Is ‘vintage’ an overused word?

How did vintage get to be such a ubiquitous word? The other day I came across this pile of books in Waterstones and realised just how commonly used the word has become.

Once upon a time I went to charity, or second-hand, shops. They were fusty, jumbled places filled with old ladies’ dresses, cast off jumpers and polyester shirts. When I was younger they were called things like the ‘Spastic Shop’ (it was the 1970s), or the more upmarket Bizarre Bazaar in 1990s Boscombe, or the Birmingham Rag Market. Over the past 17 years that I have been trawling Bath’s cast off clothing shops I have seen the term ‘vintage’ expand from the name of just one shop (Vintage to Vogue) to being used to describe at least half a dozen nearly new and charity establishments. Vintage will often be used to label the goods on sale, or there may be vintage sections or rails.

When carefully selected, these shops offer period pieces that provide an insight into how garments were made, and worn, in past decades. I love coming across old labels, metal zips, bra strap carriers and unusual sizing (size numbers tended to be bigger ). I don’t even care if they have a slight imperfection. What I love about genuine vintage is the uniqueness of an outfit and the story it tells. When clothing is made well and passed on it makes us realise we are only the temporary custodians. I’m not sure that any throwaway outfit from Primark or H&M can do the same.

However what vintage is not is clothing from a couple of seasons ago that may have the look of something period but had just been cheaply put together. The Oxford Dictionary describes vintage as being ‘the time that something of quality was produced’. The Vintage Fashion Guild states: “an item may be described as vintage if it is at least 20 years old at the time that it is offered for sale.” Oxfam’s online vintage section lists clothing from the 1950s to 1980s.

However as the word has become such common parlance (perhaps to make second-hand clothes shopping seem more culturally acceptable? ie ‘it’s not an old BHS blouse, it’s vintage’) it seems to be used to descibe anything. The label below taken from my five year old’s cardigan is a classic example:


I’m assuming the 1869 date refers to the year the supermarket, J Sainsbury, was established, and not its Tu clothing range. The cardi is also a polyester/cotton mix and made in China so I doubt its vintage credentials.

But then maybe I’m just grumpy as I realise the clothing I wore in my twenties is now labelled as ‘classic’ or ‘vintage’, when I really don’t feel that old.

3 thoughts on “Is ‘vintage’ an overused word?

  1. Style. Universe. Everything. says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more, the overuse of “vintage” really annoys me.

    I can’t believe that items made in the 90s can correctly be labeled “vintage” though!

    We need a new word to describe genuinely old, classic clothes.

    • Love the idea of a new word – it should definitely reflect the quality of the clothing as well. It’s a shame ‘vintage’ can’t be trademarked!

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