Purchasing Vintage, Antique, and Second-Hand Clothing: Every Label Tells a Story

Part Two of a Three Part Series\r\n\r\nThere are a few better things to tell the story of a piece of vintage or retro clothing than the labels inside the clothing.  Labels can tell you the manufacturer, the designer, or the store where a garment originated.  They can also give you a nice bit of history\r\n\r\nKeep in mind, though, that some clothes might not have any labels.  Custom clothing, altered clothing, antiques and some retro clothing that is re-sold may not have a label.  Designer clothing almost always has the label, as the label is part of the garment’s designer cachet.\r\n\r\n

the red, white, and blue ILGWU label--later 20th Century
the red, white, and blue ILGWU label–later 20th Century
\r\n\r\nThe first label you might want to look for is an ILGWU label. “ILGWU” stands for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, and almost all American made clothing, hats, and accessories from the 20th century contained these labels.  The Union was\r\n\r\nformed in 1900, when working conditions in this country for the “needle trades” were pretty abysmal.  Itgrew in power after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, where 140 young women were either killed in the fire or jumped to their death (shamefully, 10 times that many were killed in the Savar factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013.  There are no unions in Bangladesh.)  The ILGWU guaranteed safe working conditions, a fair wage, sick time, vacation time, breaks, and pensions for its members.  The Union has merged twice–once in 1995 and again in 2004–and is now part of the combined UNITE HERE organization\r\n\r\nThe ILGWU label changed designs over the course of the 20th century.  They type of label, size and colors can tell you something about the decade in which the garment was made (see this post–How Union Labels Help to Date Your Vintage Clothing–for a breakdown of ILGWU labels.)  This might be helpful if you’re trying to determine if your garment is early, mid-century, or late vintage.  But you can also tell by the style of the clothing, as most clothing in the 20th century was different from decade to decade.\r\n\r\nJust know that if you have a garment with an ILGWU label, you have a high quality, well-made, American garment!\r\n\r\n
Small I. Magnin label from a mid-century vintage sweater
Small I. Magnin label from a mid-century vintage sweater
\r\n\r\nNext, look for department store or custom-made lables.  In the 20th Century, many department stores or boutiques had their own clothing lines.  Some big, metropolitan department stores like Macy’s and I. Mangin had their own design departments that created textiles, garments, shoes, and accessories unique to those stores.\r\n\r\nMost department stores were regional, so you may come across a label from a store that no longer exists.  This, too, may help you to date an item.\r\n\r\nOther stores may have purchased from clothing factories, and those items might have had labels with the phrasing “Made Expressly for The _____________ Company.”\r\n\r\nIn the late 20th Century and into the 21st, stores created their own “in house” clothing brands, which they continue sell alongside other brands.  Worthington, a brand sold exclusively by J.C.Penney, is a J.C. Penney Brand.  Bar III is a Macy’s brand.  So, if the store itself no longer has a certain cachet, at least it has a label or brand that it might be known for.  My experiences with Worthington is that it is a solid, women’s work clothing brand.  Whenever I’ve needed black pants and black blouses for a retail job, Worthington items were most reasonably priced and easy to maintain.\r\n\r\nCustom labels tell you a whole lot about the person who owned the item, even if they don’t tell you anything about the materials used to make the garment.  Here’s a gorgeous men’s Nehru jacket from the 60’s from my own vintage clothing collection.  I don’t really know what kind of material it’s made of–probably a worsted wool of some sort, and I replaced the missing buttons with sculpted pewter buttons so that I could wear it (when I was much thinner and much less busty, that is……wpid-img_20141120_122712_726.jpgThe most important thing about this jacket, other than the fine tailoring and the sumptuous, matching satin lining, is this hand stitched label wpid-img_20141120_122828_106.jpgI know from the label that it is not just an “exclusive” design for the Klein shop–or that Klein was the tailor shop.  I don’t know if “Bamberg” refers to a place or a style, but the last line of the label shows me the name Mr. James L. Walker–obviously the original owner of the jacket.  From the material, the color, and the label, I can determine that Mr. Walker certainly had a bit of money in the 60’s–enough that he could have a very trendy item like a Nehru jacket tailor made for himself.\r\n\r\nAnother item from my collection is this dress…..wpid-img_20141120_123037_683.jpgAt first glance, you might think it’s a dress from the 40’s.  It’s a fabulous pink hibiscus print–a popular print in the 40’s–with a sweetheart neckline and padded shoulders.  But looking at the tags…..wpid-img_20141120_122908_086.jpg\r\n\r\nThere are a few things about the tags that tell me this isn’t a dress from the 1940’s.  First, the script on the manufacturer’s label is a font used in the latter part of the 20th Century, not the mid-century.  The tag underneath tells us the garment is a size 13, Made in the Philippines, 100% Rayon, and is DRY CLEAN ONLY.  All four of these items tell me that this is definitely a retro garment, made in the late 20th Century.  If it were earlier, it more than likely would not be made in the Philippines, and would not be a size 13.  There may not be any size tag at all!\r\n\r\nA quick note about late 20th Century sizes:  they are not equivalent to today’s sizes.  While there was vanity sizing back then, they were not as extreme as they are today.  A size 13 in 1990 or 1995 might be equivalent to a size 11 now, and certainly would not be equivalent to a woman’s 14, as size 13s were in that time.\r\n\r\nSo, when you are looking at purchasing a vintage piece, a tag can tell you if it is genuine vintage or a retro reproduction from a later decade.  The label can tell you about the store where the garment was purchased, or if it was custom made.  It can tell you if it was made in a unionized American shop, or a European shop, or perhaps even Japan (I have a vintage sweater made in Japan, 1950’s, during the reconstruction of Japan.)  When you purchase a vintage clothing item, you’re not just purchasing an item made of quality material–certainly better quality material than what we can purchase these days–but you’re also purchasing a small slice of fashion history.

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