What’s the difference between vintage and retro? This is a commonly asked question, and one that’s liable to be answered differently depending on who you ask. As a specialist in vintage apparel and accessories in a time when there are so many knock-offs on the market, I feel uniquely qualified to chime in. While acknowledging that there are no hard and fast rules on the matter, here are the keys to understanding the difference.
In general, if something was manufactured within between 20 and 80 years ago, it can be considered vintage. So, in 2020, anything made in the 90s may technically be counted as vintage, but not something made in the 2000s. Items made >80 years ago are commonly referred to as antique rather than vintage.
Items classed as retro, on the other hand, are typically throwbacks to a time period earlier than their date of manufacture. Something manufactured yesterday can be called retro if it is styled after items from an earlier date. An example of a retro item is a 70s-style, lurex-look jumpsuit manufactured in 2019.
In my view, the 20-80 year rule applies to retro in the sense that the throwback must be to a period place 20-80 years prior to an item’s date of manufacture. That said, the term is being used in an increasingly fast and loose manner, with ‘that’s so retro’ able to refer to something reminiscent of 2010 without missing a beat in the common vernacular. This doesn’t really matter with retro, because it’s more a matter of understanding the stylistic reference than the monetary value of an item. It’s more important to consider with vintage because you’re often paying for an item’s authenticity.
Things get more complicated when you have a crossover between the two categories. Take, for example, a 1950s-style poodle skirt created by a fashion designer in 1985. Now, at the present time, the 20-80 year rule dictates that this is vintage – it was made almost 35 years ago, so that’s fair and square. At the same time, it is also retro, because it references a time period earlier than that of its origin.
The takeaway? An item may be vintage, retro, both or neither. If you’re aiming to buy vintage, do your homework and ask the seller when something was made if you’re not sure.