Lea emailed for some help on identifying the age of a very pretty “fit for a princess” vintage lingerie set. I don’t normally offer such research services for free, but since she was referred by Treacle, I thought I’d make the effort to help Lea and make it an opportunity to share some tips with you.
The first thing you should know is that in all these years of buying and collecting vintage lingerie (and other fashions), I’ve rarely used labels to estimate the age of lingerie. And that’s what is is, estimating. Plus, the real value is in the beauty, the design details, the construction, the feel of it… Age isn’t more important than any of that; though age is usually an indicator of those great things!
By now, I can pretty much just “heft and eyeball” a garment and deduce the age. Visually, period style details tell me most of what I want to know, both in terms of the age of the item and what I want to wear. The weight of the fabric, its feel, it’s shine or lack of it, especially with vintage nylon tells me a lot. (Some antique dealers are this way with glass — just call me the nylon whisperer!) The feel of it tells me all about the lingerie’s sensual nature.
However, if I question something, if there are confusing or conflicting issues, I will then check construction and, especially if this is for someone else, then I will look at the tags and labels for clues to confirm or deny suspicions.
If there are any labels. Then as now, tags and labels are often cut out of clothing — especially lingerie, where they look less than desirable beneath sheer fabrics. Plus, they can be physically irritating.
Since I cannot heft or feel Lea’s vintage Warner’s nightgown or peignoir, here’s how I use the label information to confirm what my eyes see in the photos.
[FYI, in both photos Lea says the top tag is for the peignoir or robe, and the bottom tag is for the nightgown.]
Disclaimer: Identifying the age of vintage lingerie, vintage fashions in general, is not an exact science. Reading vintage magazines, catalogs, and other publications will help — and experience is your best teacher. But we all have to begin somewhere… This tutorial or guide is a general outline; your mileage will likely vary. *wink*
Care labels: Care labels (washing instructions) became mandatory in the US in 1971 (and that’s when the little symbols came along too). Prior to this, laundering instructions and care tips, if given, were often on paper hangtags, in booklets, etc. While it was rather uncommon for the information to be sewn into the garments as or on labels, some companies may have done so to save on paper & packaging; in anticipation odf the FTC ruling.
I look for care labels first, as it can make things pretty obvious how new something is.
[Lea's lingerie: Care instructions are typically found on the maker's label or (cost effective reasoning); since these instructions are not on any of the Warner's labels, we can safely guesstimate that these pieces were made prior to 1970.]
Fabric content labels: In 1960, the FTC’ Textile Products Identification Act required a company to properly identify the fabric content’s percentage on the tag, label, or stamp (exclusive of decoration that is less than 5%). That does not mean that clothing before 1960 (1986 in the UK) did not have the fabric contents on their labels though. Again, some companies may have provided the info on the labels as a cheaper option to additional information on paper hangtags, brochures or booklets which came with the garments, and other companies simply were putting the labels into production in anticipation of the law. Though in all of these cases, it is rare to see percentages of fabric content prior to 1960 in the USA.
This is the second strongest test I find to see how old a garment is.
[Lea's lingerie states "all nylon exclusive of decoration," which means they were likely made prior to 1960. Nylon, though patented in 1935 and made a splashy debut at the World's Fair in 1939, wasn't really put to commercial use until after WWII; making the lingerie improbable prior to 1945.]
Brand labels: Over the years you become rather adept at recognizing the labels of vintage lingerie and clothing… It’s like learning the how to identify the age of vintage nylon just by the feel of it… I can’t exactly bring you up to speed on all that here, but thankfully the internet is a great resource for dating vintage fashion labels. Like the fabulous the Vintage Fashion Guild label resource.
A few other general tips about labels: The more paper-like or plastic-y a brand’s label is, the newer it is. (Lot tags, vintage or not, typically are more cheaply constructed as well; they were not deemed permanent.) Though some brands, designers, and handmade pieces today may also have fabric labels, vintage brand labels are nearly always fabric — at least up to the 60s.
[We know this vintage lingerie set was made by Warner's, and while comparing Lea's labels to other vintage Warner's labels isn't definitive, it certainly is plausible this set is pre-1960.]
Union labels: If a garment was made by a union in the USA, i.e. the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) or the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), you can use the guides I’ve linked to for detailed information on how to date them.
Lea’s lingerie labels simply could have been cut out of the garments or maybe they were sewn in elsewhere and she didn’t photograph them.
Or they never had union labels at all.
Union labels began a decline in the 70s as textiles were being made overseas. By the 1980s, you were lucky if a “Made In The USA” replaced the union labels. This “pride” in buying American was rather an ironic compensation for lost union jobs.
Where’s it’s made: Country of origin labels have been used in the U.S. since the McKinley Act in 1891; so the “Made In The U.S.A.” on Lea’s lingerie or any other label doesn’t necessarily mean the phrase replaces the union labels. However, like anything else, the more recent the lingerie, the less likely it will be made in the U.S.A., Paris, London, etc. and like other manufacturing, see more labels from Taiwan, Sri Lanka,, Hong Kong, India, China, etc.
Lot Numbers: Below the brand label, or at least less predominantly placed, there can be an additional label that gives a lot number. (This is often above the size on the same label). Lot numbers are not style numbers. A lot number is the number attached to a lot or group of pieces produced for a store. “Lots number 1-10 went to Macy’s; lots 11-14 went to Gimbels.” If Macy’s complained, the lot could be tracked to the factory, mill, worker, etc. Lot numbers are a way of tracking inventory physically, which has largely been replaced by barcodes and other more modern methods.
Style numbers: These numbers are a way to identify specific styles within a brand, i.e. Warner’s style 3548 GB. It makes for easier reorders and whatnot. While some significant brands and styles can be found or verified searching online using style numbers (meaning you already know what you want), unless you have catalogs, other salesman’s tools from the past, or have cracked their style code system, style numbers aren’t typically useful in dating pieces.
RNs and their predecessors WPLs: A registered identification number (RN) is a number issued by the Federal Trade Commission, upon request and only once, to a business residing in the U.S. that is engaged in the manufacture, importing, distribution, or sale of textile, wool, or fur products. Such businesses are not required to have RNs. They may, however, use the RN in place of a name on the label or tag that is required to be affixed to these products. (In 1959, Wool Product Labels or WPLs were used; the RN replaced the WPL.)
There’s a lot of talk about these numbers — and here’s a guide to RNs and WPLs, if you’re interested in more info — but I don’t find them very useful for determining the date of vintage lingerie or other fashions. For example, a company making lingerie today can be using a WPL from 1940. However, a garment can never be older than the RN or WPL number. So, if your garment appears to have 1960s styling, but the RN dates to 1980, you know it’s just that, styling, not age.
That said, RNs and WPLs can be useful for tracking the maker of the garment — especially when garments and undergarments were private label items made for department stores and other retailers. The Federal Trade Commission’s Registered Identification Number Database can help you with that.
[The numbers listed on Lea's lingerie labels are not RNs. But to prove it to you, I searched the FTC's database and found the following:
There are two RNs and one WPL -- not a one matches the numbers on the labels. Before you whine and ask why I said a company can only have one of any of these numbers, I must remind you that Warner's is now Warnaco; likely additional numbers came along with brands they purchased over time.]
So my final conclusion is that Lea’s lovely vintage nightgown and peignoir set was made by Warner’s in the mid-to-late 1950s. This is something the dual layers of luxurious nylon, interwoven ribbon, lovely lace, and styling told my experienced eyes to begin with. But now you know how I feel confident in saying so. *wink*
If the label has a trademark, say a trademark for the name of the panty, the line, or the fabric, you may be able to identify it’s age via a trademark search. However, much like patents, this will only tell you when the trademark was first issued, and possibly when it was no longer protected. In other words, it can narrow the window.
See also: Quick Tips For Dating Vintage Fashions.
Image credits, in the order they appear: Vintage Warner’s lingerie and labels photos from Lea; vintage Wonder Maid labels via; vintage Emma Domb fashion labels via; and vintage Nan Flower label with RN number via.