Courtesy goes to Dollhouse BettieWe are often asked how we know the era of vintage pieces. To the unfamiliar customer it may seem as though we arbitrate decades on a whim, but the way we determine the age of a collection is much more precise. Dating vintage clothing is a process that considers a variety of factors and one which is perfected with years of practice and familiarity. There are several main components used to determine a particular item's age including styling, fabric content, and methods of construction. Using these criterion is a good way to ascertain the specific era from which a garment originates. The more familiar you become with vintage clothing the easier this process becomes.
In this tutorial we will stick to the dating of vintage slips to demonstrate the techniques.
A close examination of the way a garment is sewn can be very telling of its era. Take a look at the seams and examine the particular stitches used in construction.
Pinked Seams vs Overlocked Seams
Pinked in this sense refers to a zig-zag scalloped edge, used in place of a straight cut to help prevent fraying on woven fabrics. Before the widespread use and implementation of the overlock stitch, pinked seams were especially common in mass produced slips while high end styles were often sewn with couture stitches such as the French seam. Slips with pinked seams are almost always pre-1950s designs. With the conversion by Vanity Fair to all nylon tricot production in the very late 1940's, the industry switched construction methods to ones that predominantly used an overlock stitch. Though the overlock had been around since 1881, once nylon tricot came on the scene the overlock stitch was the most effective method for joining delicate knit fabrics without causing damage and runs in the knit.
Example of pinked seams. A fresh pinked seam is also indicative of a new old stock garment!
The particular materials used for slips also says a great deal about their origin. Textile development, along with societal trends and historical influences, affect the kinds of materials selected for lingerie construction. While cotton and silk were the most common fabrics used in lingerie for hundreds of years the remarkable synthetic fabrics developed in 20th century quickly gained enormous popularity with both manufacturers and consumers.
Silk has long been regarded as the premiere fabric of choice for lingerie. While it has never gone out of style, historical limitations and consumer trends have influenced its use as a material for lingerie. Most silk slips can be dated to the 20s and 30s, although high end designs can also be found in the 40s, 50s and 60s range. Fine silk crepe and silk habotai were particularly popular in the 20s while bias cut satin weaves are indicative of 30s designs.
Silk Substitutes - "Artificial Silk"
Opium wars in China in the late 19th and early 20th century caused the silk market to fluctuate wildly over several decades throughout the period, prompting manufacturers to enlist chemists to develop several synthetic alternatives to silk. These fibers were pursued as cheaper and readily available alternatives to imported silk and relied upon a completely different set of resources for production. Slips made from these synthetic substitutes can be found 30s and 40s, a time when silk production was limited to military demands.
Rayon - Originally called "Artificial Silk" is made of cellulose derived from wood pulp and was the first man made fiber. Viscose, today called Rayon, was the first viable silk substitute used in European manufacturing beginning around 1895. Although the first iterations of artificial silk were invented in 1854, it took about 50 years to perfect viscose for actual production. Artificial silk was first commercially produced in the US in 1910 by Avtex Fibers Incorporated and the US term rayon was coined in 1924 as a marketing tool. You can find various examples of this man made fiber dating from the late Victorian period through the mid 40s, when it was most widely used due to silk and nylon being diverted to the war effort. The quality of rayon can range widely, depending on the gauge of the thread, type of weave, and if the rayon fiber is blended or not. There are some incredible rayon-silk blends that have a particularly amazing drape and luster, produced mostly during the 30s.
Acetate - Also made from plant derived cellulose, acetate was invented in 1904 in Switzerland and perfected for commercial use by 1914. The outbreak of WWI stalled its production and it wasn't until 1924 that acetate yarn was spun for the first time on US soil. Acetate is often blended with silk or cotton to create cheaper alternatives that maintain aspects of feel and comfort of the more expensive originals. Woven nylon and acetate blends are common in bias cut slips from the 30s and 40s.
Nylon - Nylon revolutionized the lingerie business. Invented at the DuPont Laboratories in 1934 and first introduced to the public in 1938 this "miracle fiber" was cheap to produce, durable, very easy to dye and susceptible to styling techniques such as perma-pleating. Its debut coincided with the start of WWII and almost instantly nylon production was limited to military needs. Once the war limitations were lifted the consumer demand for nylon exploded. Vanity Fair, the lingerie company at the forefront of nylon construction, had partnered with DuPont Laboratories and produced thousands of styles in this wonder fabric.
Perhaps one of the most obvious hallmarks of an item's era is its particular style. This is where a familiarity with fashion comes in handy. If you're not a vintage expert use easy clues like length and color to get started. These telltale signs can be especially helpful but keep in mind previous owner's alterations like lifted hemlines and dyeing.
Before the scandalous introduction of the micro mini in the mid 60s skirts most often fell to the knee or below. Slips of course are cut only an inch or so shorter than the outerwear they are designed to be worn with, so any design that falls at the mid to upper thigh is likely a 60s or newer.
Color is also an important clue. Though brighter colors were certainly available in couture and fine lingerie, the mass produced varieties of the 10s-20s were made in demure, feminine hues: pale peaches, pinks, ivories and sage greens were the most common. Black lingerie was produced during all eras, though less so than its ivory, beige and peach counterparts. The 1930s introduced a slightly bolder color scheme which included vibrant apricot and coral tones, yellows, sky blues and floral prints. As the stresses of the war weighed down the American consumer of the 40s she turned to utilitarian colors like navy, black, ivory and peach for her intimate wear. Postwar prosperity, along with the technological advances made possible by nylon, could be seen in the bright and varied colors popular in the 50s. From girlish pastels to red hot reds and jungle leopard, slips from the late 40s through the mid 60s were manufactured in a variety of shades previously unseen. The mid to late 60s saw an even more varied rainbow of colors and patterns including sherbet inspired hot pinks and oranges, as well as neon.
Hopefully this gives you something to work with as you date your own collection, other resources can be found in Dollhouse Bettie online archives and photo gallery.