The Difference Between Vintage, Retro and Secondhand

Roses are red, 

Violets are blue, 

Secondhand is not a synonym of vintage.

I’m telling you.


Is anyone else confused by all these clothing industry terms? Apparently, vintage is not a trendy way to say ‘pre-loved’. Also what is considered antique?

These fancy words fall under the same category of previously owned clothes. But they do have different meanings, which, I notice, many people misunderstand. I was no exception until I wrote this blog post.

So here’s something for every environmentally conscious fashionista to stay in the know.

Secondhand is a broad category of clothes that at some point had an owner and were worn. Obviously something made a year ago is just secondhand, not vintage. But a 20 year old item is not vintage neither! So what the heck is?!

The term ‘vintage’ is used for clothes that are between 25-100 years old and that clearly reflect the style of the era. Let’s say you call a piece vintage if by looking at this you can picture Marlene Dietrich or Jacqueline Kennedy wearing it. Flapper dresses and long beads from the 20s, thigh-high boots of the 70s, and 80s’ strong shoulder pads are all considered vintage. Everything you saw in Friends is entering this category. But to my mind we can call it vintage as well, since it gives us a very vivid picture of what was a thing back then.


Another tricky moment occurs when we speak about timeless pieces. Is a little black dress or Burberry trench coats from the 70s are vintage? If it doesn’t reflect the era, the answer is no. These garments remain stylish through time, therefore they are called classic. Add tailored button up shirts, pumps and blazers (if shoulder pads don’t give it armoured look) to the list.

All vintage eventually becomes antique. This category contains items that are 100+ years old (makes me think how much potential plastic has in it!). 

And then there’s retro. To me it appears to be the most mysterious category. The English word comes from the Latin prefix retro, meaning backwards, or in past times. Usually it refers to fashion items produced recently but looking like from another era. Retro also describes styles and designs that make a comeback. So a regular secondhand piece can be categorised as retro if your grandparents say it reminds them of good old times. 

So many secondhand shops call themselves vintage despite the fact that they don’t even know the meaning of it. Or they know but overuse and misuse the fancy word for better sales.

But who cares anyway! As long as it boosts the demand on pre-loved clothing, I’m happy to hear any terms.

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slow fashionAlisa KozComment