Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How Do You Know About That Stuff? - Part 1 - Clothing Labels

People often ask me how I know about the age of items, and, it can be hard to answer because to me so much of it is obvious and subconscious. While in the Salvation Army the other day, however, I explained to two teenage girls looking through records what "LP" stood for, and, what a "45" is. This was a bit of a wake up call as to how old I am, I mean, the wealth of vintage knowledge that I possess.  I decided there and then to put some of that knowledge to use here.
There are many clues you will need to use to determine the age of a garment.  The style, the cut, the fabric used and even the way it is constructed are all very important details to begin to look for and understand.  One clue that I always use, however, is the manufacturer or store label.   Most often in conjunction with those other details, the label can often help you easily confirm or reject an item as vintage.  The union label can also be helpful, and there is a good site here with great information.  Because they are easy to show, I decided to use manufacturer and store labels as my first post in this category.
In the 1940's and 1950's, clothing labels were often a work of art.  Beautifully stitched and often including the name of the store from which the items were purchased, they can help both date and locate items for you.  The label shown above is in a Persian Lamb cropped jacket with a satin lining.  The store from which it was purchased, Shepard, was in operation until it closed in 1974.  The style of the jacket, along with the older logo style on the label date this to the late 1940's or early 1950's.
During the later part of the 1950's and the early part of the 1960's items were often imported from the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong.  The items were usually beaded and ornate, like shells, cardigans or dresses like the dress in which this label is found.  The term "British Crown Colony" was no longer used after 1983, but, the boat-neck curved-waist style of this dress dates it much earlier, to the late 1950's most likely.  This label also shows another important characteristic.  Women's clothing sizes were numbered much larger in the past then they are now.  This dress - marked a size 12 fifty years ago, is a modern size 6.
The 1960's was the synthetic textile explosion.  Manufacturers were excited about the possibilities of new synthetics, so, you see many synthetic names on 1960's tags that you did not see before or after.
This iron from the 1960's has a great list of those fabrics!  Take a look in your closet and tell me if you see anything made from Dynel, Acrilan, Fortrel, Lurex or Vycron.  While many of these fabrics provided great wash and wear, non-fading and permanent press options, many of them were still experimental and later proved unstable.  It is always a good idea to take a hard look at anything labeled with one of these fabrics to ensure stability.  Give it a good shake, does it flake or powder?  Tug gently at a seam, does it deteriorate?  If so, pass it by.
The style of the label's graphics can also be a clue as to the time period of the clothing.  This Checkaberry dress has great late 1960's graphics, and, although marked a size 12, is closer to a modern 4 or 6.
The name and graphics on this label, coupled with the great shirt graphics clearly say late 1960's or early 1970's.  The fact that it was made in Korea also dates it to this time.  Finally, it is from W.T. Grant Co, which went out of business in 1976, so it must date to before that time.
This suit label - "Bert Newman for Suitime" has equally great graphics that reflect those deco-revival styles popular in the 1970's.  This marked size 10 is about a modern size 4/6.  Vintage sizes get closer to the modern sizes as you get closer in the decades.
Clothing from the 1970's often has very inexpensive looking labels.  There are always higher-end labels on designer clothing, of course, but much production during that decade of thrift was done as inexpensively as possible.  This dress shows both a manufacturer's label and the care label inexpensively printed, not stitched.  The graphics reflect popular rounded styles of the late 1970's and the Size 18 shown is closer to a modern size 10/12.
This women's red suede power suit from the 1980's shows the more sophisticated embroidered label manufacturing that became the standard during that decade.  The Korean origins, (along with the killer shoulder pads!) help date this to the 1980's.
The trend for more sophisticated (i.e.: embroidered, not printed) manufacturer, size, and, care labels continued through the 1980's.  Woman's sizes also got much, much smaller as clothing manufacturers enticed women to buy items that made them feel good about themselves!  You rarely see a dress marked a size 2, 4, or even a 6 before the 1980's.  Clothing was no longer seen from Korea that often, and Taiwan, India and China showed up on labels much more frequently.
In the 1990's labels reached a height of sophistication for lower end clothing.  They are often beautifully embroidered and designed.  There is also an annoying manufacturing trend that develops in the 1990's to label almost everything as needing to be dry-cleaned!  (I can only assume, to avoid law suits).
Modern labels continue to be sophisticated, with new materials tried all the time.  One clue is that graphic design, on more recent labels, extends from the manufacturer right to the size tag - like the use of negative space above the size tag on the LOFT label shown above.  Sizes have trended back to small, medium or large in the most recent decade.  Also, tricks in alternative sizes like using 0, 1 and 2 in place of small/medium/large are trends at certain stores like Chico's.   It is still possible to be fooled or confused.  Some contemporary manufacturers use both vintage inspired styles and labels - it is for this reason you should also familiarize yourself with fabrics.  Using a holistic approach however, of garment design, fabric used, construction, tag design, tag size vs modern size and a little "gut reaction" will get you on your way to being a pro!

8.29.12 Addendum:  When  I first created this post, I had planned to follow up with some other related posts.  Although I have not yet been able to do that myself, other more hardcore bloggers such as Sammy Davis Vintage have done a terrific job of taking this to the next level!  Check out her comprehensive post on vintage clothing labels by clicking one of these links.  Within the body of her article and at the bottom, you will find even more links to more resources on the topic. 


  1. Great history, I never really thought that much about labels. And I wash most things that say dry clean only - lol.

  2. Great information on the labels. I recently saw a Quilt made up of old Vintage Labels at a Quilt Show and it was fantastic looking!

  3. Cool! This is like reading a book about history but boy this perspective is deeper and it made me realize that there's more behind the labels, not just some random branding. Keep it up!

  4. Thanks for the compliments! I will try my best to keep at it! C & G


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