Generally speaking, clothing which was produced before the 1920s is referred to as antique clothing and clothing from the 1920s to 20 years before the present day is considered vintage. Retro, short for retrospective, or "vintage style" usually refers to clothing that imitates the style of a previous era. Reproduction, or repro, clothing is a newly-made, copy of an older garment. Clothing produced more recently is usually called modern or contemporary fashion. Opinions vary on these definitions.
Most vintage clothing has been previously worn, but a small percentage of pieces have not. These are often old warehouse stock, and more valuable than those that have been worn, especially if they have their original tags. Referred to as deadstock or new old stock (NOS), they nevertheless sometimes have flaws. Vintage clothing may be either commercially produced or handmade by individuals.
In the United States, due to changes in clothing sizes, vintage sizes often are smaller than the corresponding contemporary size. For example a garment from the 1970s labeled as Medium (M) might be similar in size to a 2010s Extra Small (XS). As obesity was relatively uncommon prior to the 1980s, larger sizes are typically rare. Vintage sewing patterns offer an option for those who want a historically accurate garment but cannot find one in their size.
Popular places to buy vintage clothing include charity-run second hand clothing shops, consignment shops, garage sales, car boot sales, flea markets, antique markets, estate sales, auctions, vintage clothing shops and vintage fashion, textile or collectables fairs. One of the first regular fairs that was set up specifically to cater for the current demand for vintage clothing is Frock Me!. This event takes place regularly throughout the year in Chelsea, London as well as in Brighton. Vintage clothing is sometimes also obtained from older friends and relatives.
Typically in the United States, vintage clothing shops can be found clustered in college towns and artsy neighborhoods of cities. Sizing is a major factor - in most locations in the United States, the majority of the population would be unable to find vintage clothing that fits. In contrast to thrift stores that sell both vintage and contemporary used clothing, vintage clothing shops are usually for-profit enterprises, with the market mixed between small chains and independent stores. These stores typically range from 200 to 5,000 square feet in size, and will usually have a fitting room. In addition to selling clothing and accessories, many vintage clothing stores also buy clothing from the public in exchange for cash or store credit.
The advent of the internet has been a boon to the vintage clothing industry. It has increased the availability of specific and hard-to-get items and opened up prospective markets for sellers around the world. Popular places to acquire garments include online auctions (e.g. eBay), multi-vendor sites (e.g. Etsy), online vintage clothing shops and specialist forums. Many vintage clothing shops with physical locations now also sell their goods online.
Prices are often lower than new garments of equivalent quality and also less than the garment's inflation-adjusted original purchase price. As of 2012, in the United States, most vintage clothing sells for $10–100. Some vintage clothing stores choose to price their clothing by the pound.
Although there has always been an appreciation for the superior quality, fabric and design that is found in vintage clothing - the awareness, demand and acceptance of this has increased dramatically since the early 1990s.
This increase in interest is due in part to increased visibility, as vintage clothing was increasingly worn by top models and celebrities, e.g. Julia Roberts, Renée Zellweger, Chloë Sevigny, Tatiana Sorokko, Kate Moss, and Dita Von Teese. Popularity of period pieces set in the mid 20th century in television and film have also contributed to vintage's popularity.
There has also been an increasing interest in environmental sustainability in terms of reusing, recycling and repairing rather than throwing things away. Sometimes vintage items are upcycled via changing the hemline or other features for a more contemporary look. Vintage items in poor condition are also salvaged for reuse as part of a new garment.
A resurgence of historically based sub-cultural groups like rockabilly and swing dancing has also played a part in the increased interest in vintage clothes. In Finland the vintage scene has even spawned an officially recognized association or non-profit organization called Fintage out of common interest in the preservation of material culture and the environment.
Vintage clothing in recent years, for the first time, has been recognized as a tangible (hard) asset, which means that it has value. The asset purchased retains an immediate monetary value. The asset may well appreciate, hopefully at a rate faster than inflation. During periods of high and/or rising inflation, hard assets (including collectibles) tend to outperform financial assets, which often depreciate in value in the face of high inflation. The driving force during the price mark-up phase, when collectibles prices escalate rapidly over a period of years, is the level and direction of real interest rates. First oil, then labor costs, then general inflation, have started to awaken from their slumber. Now collectibles and other hard assets should begin to outperform financial assets, as they did in the prior inflationary wave of 1973-1981. Once the tide starts to come in, the trend should continue for years, not just for weeks or months, if history is any guide. Collectors of jewelry and vintage clothing can expect to have the wind at their backs in the years ahead.
The distinction to be made then, is that vintage clothing is an investment, and an asset. Therefore, the consumer has a right to know whether they are buying a reproduction or the real thing. And there can be no passing off the reproduction as the real thing, regardless of the language it is cloaked in.
Collectibles, e.g., fine antique furniture, vintage clothing, jewelry, Impressionist painting, are considered "hard assets", i.e., assets that have physical form. Other hard assets are gold and silver bullion; real estate; commodities like oil and copper. Financial assets represent the other main category of investment assets. Examples of financial assets are common stocks; bonds; mortgages; bank deposits.
In the case of the internet and vintage clothing, a greatly enlarged pool of potential collectors, a widened constituency—women with aesthetic discrimination and the money to collect—are able to enter the market, thanks to the internet.
These collectors can now evaluate potential purchases, often more accurately than was possible in person at rare and hard-to-attend vintage clothing shows. Through electronic payment systems, collectors can purchase online more efficiently than ever before.
Vintage garments designed by the following designers are particularly sought after - especially when they are representative of the designer or the era: Marc Jacobs, Coco Chanel, Paul Poiret, Mariano Fortuny, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jeanne Paquin, Madeleine Vionnet, Jeanne Lanvin, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Claire McCardell, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Emilio Pucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Ossie Clark, Biba, Mary Quant, Pierre Cardin, Halston, Giorgio Armani, Zandra Rhodes, Vivienne Westwood, Thierry Mugler, Gianni Versace, and Jean Paul Gaultier.
An important contributing factor in the value of an item of vintage clothing can also be its provenance. Vintage clothing collectors, like other collectors of history, value and record the background of an item: who wore it and to what occasion.
Due to increased demand, pre-1950s garments in good condition are becoming more difficult to find, and more expensive to procure. Clothing from more recent decades is easier to locate, identify, restore, conserve and (with the exception of popular designers) more affordable - subject to market forces and the cycle of fashion.
Vintage inspired and vintage style
Fashion design, throughout history has turned to previous eras for inspiration. Vintage clothing retains and increases in value due to the fact that it is genuinely from a past era. In addition, authentic garments are made one at a time, with enough attention to detail to create an item that has long lasting value. Garments closely resembling original vintage (retro or antique) clothing are mass-produced, for the most part, in China. An example of this is the simple slip dresses that emerged in the early 1990s, a style that resembles a 1930's design, but upon examination will show that it only superficially resembles the real thing. These styles are generally referred to as "vintage style", "vintage inspired" or "vintage reproductions". They serve as a convenient alternative to those who admire an old style but prefer a modern interpretation. Sellers claim consumer advantage in that, unlike the original garments, they are usually available in a range of sizes and perhaps, colours and/or fabrics, and can be sold much cheaper.
- Bamford, Trudie (2003). Viva Vintage: Find it, Wear it, Love it. Carroll & Brown. ISBN 1-903258-73-1
- Tolkien, Tracy (2000). Vintage: the Art of Dressing up. Pavilion. ISBN 1-86205-305-7