DIY and Recipes,  Fashion

Thrifting Vintage: a few tips for finding and dating vintage clothes

On Monday, I went on a joyfully solo trip to Goodwill. I say “joyfully solo”, because while I love going shopping with my husband or other people, I am the most thorough thrift-store shopper you will ever shop with, and I literally have to look at every single garment on whatever rack I search. Not even joking. So when I go with other people, I both feel as though I might be missing something because I make myself skip garments, and I feel like I’m probably boring the heck out of whoever is waiting for me to get done inspecting the dress rack.

But that’s beside the point. While there, I scored four awesome vintage dresses, three of which were $1.29, and one of which turned out to be even more awesome than I had thought at first glance. Now, I’ve been asked to post thrifting tips before, but I’ve never gotten around to it. I’ve also considered posting about how to date vintage clothing, but I didn’t feel like I quite knew enough to tell someone else how to figure it out. Until now.

And since most of my vintage clothes are thrifted, what better than to combine the two? So here are a few tips for finding thrift store vintage, and then figuring out what era that vintage is from once you get it home!


Tip Number One: Ignore Goodwill’s tag sizing. Look through every single size category. Try everything on!

The above dresses were sized by Goodwill as follows: 2X, XL, Large, Medium, and Small.

However, their real sizes are all a modern 6-8, with the exception of the bottom left red dress. Goodwill employees, for the most part, have absolutely no idea how to size vintage garments, and seem to just slap size tags on them at random. The top left red dress’s tag reads “Made In France” and has a size 38 on it. So, of course, they see the “38” and slap a 2XL on it and shove it with all the other extra-sized clothing. The bottom left red dress has a tag that reads “20WP”. Which, translated, is a womens plus-sized petite size 20. So… they marked it medium?

And, if it’s a handmade or pre-size-tagging vintage garment, it could be put anywhere. The black dress is a 1940’s-50’s garment with only a brand tag on it, and the floral dress is a handmade 60’s piece. They’re the same size, yet one is marked XL and one is marked L, and both of them fit me the same. I wear a modern dress size 6.

So that is my number one rule: look through everything, try it all on!

Be aware of your thrift store’s clothing seasons.

I have found that the thrift stores I go to tend to pull out the crazy-awesome vintage during the fall and winter, and you can find great vintage gowns during prom season. Perhaps because that’s when people clean out their closets and donate, or perhaps just because of the garment types, but I usually come home with the biggest haul during the cold months, and when I shop Goodwill in the summer, most of it is strappy dresses from American Eagle, American Apparel, Forever 21, and the like.

As well, if your thrift stores do seasonal clothing placement, especially around Halloween and Christmas, don’t forget to check their costume and ugly-sweater racks! I discovered this year that during Halloween, lots of more flamboyant vintage dresses were put with the costume section of my Goodwill, and now that it’s Christmas they’ve got holiday dresses– and vintage gowns– and crazy sweaters up front just waiting to be picked through!


Put a Belt On It.

Wear a belt to the store, or grab one of Goodwill’s belts and take it into the dressing room from you. Belts make a HUGE difference, especially with vintage!

I have decided my ultimate fashion advice is to put a belt on it. Sung to the tune of Beyonce’s “Put a Ring On It.” It’ll get stuck in your head. And it fits. If you liked it, then you shoulda put a belt on it. In other words, if the colors or pattern appeal to you, but you pull it out and the shape is weird, belt it before you toss it back on the rack! And I always, ALWAYS try everything on before I give it a definitive yes OR no. Some things look great on the hanger and terrible on me, even belted. Others look crazy on the hanger (sole reason I grab them) and awesome while worn.

If I hadn’t tried them on or put a belt on it, I wouldn’t have gotten the above two dresses. Both of them are kind of 80’s-tastic-tacky without belts, but belted? BAM. Transformed into stylin’ 80’s-tastic-tacky. HA!

Avoid the “Fashion’s First” trap.

Not every thrift store does this, but several of the Goodwills in my area have a section up front they have labeled “Fashion’s First” (at least, I think that’s what it’s called). It’s basically their section to take clothes someone has deemed fashionable and price it ridiculously for used clothing just because it’s trendy. Seriously, I have seen used heels whose soles and insides looked slightly worn for $40 in this section, and a formal gown with whitish stains down the front, a ragged hem, and several snags in the skirt for $100. And, meanwhile, in the normal dress section was a spotless beaded wedding gown for $20. So, really, the fashion section of thrift stores is usually just a marketing tactic.

Now, if said clothing still had the original tags on it and wasn’t worn at all, I might be okay with this section. But generally, I avoid it altogether. Most of the clothing placed here is modern, from “high end” brands (aka… clothes from Macy’s), and WAY overpriced.

Now you bought it, when’s it from?

Dating vintage clothing is not as intimidating as it might seem at first. Once you get used to the feel of vintage fabrics, the look of vintage tags, and the general styles of each era, dating a piece of clothing as vintage is pretty easy! Generally now, when I grab a dress or skirt off the rack, I immediately know it’s vintage just by the feel of the fabric and make of the garment. But here are some other ways to know.

(click on image to enlarge)

Tag It.

There are several ways to tell by the tag what era a vintage garment is from. First, if all  the tag says is a brand name, such as the first 3 above, it’s most likely early or pre-60’s, depending on the make of the garment. But look carefully to make sure someone didn’t just snip the other tags off.

Secondly, look for tags that list a brand name but no “made in (insert country here) OR say “made in USA”. If it has no defining country, only a brand name, and perhaps just a state, it’s pre-80’s. If it has Made in USA somewhere on it, most likely it’s 80’s or 90’s.

Thirdly, look for an ILGWU label, and pay attention to what color it is! The less color it has, the older it is. Grayish or greenish blue ones are usually 50’s-60’s, more navy or true blue ones are usually 60’s-70’s, and red-white-and-blue ones were used anywhere from 1974 to 1995. There are other defining factors in the ILGWU label, including the addition of things to the tag, but the link shows the most common ones you’ll see.

Fourthly, look for a garment care label, and the content label. The former weren’t mandatory until 1971, with the current, more detailed labels coming into play in 1983, and the latter was mandatory starting in 1960. So usually, the more labels it has, and the more details they give, the newer it is.


Check the Seams

Since everyone has a sewing machine now, dating garments as vintage based on how they’re sewn alone isn’t always reliable. But if you already know you’ve got vintage because of the tags, fabric, or other indicators, and you just can’t figure out quite what era it is, check the make! Pinking indicates it’s most likely from the fifties (middle), while serging indicates it’s probably 60’s and beyond (right). And if it’s handmade with no pinking (left), it could even be 40’s. That, or they just didn’t want to take the time to cut the edges of the fabric with pinking shears


Check the Zipper

This is a very, very easy way to tell you’ve got a vintage garment! Two things to look for: metal zippers, which usually mean your dress or skirt was made previous to 1960, and where the metal zipper is placed. If it’s in the side seam, it’s probably early 50’s or 40’s. If it’s center back, it’s more likely late 50’s or into the 60’s. And if the zipper is plastic, it’s probably late 1960’s, or 70’s and beyond.

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Consider the length, silhouette, and fabric

Here are a few examples of clothes that look like they’re from the same era, but aren’t.

When I first grabbed the maroon dress on the bottom left, I thought it COULD have been from the 50’s. The full skirt, the sweetheart neckline, the lace… those are all things that bring to mind 1950’s, for me. But the length isn’t quite right– this dress almost hits my ankle– and it had tags that dated it as one of those sneaky 80’s-does-50’s garments. The maroon on the right, however, I assumed was 80’s until I did a little more research and placed it more likely as being 70’s based on the length, fabric, and tags.

The dress on the top left had me puzzled for QUITE a while, but with the help of the mod-type above-knee silhouette, serged seams, and tag with no defining country or state, I’m pretty confident it’s from the 60’s. In the same way, the top right dress is probably from the 50’s based on its hand-sewn seams, metal middle-back zipper, and knee-length wiggle silouhette.

The middle two garments, I immediately thought of as being 70’s. The right one, however, is early 60’s. You can tell not only by the tag (name brand only), but also by the length, which completely hits the floor while the left garment stops at my ankles, the fabric, which is heavier than the one on the left, and the sleeve type. The 70’s kimono has the flowing, free sleeves that were more popular in that era, while the coral dress has nicely tapered sleeves that were common in the 60’s. (Also, their tags identify them pretty well).

(So, in short: length-wise, a dress that looks 50’s but is mid-calf or ankle length is more likely 80’s-does-50’s. A dress that looks 70’s but hits the floor and has tapered sleeves could actually from the 60’s. And a dress with a somewhat 60’s silhouette could actually be from the 50’s if its seams are not serged, it hits the knee, and it has a heavier fabric)

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Google it!

That’s probably pretty obvious, but when I get vintage garments home that have tags, I always Google the brand name along with “vintage clothing” to see if anything has been posted on sites like Etsy and Ebay, which helps when you’re not sure of the date of your garment. I snagged this vintage dress solely because I thought it was pretty and it was $1.29 on the tag sale.

Then I Googled it, because I figured I probably had a 70’s garment, at least, since most of the vintage I usually grab is, at the earliest, 70’s. And I discovered, after lots of disbelief, cross referencing, dating the seams, etc… this dress is from the 40’s-50’s, and its sisters are being sold for $160 or more on vintage dress sites. Um… score? I don’t intend to sell it, but knowing I’ve found a gem like this just makes me love it more!

So there you have it! Those are a few of the things I’ve learned to look for when searching through thrift stores for vintage. Most commonly, I find dresses from the 80’s-90’s (which doesn’t feel quite vintage; I was born in the 80’s and grew up in the 90’s), and wool skirts from the 70’s, so don’t get your hopes up too high. All of the dresses in this post have been gathered over at least four years of being addicted to thrift store shopping.

But still, with a keen eye and an open mind, you should be able to fill your closet with lots of fun vintage finds for a fraction of what they might cost you online!

Happy shopping!


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Some useful links: 5 Construction Clues for Dating Vintage Clothing, 11 Ways to Know it’s Vintage by Labels and Tags, How to Date Clothing as Vintage, How to Date Clothing as Vintage by its Union LabelVintage Fashion Guild label resource, Vintage Fashion Guild fabric resource