How to Date Vintage Clothing: Introduction & the 1930s

Here at the shop we regularly have customers seeking items from specific time periods or with particular details.  Whether you’re on the hunt for a garment for a costume theme party or the perfect piece to add to your vintage collection, it is very beneficial to have some knowledge of how to figure out approximately when an article of clothing was made.  To help you with the basics of dating vintage clothing, we’ve decided to start a series of installments on the topic, beginning with the 1930s and spanning to the 1980s.  We will also be discussing the difference between items made to evoke a particular era and an actual item from the era being referenced (i.e. terms like “70s does 30s”.)  This will by no means be a definitive list of details to look for in your clothing, however we hope it will help build a foundation for those of you in the beginning stages of vintage collecting!

(1930s fashion show via Wearing History)

The 1930s Style Overview:

The 1930s were a time of economic hardship for the majority of North Americans.  The Great Depression vastly influenced the fashion industry, in that most families were unable to spend much money on clothing beyond the necessities.  Because of this, handmade clothing was extremely common.  If you’ve read much on 1930s fashion you may have heard the term “feedsack” used.  This was exactly as it sounds, a sack that held food, such as flour and grains.  Sometime in the 1920s, feedsack manufacturers decided they may sell more product if the sacks were printed with colourful vibrant designs.  This of course, flourished during the Depression, as it saved on material costs for the home sewer.  For this reason, many garments from the 30s have a “downhome” country vibe to them.

(An variety of vintage feed sacks via Sew Country Chick)

(Mid-30s feedsack dress via FabGabs on Etsy)

On the flip side, there were many garments heavily influenced by Art Deco sensibilities.  These items focused on line, seam details and bias cut material.  Sleek and streamlined was the name of the game.  Materials such as silk, rayon and satin were used in evening wear, giving a lustrous and glamorous appearance.  This look is most commonly found in Hollywood films of the era, and the starlets of these films inspired the fashions of everyday women.

(30s film star Jean Harlow in a bias cut, Art Deco inspired gown, via One Wed)

1930s Silhouettes:

Throughout the 30s, garment waistlines typically sat right at the natural waist or slightly above (raised from the dropped waists of the 1920s.)  Hemlines tended to be on the longer side, just below the knee or longer.  In general, the overall silhouette tended to be long and sleek, no extreme hourglass silhouettes like you would see in the 1950s.   Sleeves varied in style, but common sleeve styles were flutter, puffed, leg o’ mutton sleeves, and bishop sleeves.  Capelets that covered the shoulders were also seen in evening wear and dressier garments.  In the later part of the decade, emphasis on the back became fashionable, with many evening gowns featuring low backs or halter-style necklines.

(Great examples of 1930s silhouettes via)

(Late 1930s evening dress via Past Perfect Vintage on Etsy)

Fasteners:

Anything pre-1930s will likely not have zipper fastenings. In the 30s the zipper became common in women’s fashion, though you may find garments with tiny metal snaps or buttons in place of a zipper.  Zippers of this era were always made of metal and were attached to cotton twill tape.  Another clue about whether a garment is from this era is placement of the zipper or fastenings.  In dresses, the zippers usually sat in the side seam, just below the underarm.

Seam Finishing and Fabric:

Another key detail to look for when dating an item of clothing is how the seams are treated inside the garment.  It is very unusual to find serged edges on garments made before the mid-1960s.  If the edge is left raw, there’s a chance you’re looking at an older item.  Fabrics typically used in fashion items were cotton, rayon, silk and wool.  Bold and colourful prints were very common.

Labels:

Labels are important in dating vintage items.  This of course, excludes handmade items.  In 1930s era clothing, you will not find fabric care labels like you do in today’s fashions.  In the 1930s, labels were embroidered and were typically located at the back neck or in the side seam of a garment.  Sometimes they can even be found in the hem of certain items.  A wonderful resource for dating vintage labels is the Vintage Fashion Guild.

Homewear:

The 1930s brought about a new style of dress known as the House Dress.  This was a simple dress, usually made from cotton, designed to wear while doing chores around the house.  By today’s standards, these items can, at times, even seem fancy!  It is common to find house dresses with metal zippers running up the centre front of the garment.  Another style of dress to be worn at home was the Hostess Gown or Robe.  This was an intentionally dressy item, usually floor length, designed to be worn while hosting a party in one’s home.  These dresses were often made of more evening-type fabrics, like satins, and were meant to appear glamorous.

(via Vintage Patterns)

(Vionnet Hostess Gown via Fashion History)

We hope this brief overview of 1930s fashion has given you some insight on how to determine if a garment came from this era.  Next up we have the 1940s, including wartime and post-wartime fashions!

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