Welcome to “Shopping For True Vintage 50’s Clothes”!
This four-part series will help you learn what True Vintage 1950’s clothing should actually look, feel, and heck, even smell like. This first entry will focus on labels (tags) that are on a garment. If you are considering purchasing a garment from a certain era and it has a label, you are half-way home to determining it’s accurate age.
One of the most fun, yet frustrating things you will ever do as a lover of 1950’s vintage, is shop for True Vintage clothing. It is not as easy as it sounds, and there are many factors. As with looking for anything antique or vintage, it takes time and patience but when you find the right piece, it’s very rewarding!
Sure if you want the retro look, you can buy reproduction 50’s style clothing. But there’s nothing more thrilling than finding a garment that’s vintage. The look, feel, style can never be truly replicated by today’s designers and once you try on a true vintage garment, you will know exactly what I mean.
So let’s say you are ready to go searching for those vintage pieces that have been hanging around on the planet a lot longer than most of us have. The first thing would be to identify the garment (be it a dress,skirt, blouse etc…) as True Vintage. What is “True Vintage”? It’s exactly what it sounds like. True vintage is a garment that is truly from the vintage era you are focusing on, in this case, the 1950’s.
Brand Name Labels
The easiest and quickest way to determine if the garment in question was actually made in the 1950’s era, is to look at its label. Labels from the 50’s (and early 60’s) are easy to spot. At first glance you will see that the name of the brand is usually written in some kind of fancy script and stitched onto the tag. In addition to the way they actually look, labels from this era will often tell where the clothing was from. For example “Lee Mar of California” or “Jane Compton of Kansas City“. Back in those days, most states and/or major cities in the United States produced clothing right in their very own factories and the labels often indicated this.
Many labels had the word “ORIGINALS” under the brand name or it would say “A (whatever company) Original” It seemed that everything was an “Original” by somebody in those days. If your label says it’s An Original, it is likely that the garment is from the 1950’s or 60’s era.
You can also look for other clues that your garment is from the distant past. Words such as “Sanforized” (which is an old-fashioned way of saying “Pre-Shrunk”) can sometimes appear on garment labels. Old terms that we no longer use today can help you to date an article of clothing to a back to certain era.
The next thing to consider is that people in the 1950’s were very specific about who wore what. These days, we’ll just wear whatever we like if it fits, and if it doesn’t look too silly on us depending on our age. But back then, adult women wore women’s clothing, children were children’s clothing and very specifically, young teens (approx. ages 13 – 16) wore “Juniors” or “Junior Miss” labeled clothing. If your label has the word “Junior” or “Miss” in it, it means that the garment was probably made in the 50’s or early-mid 60’s era and meant to be worn by a young lady of the day.
I recently purchased a vintage navy and gingham dress that just barely fits me (32″ bust and 24″ waist). I noticed that in addition to being very small in the bust and waist, it was hemmed up to about 36″ and hits me just below the knee. (I am 5’2″) I realized that this dress is short for the era (an adult woman’s dress would be tea length in those days, falling past my mid-calf) When I looked at the label, I realized it contained the word “juniors”. So it was probably worn by a young gal in her early teens! If you are petite, you can conceivably wear vintage “junior” dresses up to a point, and still look charmingly retro. But back in the day, “juniors” were for juniors and adults wore adult size clothing. Period. A place for everyone and everyone in their place!
“Sportswear” in those days varied greatly from what we, today, consider sportswear. To them, sportswear was something you wore every day to do things like run simple errands. For a woman this meant that “sportswear” was often a proper-looking jacket and skirt set! Many everyday clothing items for women read “sportswear” on their manufacturers label. Remember that clothing in the 50’s was conservative. So if you see a skirt that looks like something you’d wear to a stuffy job interview marked “sportswear”, you are probably looking at something from that era that they considered casual!
Finally, you will want to look at the condition of the label itself. About all of the tags you see on clothing that old will have some fraying. Pay attention to how the actual tag has shredded over the years during the fraying process. Look at the stitching that made up the name on the label. Feel it. You’ll see that it’s different from labels that were manufactured on clothing in years to follow. Softer, thicker, and definitely not printed on like clothing labels of today. (see the Carol Roger(s) label in the photo above!)
While some labels will be sewn with the company’s name only, some labels will have lots more information and even a cute little logo or picture sewn on them. The more information on a label, the easier it is to determine your garment’s origin.
See the photo below for an example of a label that has pretty much everything!: It’s An Original, “Miss” (for teens), a Sportswear item (casual, every day clothes). It also indicates where it’s from (OF California) and even also has the size of the garment in the lower right hand corner. (14)
Pin-pointing a garment to the 1950’s decade is do-able if you pay attention to the label. If you look at enough labels, you will begin to spot them easier and more quickly. Labels and their looks changed drastically from the 1950’s into the mid-late 1960’s: Fonts were different, the stitching was replaced with print, the fabric tags became “silkier” and lighter in weight, and clothing was beginning to be made in other countries besides the USA. For an example of this, you can just look in your own contemporary closet!
If your garment in question still has the size tag, you are lucky! Even without a Brand Name Label, you can tell by the sizing system what era your garment is from. In the 1950’s and early 60’s, sizes were different from today. For example, I wear a US size 4. In the 1950’s that would be about a size 12. So if you see a garment with a small 25″ waist and the size tag reads 12, then you have got yourself a vintage garment. Basically, they just went by higher numbers than we do today. This changed sometime in the 1960’s, when they began labeling Misses clothing in 2, 4, 6, 8 etc… like they still do today. However, thus far, I have not seen clothing from the 50’s era that indicates size by Small, Medium and Large. This leads me to believe that they did not use the S, M, L sizing system and only went by number. For example, a blouse from that era was not labeled “S” for small. It would be labeled by bust size: “36”. A medium would be “38”, a large “40” and so on. I’m assuming, at this point in my research, (and feel free to contact me if I am wrong; I would appreciate it!) that any garment you find that is labeled S, M or L was made long after the 50’s era.
In the vintage labels, sometimes the size was indicated on the same label as the brand name. (As seen on the “Miss Preview” label in the photo above). But most size tags were separate, much as they are today.
Many people use the AFLCIO / ILGWU labels to determine if a garment is vintage or not.
First of all, if your garment has an AFLCIO / ILGWU label in it, it doesn’t necessarily date your garment back to the 1950’s, 60’s or even 70’s! There are many versions of the Union label which varied over the years. Many clothes that have the Union label were in fact made far beyond the 1950s. “ILGWU” was used up until 1995, which means that the garment you have could be only as vintage as the 1990’s. Bottom line, do NOT assume that your clothing item is 50’s or 60’s just because it has a Union label. Study the variations of Union labels and what they looked like in order to determine the year the piece of clothing was made.
An excellent, in depth resource complete with photos of the different Union labels over the years has been compiled HERE by Sammyd. on Vintage Style. This guide is a fantastic way to accurately date your garment with a Union label. Thank you, Sammy!
Alright Dames, that is all for now regarding vintage labels. I hope this has helped in your search for buying true vintage clothes from the 1950’s (aka The Best Era Ever) But there is much more to learn! In the next entry of this Retro Dee exclusive series “Shopping For True Vintage 50’s Clothes”, we will be identifying vintage clothing by style, which can help you determine the age of a garment that does NOT have a label (and if you’ve ever shopped for true vintage, you know that this is often times the case) So please stay tuned: Follow, bookmark and keep this site in your thoughts because there is more to come! 🙂