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Vintage Vocab: Mastering Retro Fashion Terms

Vintage fashion continues to rise in popularity, with more and more people appreciating the exceptional craftsmanship and materials used in well-made garments from the past. As you explore the world of vintage fashion, you’ll come across many terms used to describe the different styles and pieces you’ll find. Here’s a guide to some of the most common vintage fashion lingo to help you talk the talk as you shop and find exactly what you're looking for.


A tea dress is an elegant and loosely fitting dress made of lightweight fabric, usually with short or no sleeves. The name comes from the fact that ladies would often wear them to afternoon tea events. Tea dresses first emerged in the late 19th century and were popular through the 1940s. They often feature a soft collar and buttons to the front and pretty patterns such as ditsy florals or polka dots.


The pencil dress silhouette emerged earlier in the 1930s and 1940s. It was characterised by its slim, narrow shape that hugged the body from shoulders to knees, resembling a pencil. The style grew popular as skirt lengths rose and emphasis moved from the waist to focus on the hips. Designers like Mainbocher and Claire McCardell pioneered early slim pencil dress designs. During WWII fabric rationing, the pencil dress continued gaining favour for being materially conservative while still fashionable and flattering.


Swing dresses have an A-line silhouette that is fitted at the top with a cinched waist and then flares out, moving fluidly when the wearer walks or dances. This versatile style became fashionable in the 1950s after the rise in popularity of Christian Dior's New Look. This new swing silhouette was perfect for the exuberant, bouncy dances of early rock and roll music popularised in the 1950s. The full, swinging skirts let women twirl freely on the dance floor. By the mid-1950s, swing dresses were being manufactured in a wide array of brightly coloured, bold prints and novelty trims, making them a versatile and modern fashion statement.


A duster coat is a lightweight, loose outer-garment that usually hits below the knee. Dusting the calves kept legs free from dust and dirt on long journeys, hence the name. Dusters were popular with cowboys, soldiers, and travellers in the 19th century American West. In the 1970s, dusters came back in bohemian styles and are now a popular feminine style in light and pretty fabrics.


Popular in Bavarian countries, a dirndl is a full-skirted dress that cinches at the waist and features decorative trimming similar to a soft corset. Historically, the dirndl was everyday dress for women in Alpine regions and is still worn today, especially during Oktoberfest season. Modern dirndls may have a simpler silhouette but often retain the vibrant colours and patterns.


Culottes have the look of a skirt, with wide legs that give the impression of a dress. But they are actually styled as shorts or split pants that provide mobility and comfort. First worn by French nobles in the 1600s, culottes re-emerged in the 1930s as beachwear. The 1970s saw dressier takes on culottes come into vogue.


Flared out dramatically from the knees down to brush the floor, bell bottoms are probably the most iconic 1970s trouser style. Musicians and celebrities made them hugely popular. For vintage fashionistas, high-waisted bell bottoms with funky patterns or prints are a groovy retro choice.


With a high neckline and long skirt, the prairie dress has an old-fashioned, folksy feel. Usually made of light, airy fabric, these dresses were ideal for farm work and inspired by European settler styles. Feminist designers like Laura Ashley revived the prairie dress look in the 1970s.


A kaftan is a loose-fitting pullover robe with long sleeves and often ornate decoration. Inspired by Persian and Ottoman court styles, the kaftan entered European fashion in the 19th century. Flamboyant kaftans became trendy as loungewear and eveningwear in the 1960s and 70s, thanks to designers like Halston. Kaftans are popular today as daywear in warm weather and also dressed up for boho glam looks in the evening.


The kimono is a traditional Japanese garment with a wrapped front, wide sleeves, and ornate print or embroidery. As aesthetic Japanese designs gained popularity in the West in the early 1900s, the kimono became a fashionable robe or housecoat. Light, decorative kimonos are still popular for lounging and layering, giving that flawless retro glamour that we love.


Statement eyewear beloved by vintage film starlets, cat eye specs feature trademark angled, pointy frames. The feline flicked-up shape became popular in the 1950s and has never really gone out of fashion. Considered both sassy and sophisticated, cat eye sunnies complete any retro look.


The peplum jacket features a short, flared flap or overskirt sewn onto the waist. Popular in the 1940s and 50s, it creates a flattering, nipped-in silhouette. Peplum jackets remain a go-to style for a touch of retro flair. You can also find peplum frills on dresses, as these rose to favour once more in the 1980s.


Mary Jane shoes have a simple strap across the instep and closed toe and heel. They were standard girls' school uniform shoes in the early 20th century. Classic Mary Janes remain a vintage-inspired choice for a prim and proper look that works with many different styles.


The sleeveless knitted tank top became a hallmark of 1970s fashion. Typically made of wool or acrylic, these sleeveless tops featured a ribbed v-neck and ribbed hem. Tank tops were commonly worn over long sleeve turtlenecks, collared shirts or blouses, adding extra warmth and a bold layering of colour or pattern.

Worn by both men and women, the sleeveless sweater was a versatile top that paired well with jeans, cords or trousers. It became a preppy staple of the 1970s look.


The trilby hat is a narrow-brimmed fedora made of wool, velvet or felt with an indented crown. It was fashionable among men in the 1920s through to the 1950s and often in checked or herringbone patterns. The trilby exuded old-school sophistication and still does today when sported with vintage styles.

So there you have it – a quick guide to many of the unique and delightful terms you’ll stumble across in the world of vintage fashion. Understanding the lingo will help you identify eras, discuss styles knowledgeably, and describe pieces you love. Now you can shop vintage fashion sales and events like a pro. Enjoy exploring the wonderful vintage clothing scene and building your dream retro wardrobe!

Until next time

Emma x

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