You’re thrift store shopping at your favorite store — like the Salvation Army I love in my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania — when a unique looking garment catches your eye from between the racks. You pull the garment toward you, revealing a gorgeous silk dress with lucite buttons in an aquamarine blue color that resembles a shirtwaist style popular in the 1950s. Excitedly, you move in to examine the garment’s designer, expecting to see a high-brow name or at the very least, a boutique label on such an exquisite piece.
But when you peer into the garment to examine the tag, you notice a foreign looking logo with a designer you’ve never seen before. You show the tag to your thrift shopping partner to see if she’s ever seen anything like it before. She says that “No she has not, but do you think the piece might be vintage?” She has a good point, but how are you to know if you don’t know how to identify or date vintage clothing. So you toss the dress into your cart for purchase without ever knowing its true vintage identity.
Since so many thrifters aren’t vintage clothing experts but repeatedly experience the scenario above in their thrifting travels, I wanted to share three easy ways to spot vintage clothing in a thrift store so that no matter your experience level, you can have more confidence knowing that a foreign looking label is that of a vintage clothing garment. For tips on how to spot vintage in a thrift store, keep reading after the jump for insights on vintage clothing union tags, brand designs and Made in USA labels!
Deciphering the vintage era of a garment is like putting together a gigantic puzzle. The more missing pieces you uncover, the clearer the picture and the more confident your answer feels. While these three tips won’t tell you the exact year or even the definitive era of a piece, they will point your detective skills in the right direction of where to learn more so that you can decide the true vintage style origin of your thrift store find for yourself. What are your tips for spotting vintage in a thrift store? Do you have a special strategy that I missed here?
Plus, stay tuned for a future post on thrift store shopping vintage labels and tags for the advanced!
Vintage Fashion Tips
THE SIGN: While you’re combing the racks and flipping through pieces, you spot a tiny, funny looking tag you’ve never seen before with the acronym “ILGWU” on it. What you’ve just found is a “union” tag, identifying the piece as clothing made by a group of American workers who have banded together (“unionizing”) for better employment opportunities and fair wages.
HOW TO SPOT IT: Look for union tags sewn immediately behind or next to the designer/label tag of a clothing garment. A union tag’s design features a scalloped circle with a threaded needle diagonally behind it. In the center are the large letters ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) crossed with the smaller acronym AFL-CIO. Around the edge is printed “Int’l Ladies Garment Workers Union.” Union tags were printed in a variety of colors, so don’t be surprised if you find red, black, blue or green printed on a white tag. Plus, a bonus for the more advanced: A tag’s color can help shed light on the era a piece was most likely made.
VINTAGE FASHION TIPS: If the piece has a “union” tag sewn on its inside, you can confidently assume that it’s vintage. This is because beginning in the ’80s, most clothing was not produced by a clothing union and was rather outsourced for cheaper labor abroad. But before the majority of our clothing was made in Asian countries, the ILGWU employed the women who manufactured American clothing available for purchase at mainstream stores. In the ’70s and earlier, anything not made by the union was most likely handmade by a specialty dressmaker or sewn together using a pattern by the wearer of the garment herself. Since the ILGWU was founded in 1900, the design of its union tags have changed several times and it’s these changes which tell vintage clothing collectors the approximate era a piece was produced. These tips are better suited for the advanced thrifter, so be on the lookout for my upcoming post on advanced labels and tags identification. Here is your guide to identifying the era of an ILGWU union label!
THE SIGN: “Ooh! Saks Fifth Avenue, what a SCORE!” You think to yourself after spotting a bonafide Saks dress sold for a steal in the racks of your favorite thrift store haunt. But then you furrow your brow in puzzlement: This doesn’t appear to be the Saks label you know and love. Could it be a knock-off instead? Most likely it’s not a knock-off, but rather Saks from a vintage era! When you spot a recognizable brand with a clothing label not seen in stores today, chances are you’ve come across a piece from its vintage clothing archives.
HOW TO SPOT IT: When thrift store shopping, give each designer/label tag a second glance to identify whether it’s of modern design. If your label’s modernity seems questionable, look up the brand name in the Vintage Fashion Guild’s label resource guide to compare your label’s design next to the pictures available. Noting similarities between your tag and the vintage examples will help you to decide whether you’ve discovered a vintage piece or not. The VFG’s label resource guide visually chronicles the various label designs of popular designers and brands, from icons such as Chanel, Diane von Furstenberg and Betsy Johnson to mall stores like The Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch and Banana Republic.
Source: The Vintage Fashion Guild
VINTAGE FASHION TIPS: Brands often change the design of their labels to redefine their image and to differentiate between separate clothing lines under the major umbrella of one company. With an illustrious 90-year-old history, Saks Fifth Avenue has presumably changed its tag design numerous times. Compare the Saks tag shown above to some of the tags from the 1960s on the Vintage Fashion Guild’s guide. Note the similarities in font and how the words are placed at a diagonal from bottom left to an upper right. Using this information, it’s safe to assume that based on the tag’s design, that this Saks Fifth Avenue label is from the late ’60s – early ’70s. To more accurately mark the era of the piece itself, you’d consider other characteristics of the garment (style, material, construction) to confirm its true vintage era.
MADE IN THE USA
THE SIGN: It’s a glorious privilege to be born as a — and thrift! — a Made in the USA item. When you discover vintage amongst the racks, chances are you’re touching an American made product since offshore production didn’t dominate the clothing industry until the ’80s. Since vintage clothing is best described as any item of the ’80s or earlier (following the 20 year rule), you should keep your eyes peeled for any American flag designs or locally made mentions on a garment’s tag to help identify it as vintage.
HOW TO SPOT IT: Older vintage pieces produced before the ’80s might have a “city/town, state” (like “Lancaster, Pa” above) reference on its tag. Pieces made in the ’80s are tagged with a separate label that states “Made in USA” with an American flag emblem, or text stating “Made in the USA” printed alongside the brand name on the tag.
VINTAGE FASHION TIPS: Beginning in the ’60s, clothing production in the US began to be outsourced for cheaper labor opportunities. It began with production outsourced only to Japan in the 1960s but by the ’80s and into the ’90s, most clothing was made in Taiwan, China, Eastern European, Singapore, Malaysia, China and Indonesia with hardly any left over to be produced in the good red, white and blue. By the late ’70s, a campaign to support American made textiles had mushroomed and brands were promoting their patriotic allegiance to stateside manufacturing with red, white and blue tags like the one shown above. Before the ’80s-current eras of outsourcing clothing production abroad, specialty stores produced garments locally and so for the wearer’s reference, listed where it was made (by city and state normally) so they could remember where to visit the shop again. Remember, this was a time before digital yellow pages on the Internet!
Thank you to the Salvation Army of Lancaster, PA for permission to shoot photos in their store.
MORE VINTAGE FASHION SECRETS
Guide for Identifying Clothing Era
Banana Republic, Betsy Johnson, Levi’s & More The 7 Secrets to Pricing Vintage Fashion
Vintage Fashion Guild: Label & Tag Resource Guide
PLUS: Thrift Store Shopping Like a Pro Series