The whimsical world of vintage clothing comes with its own unique vocabulary full of quirky phrases to describe old-fashioned styles and garments. From tea dresses to wiggle skirts, the terms used across various eras can seem plucked straight from history books rather than modern magazines.
If you’re new to vintage, the lingo can sometimes be confusing. Don’t know your knickerbockers from your sloppers? Does the word 'pencil' make you think of stationery rather than dresses? Never fear - we’re here to demystify the jargon so you can shop vintage fashion like a pro! Read on for a handy glossary of vintage vocabulary to add to your repertoire and never be confised with the lingo again!
1940s & 50s Fashion
Let’s start in the middle of the century when fashion took on a hyper-feminine postwar aesthetic. Ultra nipped-in waists, full skirts and dainty accessories defined the era’s ladylike look.
Pencil skirts - Form-fitting slender skirts tapered to the knees. Ideal for creating the coveted hourglass silhouette.
Wiggle dresses – Fitted dresses that hug the bust and hips then taper at the knee for a body-conscious, sexy shape. The tight fit would give you a natural wiggle as you walked!
Bobbie socks – Short cotton ankle socks usually worn folded over and paired with saddle shoes or pumps.
Bullet bra – 1950s cone-shaped brassiere with concentric stitching and pointed bust shape. This was the inspiration behind Madonna's extreme cone-bra look from her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour.
Capri pants - Cropped trousers ending mid-calf originally from Capri, Italy. Casual vintage style popularised by the likes of Marilyn Monroe.
Poodle skirt – Iconic 1950s swing skirt with felt appliqué poodle motif, a super popular novelty piece of fashion from the original era of fun fashion.
Petticoat – A frilly lacy underskirt designed to puff out swing or circle skirts for that full va-va-voom.
Cats eye glasses - Flared, upswept shaped glasses frames popular in the 1950s.
Twin set - Matching sweater/cardigan and short sleeved top combination, often in pastel colours.
Jumpsuits - The utilitarian one-piece bodysuit, sometimes with trousers attached. First worn by military parachuters in WWII, much later adopted for 1970s disco style and stgill a popular trend in the 21st Century.
Pin-ups - Glamorous, flirtatious illustrated photoshoots featuring models wearing form-fitting and revealing outfits or lingerie.
The 1960s saw traditional ideals turned upside down by youth culture. Rising hemlines, space age shifts and bold prints defined mod fashion straight from the streets of London.
Mini dress – Iconically short, skimming dress revealing the upper legs. Defining shift dress style of the 1960s.
Go-go boots - Tight-fitting knee-high boots (often in white) with low heels perfect for dancing. Essential mod footwear that is still highly coveted today.
Chelsea boots – Ankle-high boots with stretchy elastic side panels. Originally Victorian then revived in 1960s.
Space age fashion – Metallic disc dresses, PVC rainwear and clear plastic garments pointing to an obsession with the future.
Psychedelic prints – Vibrant, trippy swirling patterned fabrics echoing hallucinogenic drug culture. Often in bright 'trippy' colours.
Kipper tie - Extremely wide necktie popular in 1960s Britain, often in vibrant colours and patterns.
The 1970s hosted larger than life style full of bright colors, carefree looks and dancing flair. Glossy magazines and new Ready To Wear runway shows brought exciting new trends and phrases into the mainstream as the "Me Decade" celebrated personal style.
Jumpsuit – One-piece all-in-one bodysuit, either sleek and tailored or loose with flared legs. Its utilitarian roots became disco-ready.
Wrap dress – Iconically designed by Diane von Furstenburg in 1974 out of silk jersey, wrapping over with a self-belt.
Angel sleeves - Billowy loose sleeves with gathered elasticated wristband and wide arm opening. Created an ethereal blouson effect.
Milkmaid blouse - Off-the-shoulder smock style peasant top with shirred elastic neckline, frills and puffed sleeves .
Bell bottoms – Flared trousers that get increasingly wide from the knees downward, creating a bell-like shape.
Platform shoes - Thick multilayered soles for maximum height ideal for disco. Could be sandals or closed toe heels.
Kaftan - Loose, flowing batwing sleeved dress or tunic inspired by Islamic traditional robes.
The 1980s brought an explosion of color and experimentation to both high fashion and the streets. Athletic wear became high style. Neon shades mixed with black for dramatic impact as young professionals coveted designer labels.
Leotard - Skin-tight spandex one piece unitard perfect under aerobics gear or mini bodycon dresses. Allowed freedom of movement.
Stirrup pants - Form fitting stretch pants featuring elasticized stirrup bands slipping under heels or flats. Created a legging effect.
Padded shoulders - Broad, boxy suit jackets where padding extended the shoulder line, creating power and imposing stature. Key to 'power dressing'.
Skort - Shorts with a skirt panel over top resembling as skirt. Athletic tandem ideal for tennis and jogging fads.
Jelly shoes: Brightly colored rubbery sandals. Basic seaside staple turned PVC fashion trend.
Acid wash denim – Denim with patterned faded and abraded patches creating a tie dye effect applied through a bleaching process.
Batwing sleeves - An oversized sleeve style with loose fabric that resembles bat wings when arms are extended. Popular in bold 80s tops and dresses.
Bubble skirt - A very full gathered or pleated skirt, sometimes made of taffeta or tulle to achieve maximum volume. Created a "bubble" silhouette.
Hammer pants - Loose-fitting trousers that taper and cinch at the ankle like harem pants. Has low crotch drop and full thigh width.
So there you have it - a crash course in some vintage fashion terms for all the eras! We’ve only scratched the surface of retro vocabulary. As you delve deeper into various eras, more niche lingo will arise. But armed with these basics, you can now browse vintage fashion with far more insight so get out there and flex your renewed fashion vocabulary!
Until next time
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