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Explaining Vintage: What is it and what’s to love about it?

by Helen Redfern on March 27, 2021

Vintage is one of those words: we hear it and see it and yet when asked, would be hard pushed to define what it actually means. That's because it's come to mean something really specific, that goes beyond its actual meaning.

vintage (n.)
Source: the French word for 'harvest of grapes to make wine'. This came to mean 'age or year of a particular wine', then to a general adjectival sense of 'being of an earlier time'.

Recent usage: Vintage has now come to mean clothing and other items from a previous era, but it goes beyond that. Those garments and objects are not just old, they are representative of the era in which they were made.

So what's the difference between vintage, antique, classic, retro and just plain old?

Vintage: vintage items have to be more than 20 years old and represent the era in some way. So a pair of generic denim shorts from the 80s may not be vintage, but a white jacket with huge shoulder pads...now we're talking!

Antique: clothing and other items have to be more than 100 years old to be correctly classified as antique.

Classic: items from more than 20 years ago that are not typically representative of the era in which they were made but are part of a timeless collection are called classic. Think classic cars. And so a 60s LBD would be considered classic and not vintage (and is still therefore highly desirable) unless it had some very obvious detail (like a Peter Pan collar) that was specific to the 60s.

Retro: Sometimes called repro retro. These are garments and other objects made in the present (or in the last 20 years) that are a throwback to a previous generation. So a 20s style flapper dress made today is retro, not vintage. Retro refers to the style of the item, not the era in which it was made. Retro clothing imitates the fashion of a previous decade.

Old: Some items and garments are old but do not fit any of the above categories, Like a plain white St Michael men's shirt, for example. It may still be desirable as preloved and pre-worn, but cannot technically be classed as vintage.

It all sounds so complicated. How do you know what you're getting?

I'm no expert and let's face it, most of us out there aren't. That's why genuine vintage shops and sellers with a good reputation are to be trusted and can charge more the items they are selling than you would pay in a charity shop potentially for the same item - because they are bringing their knowledge and expertise and curating collections for you to browse.

I am not that person. I am trying to create a vintage collection, but at the moment, it contains antiques and classic and retro and just plain old! I'll be honest and make that clear though, and never make claims that I cannot back up.

So what's to love about vintage clothes and other vintage objects? What makes vintage clothing so desirable?

It's better for the planet

Because I'm me, I'll start with that one! Re-using clothing and other items and giving them a second life will extend life for all of us on this planet. I'm sure of it. The less we buy new, the less of the world's resources are used up and the less waste is created. I'm passionate about this because I am genuinely terrified for the future. We are in climate emergency and unless we change the way we live, the earth will become increasingly uninhabitable.

You can create your own unique style

Instead of feeling that you have to wear what’s trending, you can wear what you discover looks and feels amazing on you. Shopping vintage is a great way to explore individuality and originality. You'll never look the same as anyone else you meet.

Your clothes will last longer

Even though these clothes have been pre-worn, they will still last longer, because they were made to last. Fast fashion is a recent invention. Vintage clothes are generally better quality and the designs and fabrics are more flattering.

Your clothes have a story

Some people don't like that but I love it! I try to find out what I can about a garment and always search up the label. If you can't find out the provenance (that's the posh word for the story!), you can spend many a happy hour imagining the adventures your garment has already seen. There's a sense of connecting with the past, of taking your place in history and keeping history alive. This clothing has lived. It has a soul. It carries memories.

OK, so what do I have to watch out for when buying vintage clothing?

People passing off items as vintage that are not. You'll get better at spotting this as you gain more experience.

Mixing and matching different eras in one outfit. If you think you can carry it off, go for it, but it can create a confused look.

Sizing is always difficult. Vintage clothing often comes up a lot smaller than our current sizing guides. If you're buying online, ask for measurements.

Check out the condition. If you're buying online, ask questions. Ask for photos of any damage described. You can expect some signs of wear, of course, but specific flaws should be described.

So let me finish by telling you about my vintage Laura Ashley dress.

I know this dress is vintage because I wore it as my going away dress on the day of my wedding on 25 March,1989. The fit and flare shape and shoulder pads and floral fabric are definitely of the era.

I don’t recall having been a big Laura Ashley fan at the time, but I was never going to go for a traditional going away outfit and this was the perfect excuse to buy something extravagant that I fell in love with. I definitely fell in love with this dress. I loved the back: the plunging V with the huge bow at the waist. I loved the shape of the dress and all those petticoats. I loved that it was navy blue and that somehow made the floral design a little less over the top feminine.

So why am I selling it if I love it? Because it has only been worn a handful of times, is in perfect condition and deserves to be worn again and again and again (and I don’t think I’ll ever be that shape to carry it off again!). I’d love for someone to love it as much as I do.

Laura Ashley clothing is still highly respected and sought after. This British textile design company was founded by Bernard Ashley, an engineer, and his wife Laura Ashley in 1953. She started out by printing Victorian style headscarves on a machine Bernard had designed in their attic flat in Pimlico, London. Laura Ashley prints and styles have been described as 'quintessentially English.' In recent years, the company has faced many setbacks, including the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, but after a new acquisition in April 2020, Laura Ashley collections can be found in Next's 500 UK stores & website, and in a series of new stores across the UK. (I told you I was fascinated by exploring brands!)

So that's a dress with a story. I'll be listing it on eBay and Green Heart Collective this week - or email me if you want to make me an offer! It's a size 14 - a fitted size 14, I'd say, more of a comfortable 12.

I hope that's helped clear up any confusion about vintage and made you interested in experimenting. Dip your toe into buying vintage and discover the satisfaction and joy for yourself!

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