One of my favorite parts of running a vintage clothing shop is researching and dating all of our pieces. I've always been a lover of history and fashion, and this combination has fuelled my passion for vintage. My education on the subject has been an organic one, comprised of tidbits I've picked up here and there over the years, and while I'm not exactly an expert when it comes to dating vintage, I hope to be someday soon! Whether it's a historical fact about a specific garment or a new fashion term, I add new knowledge to my arsenal on a daily basis. What follows are a few of my favorite means of researching vintage clothing. Hopefully you'll find them useful, and if you've got any advice of your own, I'd love to hear it in the comments below!
Whenever I come across an affordable vintage catalog in good condition, I snatch it up. I say affordable because they can be a bit expensive depending on where you're looking, but there are some well-priced ones out there. What I love about vintage catalogs is the practical insight they give into the fashion world at the time. Not only can you get a better grasp on the styles of specific years and seasons, they are a great place for finding detailed descriptions and era-specific terminology. I also really love finding out how much a piece originally sold for. Wondering what kind of information you might find in a catalog? Take a look inside this May Manton's Fashion Book from Fall 2013. Bonus: They make really nice eye candy!
I've built a small resource library over the years that I often reference when creating shop descriptions. The books I've collected offer a plethora of information about dating vintage clothing, including history and how it relates to clothing and fashion as well as styles, fabrics and trends. Below are a few of the books I use the most. Bonus: These books are most often tried and true and you don't have to worry about false information!
Everyday Fashions of the Forties This is actually a series of publications with issues on each decade from the 1920's through the 1970's. As they're sourced directly from Sears catalogs, this could perhaps be considered catalog research.
Fashion: A Visual History from Regency & Romance to Retro & Revolution This book delves into the whos and whys of fashion, discussing fashion icons and historical events that shaped what we wear today.
Vintage Fashion Accessories A visual guide for jewelry, hat and shoe trends over the years. While not super informative, there are a few juicy tidbits of information to be found throughout.
Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style Because I'm a sucker for pretty things, I'd say this book is my favorite source. It rests under my coffee table and offers a visually stunning timeline of fashion and how trends have evolved, beginning with the ancient world.
There's nothing like a vintage dress with a story behind it. As a vintage seller, I often buy pieces directly from the original owner, and for me, this is always the most rewarding way to stock my shop. I ask as many questions as possible about a garment when I purchase from the original owner. While folks may not always remember specifics such as industry details or the year a piece was purchased, they generally tend to have at least one story to share. I've heard numerous tales over the years and it's always so wonderful to see people's eyes light up when they reminisce over the moment in their life a particular piece brings to mind. Personally, I thrive on these tidbits, and it's nice to be able to share a bit of the history of the dress along with the steadfast details. Bonus: Sometimes you get to see photos of the piece being worn in it's original element!
Yes, yes, you know this one already, I'm sure. It is quite obvious, but to be honest there isn't a day that goes by where I don't Google something related to vintage clothing. Pretty much anything can be found online these days - you just have to know where to look, and most importantly, how to weed out fact from fiction. I do this by using multiple sources and never taking one site for it's word, always questioning the validity of a fact. Below are some of my go-to places when it comes to researching vintage clothing.
Vintage Fashion Guild This is a staple source in researching vintage clothing. Their Label Resource is an amazing list of vintage designers and labels that can be used to visually date clothing using labels alone. Another feature I love is their Fashion Timeline which gives insight as to the overall trends and styles of eras starting from the 1800's.
Fashion Terms and Styles for Women's Garments The OSU Libraries have a copy of this guide online, and it's a wonderful tool for finding terms for specific details on terminology, including necklines, collars, sleeves and pockets, to name a few. As a visual person, I find the combination of text and illustrations to be incredibly useful.
The Charm of Vintage Labels This Pinterest board is shared by a number of reputable vintage shop owners and is filled with photos of vintage labels. Sometimes the captions offer insight to dates or the styles and sometimes not. Although fairly hit or miss, it's an interesting collection regardless, and you can always contact the original source to see if they can give you more information on a specific photo.
Online Vintage Shops
To round out my research, I'll often go to other online vintage shops and see what they have to say about a specific piece. I find this useful for a number of reasons, one of which is it helps to gauge the rarity of an item as well as the overall value of a piece. I also find it helps if I need a fast way to find a specific fashion term. For example, if I'm uncertain of a sleeve style or what to call a certain cut on a skirt, I'll just go to a shop and search their 1950s dresses, for example, finding a similar dress to see if they have any good bits of information on it. Bonus: You get to peruse a number of vintage shops and may end up finding a new favorite place to shop!
Guermantes Vintage This shop has great descriptions. A favorite of mine when it comes to lusting after incredible vintage, they specialize in rare pieces from 1920's and 1930's, so if you're looking for a deco-specific term you might find it here.
Deoma's Boutique Perhaps I'm a bit biased as this shop is owned by my mom, Judy, but Deoma's really does do a great job at listing the specific details of a garment, specifically vintage dresses.
Much like vintage catalogs, vintage magazines offer a great deal of insight into how styles were worn at the time. They're great for specific dates, and really dive into the nitty gritty details of exactly how pieces were styled. For example, you can see how a certain hat rests on the head, whether a dress was meant to be worn with a crinoline or not, etc. A favorite from my personal collection are these McCall's magazines from the late 1930's. Bonus: The outdated articles usually make for some highly entertaining reading, but beware all the sexism you'll encounter!