fashions, the working classes often wore their clothes until they fell apart, then mended them several times for further longevity.
5. Plus size older vintage doesn’t exist!
It is true that dress sizes, like shoe sizes and height, have increased over the last 100 years (always ignore sizing labels in vintage garments, they lie! However, many women back then also wore structural underpinnings to give them the desirable shape with corsets and girdles an everyday lingerie item for most. This moulded their bodies to fit into nipped waist garments and there are some excellent modern versions available to allow you to replicate this.
However, this does not mean that larger size vintage doesn’t exist. As nowadays, women came in all shapes and sizes, including plus size and we can attest to this through the survival of garments as well as advertisements for larger size clothing by brands such as Linda Leigh, who specialised in the more voluptuous customer.
The reason that there are fewer large size garments remaining today, is something called Survival Bias. Clothing would usually be passes on to younger siblings or children once the original owner had outgrown them. This was of course much more likely to be possible with larger garments, which could be tailored to fit a smaller sibling or child. If a garment started off smaller, it was much less likely to fit anyone else subsequently, so was often stored away rather than worn again. Thus smaller garments were less likely to wear out and were more frequently preserved for us to admire than their larger sized counterparts.
In summary, whilst these rules of thumb can be helpful as a general guide for helping you identify and date vintage, they are by no means hard and fast rules. There will always be exceptions to any general rule and as a result, these rules should not be used to exclude but merely to assist. A most accurate way to date a garment is to look at a number of different factors such as style, construction and labelling in conjunction to build as informed an opinion as possible.
Copyright © Marie-Christin Coomber, July 2022 - April 2023
1 My Modern Met, Illustrated Timeline Presents Women’s Fashion Every Year from 1784-1970 by Kelly Richman-Abdou, July 31, 2017
2 The Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Russell Lee, April 1939, digital ID: fsa 8b21734 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b21734
3 Inside the Fashion of the 1939 World’s Fair, Rose Heichelbech - www.dustyoldthing.com
4 Cornish Guardian and Saltash Gazette and Cornwall County Chronicle; Bodmin, Cornwall, England; Thursday, May 11, 1950
5 Grimsby Evening Telegraph; Grimsby, Humberside, England; Thursday, June 1, 1950