I generally rely on my instincts + the color scheme and content of an item + any unique/particularly vintage details + whatever else I notice...? Oh, and if the seller has identified the decade the item is from, and written it on a little tag, that helps too. :)
Other than that, where you're shopping definitely affects the potential difficulty level of dating any items you find. If you're at an antique store, it's reasonable to expect that the clothing and other items you look at are vintage (though there can always be exceptions). At a thrift store, though, you can't really know what to expect when you pull something off the rack. It could be anything from a crusty sweatshirt from 1996, to a brand new dress from Old Navy, to a hidden vintage gem.
On a recent Goodwill trip, I picked up a sweater that seemed like it could be vintage, but it was hard to say. It definitely had a retro look to it, it smelled old (but that could just have been from hanging out with old stuff at Goodwill), the style of the tag seemed old but new at the same time, and some of the details on the sweater seemed to indicate that it was vintage.
Here she is. This sweater is a deep, bright orange color (not quite as neon as this picture makes it look), and with the contrasting off-white collar and button placket, I first thought, "is this some '70s does '40s-inspired thing?" And then I started to think... "maybe it's just some '70s thing...or '80s?" I was all over the place. The tag says it's cashmere and it fit well, so I decided to bring it home, regardless.
|This thing totally un-buttons all the way!|
|random back shot|
Just under the collar, in the corner of the button placket by the opening edge (near the top button), there's a little hook attached that fastens to a little white loop on the edge of the under-placket to keep that corner tucked neatly down at the neckline (make sense? no?). Here's a picture.
|Hook is at the left arrow, loop is at the right arrow. -- It's still basically impossible to see here. Why was this part so difficult to photograph!|
I only ever seem to see such helpful (but not completely necessary) hooks&eyes like this on garments that are vintage. Perhaps I'd be more accustomed to seeing them on the RTW pieces in my wardrobe if it was made up of nicer pieces and not mainly just cheap dresses from Target - sigh. Well, in addition to this handy little detail, the whole sweater seemed well made in general, so this could just be a nice piece and not actually vintage. Is this gratuitous little hook&eye considered a high-end or couture detail? Hmm...
|check the tag (got a little lazy with the photo editing at this point :-/)|
Anyway, I decided the only way to know for sure whether this was a vintage piece or not would be to take a closer look at it and maybe do a little Googling on the tag info. You can't quite see it here, but the tag reads "An original Milly of New York," which seemed like a retro style tag, if not actually old. The piece that threw me off was the little "M" tag right under the Milly tag. This looked completely modern to me, from the font to the fact that it's just a Medium and not some numerical size. Also, I think this baby was made in China, according to the tag.
|more collar/button/hook&eye action|
When I Googled "an original Milly of New York," I'd fully expected to see a link to a company that had been in business at least as early as the 1970s. What I did not expect (but ended up doing) was to find a company that was supposedly established in 2000 whose products are sold at such fine retailers as Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus. There's a bit of confusion, though, as I also found links to Milly pieces for sale on Etsy that were dated to the 1960s and 1980s, obviously earlier than 2000.
Also, what exactly qualifies as vintage?? If this is from Milly, which was supposedly established in 2000, does 12 years make something....almost vintage? I think I remember seeing a rule on Etsy that in order to sell something as "vintage" on their site, it must from at least 20 years ago. Well, 12 is close to 20...kind of.
Another thing...? Milly sounds awfully familiar. Could it be related to the spotted silk I'm using for my wedding guest dress?
The jury is still out on this, but I'm leaning towards saying this sweater is modern, not vintage, based on the company info I found when Googling -- but really, who knew it could be such a mysterious question!?