Vintage fashion can be mysterious
So you found a vintage dress buried treasure and you want to know how old it is. Dating old garments can be tricky! I’ll share a few things I’ve learned over the years.
Clothing labels and tags help date a vintage dress
Sometimes the easiest way to date a vintage or antique dress is by its label, tag or other maker’s mark. The Vintage Fashion Guild is a fantastic resource in general, and they have an extensive label library. However, not all garments have tags.
Vintage fabric, vintage lace, closures, embellishments
Next, take a look at the material. Sometimes you can easily spot a replica or modern era dress if a synthetic fabric was used. If you aren’t sure about the fiber content of the fabric, read up on how to burn test fabrics and find a piece of your dress or some threads of the fabric that you can cut off to do a burn test.
Once you determine the fiber content, find out if the fabric was used during the window of time you’re looking at. Also look at buttons, closures and materials used for embellishments to determine what they’re made of and if they fit in the time period. Wikipedia is good for a quick check into when certain materials were first developed.
A word of caution here: sometimes old fabric was used in a later period and old garments were remade into newer styles. Also, buttons may be replaced or older buttons and embellishments may be used on newer garments. If your materials check out (or if you think later buttons or other materials were added to an older piece), don’t stop here. Keep digging!
Fashion silhouettes through time
Looking at the dress while it’s on a person or a dress form instead of a hanger can be really helpful. You can more easily see the silhouette that way. You can look at silhouettes throughout history here. One caveat here is that an accurate silhouette was achieved by wearing the proper undergarments, which you may not have.
This exercise will narrow the window for the rest of your research, but you can’t stop here because styles resurface. There is nothing new under the sun, as the saying goes. The empire waists of the Regency era came back in the Edwardian era and in the 70s, the drop waists of the 20s came back in the 80s, as did Edwardian styles. Regency era styles borrowed from Ancient Greece. And it goes on and on.
How was the dress constructed?
Another thing you can investigate is how the dress was constructed. Was it sewn by hand? What hand stitches were used? A few examples are running stitch, back stitch, hem stitch. Was a sewing machine used? If a sewing machine was used, what do the stitches look like? A few examples are straight stitch, zig zag, serged, chain stitch. There were some very early 19th century sewing machines, but they were not a common household item for the home dressmaker until the late 19th century.
Look at the techniques and patterning used
If everything else has checked out so far, look at the shape of the individual pattern pieces and the techniques used to construct the dress, connect the pieces and achieve the overall style. Compare your observations to dresses in online museum collection catalogs.
- Victoria & Albert Museum
- The Met
- Musée de la Mode et du Textile (at the Louvre Museum, Paris)
- The Museum at FIT
- FIDM Museum & Galleries
One example of a style re-do with different patterning is the empire waist dresses of the 70s. The silhouette is similar to the Regency era, but the bodice of a 70s dress will be constructed much differently than one from 1800. A Regency era bodice will have a curved side back piece, while a 1970s era empire waist dress will usually be constructed without a side back seam.
Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion book series is a great resource for this step in your research. She dissected dresses in museum collections and created 1/4 scale patterns. Another terrific resource is Costume in Detail 1730 – 1930 by Nancy Bradfield.
Vintage sewing patterns
Of course vintage sewing patterns, catalogs, and magazines are great resources to learn about fashion too. A word of caution when looking at copyright and patent dates on vintage sewing patterns: the method of making the pattern and the technology is what was copyrighted or patented, not the dress design or pattern envelope artwork. You may find a pattern that was issued in 1920 with a copyright date of 1912. One way to properly date the pattern is to find it in a pattern catalog or magazine advertising the pattern.
- Google Arts & Culture
- Vintage Patterns Wikia
- Historical Sewing with Jennifer Rosbrugh
- Costume Society of America
Go forth and date that vintage dress!
In conclusion, dating an antique or vintage dress isn’t always easy. But hopefully these tips will help you the next time you find a treasure in the basement and an estate sale.
And while you’re here, make sure you check out my online fabric store. Get in your vintage style groove and make something beautiful!