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Styles have a funny way of coming back in an endless cycle that is continuously repeating history. It seems that every five or ten years, our parents laugh at the fact that the things they wore as teenagers are popular again by the time their kids are teenagers. The cycle continues until we grow up and recognize those patterns ourselves.

Fashion trends typically take about fifteen to twenty years to resurface. When they do, the clothes from that era are in high demand. So, how do we define what we're looking for to identify and predict new trends more accurately? 

Well, fashion terminology gets thrown around quite a bit, and sometimes the real definitions get lost after time. Let's look at the two most commonly interchanged words that are technically distinct from one another—retro and vintage.

What Is Retro?

Retro style refers to clothing, accessories, or belongings that appear to be from a particular era—specifically, the 1950s through the 1990s. Rarely is anything before 1950 a "retro" item as that decade was a turning point in fashion. It is most common to consider the specific styles from the 1950s as "retro," though it is not necessarily limited to that decade.

The word can also refer to aesthetics besides clothing. Hairstyles, home décor, and even cars can all be retro. It refers to belonging to a specific period—that of the last half of the twentieth century—instead of being strictly apparel-related.

What Is Vintage?

Meanwhile, vintage style is its own category entirely. This particular term refers to the clothing or item's age, regardless of its style. That age is usually between 20 years old and 100 years old. 

The term most commonly refers to clothing or belongings on the older end of the spectrum, but that is not necessarily a must. Even a knick-knack from a mere two decades ago can still be vintage.

Identifying vintage items can be challenging but doable. For one, what's the style? Is it one that you could recognize at your favorite clothing store? Does it have a tag? 

Many brands go through several logos throughout the years and may date themselves using the tag. If the item doesn't have a tag, there is a good chance its manufacture was before 1971.

The Differences Between Retro and Vintage

As you might have noticed, there is still some overlap in what counts as "retro" vs. "vintage" wear. A denim jacket from the 1990s can be both retro and vintage. So can a poodle skirt from your grandmother's closet that she wore in 1953 as can a fringe vest from 1979 can be both as well.

So, where do they differ?

Style of the Piece vs. Age of the Piece Itself

Here's the most significant difference: retro items don't necessarily have to be old. It is perfectly acceptable—even expected—for retro style to be new and only reminiscent of an era before our time instead of belonging to it.

Vintage items, however, must be from a specific historical period. The word implies the object itself is between 20 years old and 100 years old—it doesn't just seem old. 

Much of the appeal of vintage pieces is because their aesthetic is reflective of the times.


"Vintage" has a slightly longer lifespan than "retro." Retro pieces typically don't date back before 1950, whereas vintage items can be 100 years old. Indeed, while vintage belongings refer to being from "an older time," retro items refer to the second half of the twentieth century.

The second world war changed a significant amount of society forever, and fashion was part of that. The early stages of clothing manufactured on a large scale earned up the styles of the 1950s and 1960s, which we now categorize as the beginning of the "retro" era.

Tangible Item vs. Concept

If something is vintage, you can hold onto it, display it, or wear it. It is a tangible object. Ideals are not necessarily "vintage." However, retro can be both a tangible thing as well as a concept. 

This distinction could be because of how "retro" relates to the period of the late twentieth century, while "vintage" relates to the novelty of well-loved, worn items.

For instance, Victory curls are often "retro" and not "vintage," since it's a hairstyle. Old cars are another excellent example of retro items that aren't clothing. 

Cars shows and gatherings where people show off beautiful, well-maintained cars from the 1950s and 1960s are examples where the aesthetics of the time continue to appeal to modern drivers. The cars' stylization speaks to the time, but the parts used in maintenance may or may not be of that period. 

Indeed, entire locations can be a great example of what counts as "retro," such as old school diners and drive-in movie theatres.


Vintage and retro style are two separate concepts that have become conflated in recent history, and that can cause confusion when you're looking for something specific. 

So many fashion enthusiasts like to spend their time thrifting, but that makes it critical to know the difference between the terms "retro" and "vintage"—especially if you're shopping online, as these two words could yield very contrasting results. 

For example, if you're looking for recently-made clothing in a style that appears 20 years old, you're looking for something retro. On the other hand, if you are looking for a slip from the 1930s, you're looking for something vintage.

These two categories have numerous similarities and differences, and both vintage and retro items can offer fresh, new styles with the ideals of the past. Styles from many years ago will never become outdated so long as there are new generations to don them.

September 03, 2020 by Cynthia L

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