A person walking down the street in San Francisco.

What Makes a Piece of Clothing Vintage?

Holes, stains, rips, and wrinkles? Union-made one size fits all tags? Or experimental materials and fabric blends that can be dated to particular decades? Single stitch?

No. Vintage is much more raw. Basically, vintage means “Old.” That shirt is old. To be fair, “vintage” often semantically implies superlative sensibilities of time-past, however a shirt made 10 years ago is pretty much vintage by those standards. So… What Makes a Piece of Clothing Vintage?

Age does matter, but design and process matter more. The story behind the article of clothing is what makes it vintage. The industry claims that clothing greater than 20 years old is vintage, ok, but what about my 2004 Mickey Mouse t-shirt? If the shirt came from a limited or special run of shirts for an event or company occasion then 100% yes, however on the reverse, let's say it came from a family-vacation you took to Walt Disney World Florida in 2004, then no - I would say no. Vintage evokes a universal memory, a collective feeling from the past, a visual representation of the events that dot our time on Earth. Do not get me wrong, clothing made 20 or more years ago is vintage, but if it is an H&M blank from the 80’s, do you care?

Wearing an Antique

Vintage clothing ranges in initial construction quality and the condition the piece is in today. For the buyer, the scale of which aspect is more crucial relies on their personal sentiments. For some, finding a 1950’s Levi’s denim jacket is so inspiring that they will not mind the missing arm - tear one off a less important piece and sew it on - call it reformation. I have personally worn graphic tees where the screen-print was aging so poorly that it was losing flecks of color with every accidental graze (an intrinsic expiration date painted in CMYK). But I loved the image so I put up with the blue dandruff and brushed it off my pant-creases. Art is in the eyes of the beholder, others may not always understand, but clothing is art and the older and rarer the piece the longer the wall-label would be (remember - you are the curator and custodian of your closet).


Over 20 years since the piece was manufactured. In spite of the gatekeepers’ unassailable rule, I contend that a piece made 10 years ago using an antiquated development process by a brand of integrity or representing a moment in time as it transpired ten years ago, is a piece of vintage clothing.

I find age to be a flexible aspect when qualifying clothing as vintage. Anything old is technically vintage, however it may not meet the other factors of design/story, materials, and construction.

Design and Story

This is my favorite part of vintage clothing. If I walk down the street in an original 2Pac shirt you might be taken back to a concert you had the good-fortune to attend or might start rapping a line without realizing, and I will carry my own series of memories attached to the shirt, the person, and the music.

Design denotes the style of the piece. This is where taste enters the equation. Good design is subjective, “you know it when you see it.” Perfunctory, I know.

Fashion design standards: shape/silhouette, texture, lines, color, balance, unity, rhythm, construction and material.

Now for my attempt to be less nebulous. I look at any piece of clothing, from t-shirt to dress to assess the following: Material (fabric, thread and hardware), placement of features, balance, symmetry or lack thereof, text (and the inherent message), image/graphic, fit and shape, branding, color, pattern, build/technique, and originality. I weigh a series of factors against my initial reaction to the item and draw a conclusion and ask myself “Would I wear it?” Design is often self-centered - at least for me. (Side note, I was smiling while typing that last sentence.) And good design (timeless) often qualifies a piece of old clothing as vintage - in my book. Again, I am lenient on the stodgy 20 year old rule. Maybe I just like old clothes and vintage is how I view them. Watch me wave in my vintage velour.


I wish I owned a velour track jacket for the house, I am always cold. Disregard my neurotic interjections. Materials are important. Applaud my understatement, required restraint and finesse to opine so succinctly.

  • Cotton, i.e., dependable and the basis for a fleet of other fabrics and blends.
  • Denim, i.e., twill weave cotton.
  • Linen, i.e., wrinkles.
  • Wool, i.e. consider your local weather.
  • Cashmere, i.e., soft and warm.
  • Ahimsa Silk, i.e., worms make cool stuff (especially when they are not bred to die).
  • Nylon, i.e., synthetic thermoplastic polymer… Dupont laid the groundwork for the entire activewear industry in 1935.
  • Rayon, i.e., pouring a bunch of toxic chemicals on wood pulp.
  • Polyester, i.e., think microplastic pollution.
  • Vinyl, i.e., upholstery and the occasional PVC trenchcoat.
  • Acrylic, i.e., fossil fuels.
  • Fleece, i.e., the Costco zip-up jacket you never take off.
  • Spandex, i.e., elastane, think stretch and snap.
  • Acetate, i.e., the reason polyester is always trying so hard.
  • Leather, i.e, tanned rawhide.

Stuff clothes are made of, some of which may never biodegrade… so you should wear it before it gets sent to a landfill.


How a piece of clothing was made. Technical aspects of the stitch method and different cuts and contours affect the ultimate on body fit and feel of the clothing. Fashion construction at its pinnacle can be found in runway clothes, pieces so intricate that they were never intended to be mass-produced. However construction factors into what makes a piece of clothing vintage, because different decades had divergent styling - tight, loose, flared, flowy, rigid, boxy, and contoured. If I found a pair of 646 Levi’s bell bottom jeans I would know it could be dated to the 1970’s, and any patchwork or embellishments may further my accuracy. Bell bottom jeans are an act of clothing construction to result in a desired fit, look, and attitude. Clothing construction symbolizes attitude - which can often be dated.

Wrap Up

Vintage clothing is supposed to be clothing that is at least 20 years old. I do not care for this rule, I find that it is often overpowered by the shopper’s enormous zeal for story and connection to clothing as well as its hypercritical despondency. Also, we need to stop producing so much clothing - buy used clothing, I have been wearing hand-me-downs since I was a toddler, be bold. Your 10 year old shirt is vintage - the world moves fast, get used to it.