Buying Vintage Clothing

What’s the Difference Between Vintage and Antique and Retro?

“Oh, look at this cute retro dress!” Holding a true 1940s rayon dress.

“Look at my new vintage dress!” Holding a modern made pinup style dress.

“I think it’s an antique!” Holding… well… anything that looks old.

As a vintage seller, I hear all kinds of words tossed around to describe the age of an item. And a lot of them are wrong.

I totally get that there is some nuance here and these are mostly honest mistakes from well-meaning people simply admiring something they think is pretty. And if you’re new to the vintage world, or a casual dabbler, it may not seem like a big deal. But learning the different meanings of these words will actually help you find what you’re looking for!

So here are the words you’ll hear swirling around at your favourite vintage store, antique mall, or local flea market. (And I’ll be honest, like any industry, you may find different info from different people. But these definitions have “general consensus” to back them up!)

What makes something Antique?

Antiques are the only things with a hard and fast rule of the list… antiques are 100 years old or older. There are even laws about this here in the States, and in other countries as well. This means that as I sit here typing this out, anything made in 1922 or earlier can rightfully – and legally – be called an Antique.

How old is Vintage?

Vintage is a word that seems to have taken on a few meanings over the years. Any google search with the word “vintage” in it is going to bring up things that are “true vintage” and things that are “vintage style”. True vintage items are 20 years old or older (some say 25, but most say 20 so we’re not gonna split hairs here). Like it or not, as of this writing that means anything made before 2002 can be considered “true vintage” (I know, this makes me feel hella old, too.)

A true vintage dress from the 1950s. Cute cotton print and metal side zipper.

The fact is, time marches on and what is “vintage” will always be changing. Different vintage sellers tend to specialise in different vintage eras, so whether you’re after 1950s dresses or 1990s streetwear, you’re bound to find a vintage seller that’s got what you want! So what about that “vintage style” I mentioned before? These are newer made items meant to look like true vintage items, and honestly these tend to be mostly 1940s and 1950s styled things, whether they be clothing, home decor, or even holiday cards. Most of these can also fall under the “repro” or “retro” categories as well…

What does Retro mean?

Repro/ Reproduction/ Repop… These three words are used fairly interchangeably to mean the same thing: a reproduction of a true vintage item made in modern times. The fit, fabrics, prints are true to the time period they are emulating, such as a 40s style dress in rayon with a little flower print, a 50s style dress with a fitted bodice, side zipper, and circle skirt, or a 70s style jumpsuit in a psychedelic polyester. A passerby would likely assume it’s true vintage unless they got a peep of the tag inside. So how did “repop” become a word here? No idea. And I don’t like it. But still, it’s a word people use to mean reproduction so know it, but try not to use it haha!

A reproduction dress with a sweetheart neckline and border print that were hugely popular in the 1950s! Originals are highly sought after and can be quite expensive.

Retro is the word I see used incorrectly most! It’s a Latin prefix meaning “back” or “backward” and in the vintage world it means a newer item that is inspired by past decades, but clearly not trying to look like it actually came from that decade. They tend to be way more stylised than their true vintage counterparts. For example, not every dress in the 50s had polka dots or cherries, very few of them did in fact, but modern retro dresses use those motifs in abundance! I notice many people use this word to describe anything that that has a 50s, 60s, or 70s style, including true vintage, repros, and brand new stuff! The real deal is, if it’s newer than 20 years old, and is inspired by a decade more than 20 years ago, and is not an actual reproduction of an item from that time, THAT’S when it’s Retro!

A retro style romper – the red and polka dots are popular motifs in “retro” 50s style clothing.

And yeah, I totally get how this gets confusing!

Is buying vintage the same thing as Thrifting?

I didn’t mention this one earlier, so I’m throwing it in as a bonus Public Service Announcement. Vintage sellers reeeeeeally don’t like our business or our wares to be referred to as thrifted! See, a “thrift store” sells all kinds of stuff from furniture to clothing to partially burnt candles. Their wares are usually (but not always) cheap, that they got usually (but not always) donated, because they are usually (but not always) some sort or charity or non-profit organisation. The things they sell can come from any era without discretion. They tend to sell things in any condition and any state of cleanliness.

Good vintage sellers spend time and knowledge seeking out the best of the best, cleaning, mending, and repairing as needed, and present thoughtfully curated collections. I totally encourage thrift shopping as a way to save money, support a cause, and keep usable items out of the landfill! Just pleeeease don’t minimise all the behind the scenes work vintage sellers do that thrift stores don’t! This is your PSA for today.

Do I have more to say on this topic? You bet I do! Because there are nuances in each of these words (except those antique laws!), I could go deeper on each one. But I hope this overview was helpful and you can use it when vintage shopping online or at your favourite brick and mortar vintage store!


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