Vintage clothing is a term for new or second hand clothing originating from a previous era. This may include dresses, jackets, hats, shirts, trousers, blouses, skirts and scarves, as well as many accessories such as vintage jewellery.
Most vintage clothing is classed as second-hand, having been previously worn, but a small number of items can be found unworn. These items are often old unsold warehouse stock, and for collectors are particularly sought-after if they retain their original packaging or tags.
As a general rule, items of clothing produced before the 1920s are referred to as antique, and pieces from the 1920s to 1980s are considered vintage.
The term ‘retro’ usually refers to modern clothing which copies the style of a previous era. The nature of fashion trends is cyclical, and designers often look to the past for inspiration.
Often when this happens the original clothing of that era becomes more popular with collectors, and prices for the best pieces can rise.
Unlike the ever-changing styles of today, many pieces of vintage clothing were designed to be worn for years and passed on to other family members. They were often made of robust materials and well made, with generous seam allowances and hems which allow for alterations and custom fit.
The most popular items for collectors are pieces by famous designers, especially when they are considered particularly representative of the designer’s style or era. These items are often hand-made and unique, or produced in very small numbers, and can be difficult to find.
They are also usually created with a high level of craftsmanship and tailoring not found in modern mass-produced clothing, often featuring an intricate level of detailing, and made with the finest materials.
Vintage clothing can also be more valuable to collectors if it accompanied by an interesting or detailed provenance. As with the majority of historical collectors, those who collect vintage clothes like to know the background of many pieces, such as who wore it and to what occasion.
The price of an item will rise dramatically if it was once worn or belonged to a famous name, and many memorabilia collectors specialise in the clothing of celebrities.
Fashion trends change with social attitudes, and each decade of the 20th century saw the popularity of certain styles.
The 1920s is one of the more popular periods for collectors, with silk beaded flapper dresses the most sought-after. During the period knee-length gowns were de rigeur, and women were encouraged to bind their busts in order to attain a boyish figure.
Drop-waisted shift dresses were also common, but items from the 20s in general can be hard to find in good condition as they were often made from delicate materials such as silk and featured hand-detailed work that was easily damaged. Important designers of the period include Coco Chanel, Jean Patou and Elsa Schiaparelli.
The 1930s saw cinema begin to influence fashion trends on a larger scale. Dresses with floor-length hemlines were in vogue, and womanly curves were shown off in bias-cut fabrics. Eveningwear featured stunning silk and satins, covered buttons, the glitter of lurex and built-up shoulders.
Daywear was more low-key and can be easier to find for collectors of this period, with cotton dresses in softly draping fabrics and floral prints. Notable designers working in the 1930s include Howard Greer, Walter Plunkett and Norman Hartnell.
There is a wide range of 1940s styles on the market, with the majority originating in the United States. Wartime rationing in Europe meant a lack of materials, so the majority of European womenswear from the period is less colourful and of a slightly lower quality.
American womenswear however was not limited in the same way, and is more colourful and glamorous than the British fashions. Wool skirt suits with tailored jackets and pencil skirts were popular, and cotton day dresses from the 40s can be easy to find for modern collectors.
After the austerity of the war the Paris fashion houses re-opened, and the world of haute couture began to flourish once more characterised by the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga and Christian Dior.
The 1950s saw the birth of A-line skirts, the return of Coco Chanel and the Chanel suit and the sleeveless, princess-line dress known as a ‘skimmer’. Bikinis appeared in Europe but were not worn in the United States during the 1950s. Floral print cotton day dresses from the period by labels such as Horrockses are now extremely popular with collectors.
Important 1950s designers include Pierre Balmain, Jaques Fath and Charles James.
The 1960s were characterised by bold colours and simple lines, evident in both day and evening wear. During the decade Mary Quant invented the mini-skirt and Jackie Kennedy introduced the pillbox hat, both of which became extremely popular.
Sleeveless shift dresses and Capri pants were also common, and the late 60s saw psychedelic prints and a more androgynous look for men and women. Influential 1960s designers include Yves Saint-Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy and Oleg Cassini.
The 1970s saw a continuation of late 60s styles such as the mini skirt and bell bottoms, but was dominated by two distinct and opposing looks; disco and punk.
The disco look saw a return of three-piece suits, platform shoes and wide collared shirts, whereas the punk look emphasised ripped jeans, torn t-shirts, worn leather, tartan bondage trousers, PVC and safety pins.
The most important designer of the period is Vivienne Westwood, whose clothes are now highly collectible.
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