What Is The Difference Between "Retro", "Vintage” and “Classic” Style Clothing?
"That's so retro!", "Love that classic dress!!" or "I just love vintage style clothing!!" Have ever said this only to have that little fashion-ista voice in your head pipe up with "Hey are sure?" Don't worry, we've all done it before. So let's lay it all out and discuss what defines "Retro", "Vintage" and "Classic" clothing. We'll keep this just between you and me (and that voice in your head).
Many people use the terms "Retro" and "Vintage" interchangeably, so let's tackle these words first. It is important to understand that, like the idea of "fashion" itself, the concepts of Retro and Vintage are fluid. So with every decade new items and garments fall in to and out of these categories.
"Retro" (short for retrospective) refers to any clothing (or item) which is out-dated. In general this is clothing that is between 20 and 25 years old. Although, if you were to ask any teenager what they think your 10 year old jacket that you just re-discovered from the back of your wardrobe, you'll get a dismissive "that's so old fashioned!" But you get the idea. If you have start a sentence with "Back when I was growing up..." then whatever you are talking about has at the very least hit that Retro category.
Subsequently "Vintage" is used to refer to clothing between 20 and 100 years old. In addition, a piece is referred to as "vintage" when it strongly reflects the styles and trends of the bygone era in which it was produced.
The 5 year overlap between these two categories is of course open to opinion and conjecture, but these time scales give you a standard with which to frame your conversation of the two styles.
So what about the phrase "vintage style" (or "retro style")? A term to help us better understand this would be "vintage inspired" or "vintage reproductions". This niche is for those who admire the silhouette and style of yesteryear but prefer a contemporary interpretation. Some advantages of vintage style clothing, like the range offered by Vintage Style Redux, over the original vintage garment include a wider available range of sizes (including plus size), greater variety of colours and patterns, modern fabric blends and affordability.
The flip side to "vintage style" is "vintage clothing" which refers to the the original garment that was made in the actual era. These can be purchased at specialty or niche boutiques. Many online stores are now popping up, garage sales, op-shops and flea markets are a vintage clothing hunters delight. Of course, you mustn't forget the good ol' fashioned family hand-me-downs.
As I mentioned earlier, outfits fall in to and out of these two categories. So what is cool and trendy today eventually falls out of favour and into the "retro" bucket. As the decades roll on, other garments become retro and what was once retro falls into the "vintage" bucket. Eventually all things vintage fall into the "antique" classification, which is clothing 100 years old or more.
Now that we have that sorted, what about calling something "classic?" A dress would be characterised as "classic" if the design is considered to have stood the test of time because it has never been considered out of style. Consequently you can have a "classic retro" or "classic vintage" dress. This can be further nuanced within sub-categories. So you can have a "classic A-Line", "classic vintage swing" dress, or a "classic Dior" and "classic retro Chanel."
In my opinion there are five elements that make for a "classic" garment:
Simple: Think about your favourite "black number" or a black cocktail dress. They are easily worn and when you're out and about they are not "wardrobe malfunctions" waiting to happen.
Flirtatious: The outfit doesn’t reveal too much unnecessary skin, it leaves something to the admirer's imagination. People don't feel awkward taking a second look at your outfit and you aren't bothered, because you know you're turning heads for all the right reasons.
Versatile: The more often you see a brand, a superstar or advertisement of a drink (think of the different summer to winter Coca-Cola ads you have seen) in and out of season, the more it gets ingrained in your psyche. For the men, think of the peacoat. This is a classic piece that is worn to the football and the office. It's dressed up to go to a theatrical performance and dressed down for drinks with mates. Ladies, think about your favourite black dress. You wear it to the opera, to a friends wedding reception or a night out with the girls!
Flattering: There's a reason that the A-line silhouette (pioneered by Christian Dior and his successor Yves Saint Laurent) is timeless. It draws the admirer's eye to a woman's hip and then ever so deftly skims it. This highlights a woman's natural curve without accentuating the flaws.
Practical: You will get a a lot more mileage from the outfit if it suits the event or is befitting of the culture or climate. Many pieces (peacoat, trenchcoat, cargo pants etc) have come from the working or military class to become mainstream "must have" outfits. A heavy trenchcoat will never be considered a classic "must have" piece of clothing to the people of the Sahara. Nor will you turn, heads for the right reasons, if you wore a Chanel cocktail dress to your son's local under-9s football match in the depths of winter.
Classic retro and classic vintage style can be haute couture, quality mainstream or bargain basement op-shop. It can be brand new off-the-rack or original clothing from dead stock. Hand-me-down or second-hand used. Manufactured or handmade. What makes us go back to the bygone styles that were our mother's, grandmother's and, reality-check, our great-grandmother's cutting edge of fashion are the classic pieces. They are the outfits that transcend the decades of fashion fads and trends. That "little black dress", that dress you wear to every summer picnic or that dress that takes you back to a time that was a little more innocent and romantic.
The key to conversing and complimenting Retro and Vintage clothing is to keep your usage of the terms consistent. But even if you let slip the wrong exclamation, it's no big deal, you can still enjoy the gorgeous designs of yesteryear.
Let me know your thoughts. Are you a Retro or Vintage lover? or just whatever is a Classic.
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