How to Date Vintage: Fascinating Fasteners and Clothing Closures

How to Date Vintage: Fascinating Fasteners and Clothing Closures

Since humans started wearing clothing more than 10,000 years ago, we have been seeking ways to make them fit better, look better, and feel better on ourselves. The first garments that we have knowledge of were loose fitting clothes that often draped around the body, or may have been tied by a simple waist sash. As our need to decorate ourselves increased with the availability of time and materials for design humanity began to diversify the ways clothing around the world fit and functioned. Dresses became bigger and more elaborate, pants came onto the scene, corsets came and went, and the materials for making all of the above changed and became more opulent with time.

By the time the 1900's rolled around, the world had become a fast-paced place where people needed to be able to get up and go without assistance in getting dressed. The rows of buttons down the backs of dresses, multiple sashes tied at the waist to hold up skirts and stockings, and hidden hooks and eyes to keep your clothing closed were too complicated for this new world where women in the workplace were on the rise. Learning about these closures can tell you a lot about a garment, the date it was made, and what it might have been used for.

Let's explore these fabulous fasteners one at a time, and see how identifying them can potentially help you to date a garment itself.

One of the earliest ways of securing clothing that we know of are belts and sashes. Many early, loose-fitting garments were meant to be cinched at the waist. These cinchers were not only important for preserving modesty, they also were where one's pockets, or purse could be tied, like an ancient version of a fanny pack. The earliest belts, made from leather or cloth, and were made to be tied. By the Middle Ages metal on belts for decoration or to function as the closure was not uncommon, nor were belts that were fully made of metal or chain. Belts have not changed much since then, and many modern dresses, such as Diane Von Furstenburg's wrap dresses from the 1970's still use sashes as closures today. The above 1970's wrap dress is a fabulous example of how elegant a simple sash closure can be.

An easy way to identify the age of a garment by its belt is to remember that before 1960, most outfits were matching ensembles. Often in these types of pre-1960's garments the belts will be made out of the same fabric as the clothing itself and will not draw attention to itself, only help to fit the garments. Most of the sashes or belts for pre-WWII garments will have a metal clasp if they aren't meant to be tied in a bow, while rationing during the war led to many garments switching to celluloid or bakelite for belt buckles. Post 1960s, the buckles for belts started to get bigger and gaudier, with the 1970's influences of nature and peace and love often influencing designs. 1980's belts and sashes are often bold, graphic and abstract, often meant to balance the big shoulder-pads and statement jewelry that was popular at the time.

The hook and eye was a popular way to create a more seamless garment and was especially popular for lingerie and furs in the early 1900's. Many slips from before the 1940's will have hook and eye closures, and bras and corsets have been using this form of closure since the late 1700's with it being popularized for good with the invention of "The Breast Supporter" by Marie Tucek in 1893. It's not uncommon to see this type of fastener used to make an item of clothing size adjustable, with multiple eyes for one hook to lock into for adjustability especially in clothing made prior to 1930. This closure is often chosen for the way it can handle the weight of a garment as it is pulled by the body, making it the perfect thing to help keep those zippers closed on certain garments. Hook and eye closures were always made of uncoated metal, that is sometimes covered in looped thread prior to the 1940's, but after this you may notice the hooks and eyes themselves are colored to match the garments themselves for a more finished appearance. Look carefully at the above dress from the Edwardian Period to spot those fabulous hook closures.

Frog Closures have been a popular choice for garments, especially those inspired by Asian Fashions, since the late 1800's. These sorts of closures are often found on "finer" garments since they require so much extra material and skill to make over a standard button or reusable pin type closure. These originated in China where they were known by many names, but most popularly called pankou. You'll often see these closures on dressing gowns, military uniforms, mandarin collar shirts, and especially cheongsams. Look for pankou on military inspired looks from the 50's and 80's, on Cheongsam from the 20's and 70's and on mandarin collared shirts and dresses from the 60's and 90's.

The topic of buttons is one that's hard to sum up in a paragraph! They have been made of everything from wood, to bone, metal, gems, or plastics, sometimes covered in cloth, embroidery or lace. They can be carved or shaped like just about anything real or imagined in both flat and 3 dimensional shapes. They're used on just about everything that has fabric, and have even been used as forms of currency and identification!

The buttons of the 20th century range from the most simple white round plastic, to fantastically bejeweled masterpieces. The 1980's often saw bold, geometric, brightly colored buttons that matched the powerful silhouettes of the garments they were made to compliment. Trends of the 1970's saw the Victorian love of wood and bone "natural looking" buttons, sometimes carved with florals, astrological or animal designs, coming into play. In the 1960's the Mod Look meant many garment closures weren't seen for a sleek effect, but the ones that were were often playful, and sometimes for design only, with no function at all. The evening wear of the 1950's gives us the gorgeous rhinestone bedazzled buttons and for daytime, fun novelty buttons in odd shapes and colors hit the scene. The early 1940's saw war restrictions on anything frivolous, so many buttons on garments then were of a more utilitarian nature, and never just for decor. The above dress from the 1940s features light plastic buttons, which saved metal for WWII.  Remember that while buttons can be changed or replaced, dipping your toe into their knowledge pool can help you identify many vintage items.

Metal snap closures are often found on the heaviest or lightest of garments. The largest size can be found snapping the collars of 1900's coats closed, and the smallest on the most delicate early 1900's lingerie. These closures are also known as press fasteners, or poppers and are the German invention of Heribert Bauer in 1885, so you won't see them on any garments prior to that. These fasteners offer a discreet way to hide a garment closure, and you can often find them keeping your bra straps in your blouse in 1940's garments. It's hard to date a garment by the presence of this type of clasp alone, as their use is still so popular and widespread, however their appearance in certain places can give you a clue as to the date of your item. The above dress from the 1920's uses snaps to avoid putting to much pressure on the delicate fabric.

Zippers come in many distinct ways that can help you date an item. Whether they are hidden or visible, metal or plastic can all give you clues as to date and authenticity. Originally called the "Clasp Locker" these flexible and versatile closures were designed as a shoe fastener that would be quicker than buttons or hooks. While the first patent for a zipper-like closure was issued in 1851 by Elias Howe, no marketing was done on the product and it went largely unnoticed for almost 43 years. The Chicago World's Fair in 1893 saw a new launch of the re-patented product by Whitcomb Judson. Early zippers had widely set teeth, but after 1917, companies added to the original design until it became the familiar pattern we know today. The term "Zipper '' didn't come about until 1923 and were used for closing boots and tobacco pouches until Schott NYC produced the first zippered leather jackets for men. From there they continued showing up on everything from sleeping bags to children's clothes!

Metal zippers can be found on most pre-1950's clothing, and often have a wonderful sound and feel. The quality of metal zippers means they are less likely to get stuck or have broken teeth than their plastic counterparts. Plastic zippers, while in existence in the 1950's are more commonly seen in post 60's fashions, with "invisible" zipper lines becoming more common around the same time.

There's lots to learn about the way you fasten your garments, and all of them can provide hints as to the treasures you'll have in your hands. We encourage you to do a deep dive of your own and look into some of the fascinating examples of these often overlooked heroes of the garment world!