Shopping for True Vintage: 10 Ways To Identify A Vintage Dress

Retro Dee is a regular contributor to The Grooveyard’s website, writing about music, fashion and other trends of the 1950s.  Check out her blog, Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever here, and her column here every Wednesday.

Hi folks Retro Dee here with another swell listicle on Shopping for True Vintage!

When you start to buy True Vintage clothing, you will notice certain specific things that are different from clothing that’s made today. These small details can help you determine whether or not you have a vintage dress.

So is it really vintage? Have a look at these 10 traits that will help you tell!

(Please note that in this case “vintage” means clothing from the 1950’s through early 1960’s.)

10 Ways To Identify A Vintage Dress:

1. The Label Itself. The label on a dress (if it has one) will have the name of the maker stitched onto it, usually in script or some kind of stylized writing. The label itself will be stitched loosely to the garment, often in a zig-zag stitch. In many cases, you will find that the label is shredding, due to age, use and wear of the dress. Vintage labels seem to shred in the same manner due to the fabric they are made of.

This Goldmans label is attached with “zigzag” stitches
The shredding on this vintage label is typical of those from that era.


2. “Fashioned by” or “An Original”. In the 50’s, it was common for a label to say who the dress was fashioned (or styled) by. Also common was to note that the dress was “an original”. When you see labels with these phrases, you probably have a true vintage item. In addition to those terms, you’ll also notice that many labels indicate the town or state of where the dress is from, such as “Cordette of California”.

This label shows that the dress was fashioned by Martha Clyde and additionally shows that it was made in New York


3. The Lot/Size Tag. This may or may not be present in the dress in question, but if it is, it’s indicative of a vintage garment. The word “lot” will appear above the size of the garment. The tags basically look like the picture below. Remember also that sizes in those days are very different from ours today. For example, a size 12 is about the equivalent of a US size 4, a 13 would be equivalent to a 6 and 14 to about an 8.

A vintage size tag will look similar to this one. (circa 1950’s)


4. Hook and Eye Closures Tiny little hook and eye closures were frequently used on dresses in the past. These can be found at the back of the neck to fasten the dress, or sometimes at the waistline. While they are still used to fasten pants and skirts, hook and eye closures at the back of the neck are rarely used today. One reason for this is if the top of a dress isn’t completely closed and our bra shows, or we end up showing a bit more skin than we intended, we just don’t give a damn. But back in the day, ladies were classier, more conservative and a hell of a lot less sloppy.

Hook and eye closures at the back of the neck are common in vintage dresses


5. Small Snap Buttons. Similar to the hook and eye closures, small, metal snap buttons were often used to close gaps on clothing. This precise detailing is what sets vintage clothing apart from clothes of today. These were often found on button-up dresses. The small snaps were usually  used to close the dress in the stomach area, beneath the bodice.

This button-up Betty Barclay dress has a small snap button AND a hook and eye closure just above the drop-waist skirt.


6. Collar Button with Loop. Many button-up shirtwaist dresses of the day had these! This is indicative of the conservative era of the 50’s and very early 60’s… Just at the collar there will be a tiny button that closes with a thin loop. The loop is either made of elastic or in some cases, just thread. Fasten this and you will buttoned up within an inch of your life and the Poster Child for Modesty! This feature is a great way to tell 50’s dresses from the 80’s ones (when the shirtwaist dress came back in style) The 80’s dresses didn’t have a button and loop that closed the collar like that.  Past the early 60’s, collars rarely closed up that high and were usually left open an a few inches at the neck.

Small button and thread loop at the collar of my Betty Barclay dress
Closed collar button on my black and striped shirtwaist dress


7. Partial Side Zippers. Oh, the infamous partial, or as I usually call them, “half” zippers. This zipper will be located on the side of the dress on the left side. It starts just under the armpit and stops at about the hip. I personally find these zippers a pain. They don’t really open the dress up enough to get in and out of and you’re always getting your arm caught in the space when you try to find the armhole! I do, however, find this annoying placement of a zipper to be a good way to identify a vintage dress.

Side zipper on a vintage circa 1950’s dress.


8. Non-Stretch Fabric. Most of the fabrics used in dresses (be they cotton, taffeta, nylon etc..) did not have any elastane in them, and therefore, no stretch. We are used to pulling a dress on over our heads and being able to shimmy out just as quickly without worrying about tears. This was not the case with vintage clothing! Many dresses had ZERO stretch and if you moved too quickly going in or out, or if you were just a “tad” too small for the dress, you could have a potential rip situation. It seems odd to us to deal with this kind of fabric that just tears like paper if you aren’t really careful. So far I’ve torn four vintage dresses this way in various spots. Be careful, ladies!

Unfortunate tear on this taffeta evening dress made while I was trying to hurry out of it. Most vintage fabrics don’t have stretch!


9. Unlined with Exposed Seams. To see what I mean, turn your dress inside out. In Many vintage dresses were not lined. Women in those days relied on wearing separate slips as underwear. When you look at the inside of a true vintage dress, you will see large, exposed seams.

Typical seam inside of a non-lined vintage dress.


10. The Smell. Before you say “eww” this is not necessarily a bad thing! Most vintage clothing has a scent to it: musty, but not bad. This does not mean the garment is dirty, it just means it’s old, and being vintage, that’s a good thing! I put this odor in the category with wet autumn leaves. Not super fresh like florals, but kind of a nice, musky odor. I’ve also noticed some of the dresses I’ve bought smell a certain way because they are made from fabrics we no longer use such as certain wool blends. Personally, I love the musty smell of an old dress. When it wafts on the air in my room on a summer’s night, I breathe it in and think: “Ahhh… vintage.”


I hope this list helps you along your journey of finding True Vintage treasures. As I learn more, I will be passing my knowledge on to my readers in the future. There is no substitute for experience when it comes to buying vintage, and I’m learning more each day!

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