A Guide to the Fashion Terms Vintage and Retro
The terms vintage and retro are often used to describe fashion from the past. However, true vintage and retro items come from specific time periods. This article provides a brief guide to what the terms vintage and retro technically refer to.
The terms vintage and retro tend to be used very loosely. For example, 1960s fashion is often referred to as vintage, 1980s fashion is often referred to as retro, and 1950s fashion may be referred to as vintage and retro. On a technical fashion history level none of these statements is generally considered correct. However on a generic level these words are well used in these ways.
In many instances the terms vintage or retro are applied to broader periods of time than many fashion experts would agree to. There is also some debate between fashion experts as to when these terms are appropriate to use. The terms are rather ambiguous after all. For example, the Oxford dictionary refers to vintage as “denoting something from the past of high quality, especially something representing the best of its kind.” Based on this terminology a good quality garment from the 1980s could be classed as vintage. In fact, many people selling clothing from this time period do refer to it as vintage.
However, other fashion experts believe that true vintage items date from the 1920s through to the end of the 1950s. Think flapper fashion, Hollywood glamour and Dior’s New Look silhouette.
The general consensus of the fashion set is that retro fashion covers the period from the 1960s to end of the 1970s. In this belief system the 1980s don’t actual fall within either of these categories, they are simply a more recent historical fashion era that has been revived. The 1990s which are just beginning to be brought back also have no title. In time the period from 1980 through to 2000 may be given a name of its own.
In contrast, the Oxford dictionary says the term retro means an “imitative of a style or fashion from the recent past”. Some believe retro clothing therefore defines styles from the previous decade or earlier so in this case the 1980s and even the 1990s would be classed as retro. Others label something as retro if it imitates a style from any time past. For example, a copy of a 1950s style.
Does it really matter how we use these terms? In many instances it probably doesn’t, but there are certainly times when it pays to be mindful of the meanings. For example, if you are selling older fashion items it is a good idea to be specific about when they come from. Try to avoid just labeling them as vintage or retro, because this can create different expectations in different people’s minds.
When it comes to buying vintage or retro clothing make sure you find out whether the items are just generically being labeled as vintage or retro, or whether they truly come from a vintage or retro time period. This strongly influences how much you should be paying. For example, a true vintage item from the 1930s may be made from a natural fiber and be hand crafted and therefore genuinely worth more than say a 1980s replica piece that is synthetic and mass manufactured.
Adolphe, N. How to dress for success , Cosmopolitan Australia, March 2009, p.103.