Distinguishing Between Terms for Different Collecting Eras

Vintage Typewriter

Q.  I’m confused what is the difference between the word “retro”, “vintage” and “antique” ?  Vintage resellers on Ebay and other online shops seem to intermix these terms  all the time.

A.  You’re right, I have experienced this myself when searching at online shops or in antique malls; however, based on my research the terms for collecting eras or time periods  are loosely defined as follows and these definitions usually refer to clothing styles:

Retro – Anything 30 years and younger

(Example:  Since its 2011, that would put us around 1981 when guys were wearing Ocean Pacific corduroy shorts and Ocean Pacific shirts , or designer jeans and Members Only jackets or Rock Concert T-shirts and jeans.  Girls wore peasant blouses, Jordache designer jeans, platform or wedge high heeled sandals and yes, Farrah Fawcett hairstyles!  The television show “That 70s Show” is a great example of this era.  These are only a few examples, if you went to high school around that time you can remember more than the above mentioned styles as your classmates, depending on what clique they belonged to, wore different popular styles.  Ask your mother, or other fashion conscious female relative about fashions worn back then, if you are not old enough to remember this era yourself.)

Vintage – Over 30 years but not sufficiently old enough to qualify as an “antique”

Here we are most likely referring to clothes worn in the 60s, 50s, 40s, 30s and 20s.  As you can see this is a wide range of fashion styles, you can go from a 60s leather miniskirt, a 50s cashmere twin sweater set with a poodle skirt,  a 40s day suit, and a 20s flapper dress and they would all fall under the term “vintage”.   Please be aware that all of these examples are the tip of the iceberg as representative of each decade’s clothing.  Then as now, there is a huge variety of styles within each decade or fashion era. I think the TV shows Pan AM and Mad Men are representative of the 50s  and 60s era.  You would have to watch William Powell’s The Thin Man Series of Movies to get a feel for clothing and styles popular during the 20s and 30s.

Antique – 100 years old and beyond

(These are clothes that were worn over 100 years ago, usually you are talking about the Edwardian period, around the turn of the 20th century, where women wore floor length skirts, long-sleeved Victorian style blouses and their hair in a bouffant.  The term “Antique” also includes anything pre-1900, clothing worn during the Civil War (1860-1863) for example, this clothing is usually of museum quality as few pieces have survived this era and are collected more for the clothing’s value rather than to be worn as everyday wear.)

While I know there will be those that will argue that the above terms are not exactly correct, this was meant to give you a general idea to help you when shopping for vintage items online and in resale boutiques, or  antique malls.  It’s a good idea to invest in a reference book that gives you a general idea of the various eras  of the past, preferably by each decade, so that you can determine the item you are looking at by the style and which era it fits into. But, please realize this general rule applies only if the item is an original and not a reproduction.   Another research method, and one I enjoy using, is to watch the Turner Classics and American Movie Classics movie channels, where time spent watching a few of these movies will give you a glimpse into fashions and accessories worn in the past and entertain you as well!  If you love vintage and retro shopping, these activities will be a great source of fun as well as design & style  knowledge!   .

P.S. One thing that I must mention is that the above terms refer to fashion eras  in the United States and possibly the UK, our European friends would laugh at our definition of “antique” as they have collectibles  and clothing that go back hundreds (if not thousands) of years!

*Did you know that Levi’s jeans are the only item of clothing that is still worn by the general population for over 100 years?