The fashion detective: Looking for clues

The vintage fashion lover will quickly hone her detective skills on the clues that garments reveal: style, fabrics, detailing, sizing and the most important determinant of value – the labels! Here is a beginner’s lesson in the mysteries that labels reveal and whether an item is worthy of your wardrobe or your collection…

Vintage fashions can have one or more, or no labels at all – and may include the following: designer, manufacturer, fabric manufacturer or retailer, country of origin, size, fabric composition and care instructions.  The more labels, the more modern the garment is likely to be – the home dressmaker of the past was quite skilled but it was only recently that she might add a custom label to tell you that it was “made with love, by Mum”.

Here’s an approximate timeline of changes:

Pre 1946

Labels were rare in Australia (more common overseas) and were often cut out as they can spoil the line. Displaying a designer’s name was considered gauche, so even Chanel and Schiaparelli labels were sometimes removed – curse them! Labels are usually woven and only feature the designer or manufacturer and placed on the matching petticoat, rather than the dress.

Post 1946

Mass production started in the late 1940s, and garments featuring a woven label denote good quality: increasingly, casual fashions feature printed labels. Coats and jackets of fine materials might feature a label from the fabric supplier e.g., Harris Tweed, or a retailer. The more of these labels, the better quality the garment is likely to be e.g., a ’50s coat was an investment purchase and might have three from the different companies.

Couture garments might have labels in the waist band. Country of origin might be included, but not as a separate label. Size labels use a British system: SW for Small Woman (about a modern 10), W for Woman (size 12), XW for Extra Woman (14) and so on.


Labels are sometimes supplemented with those for fabric composition and care instruction. “Dry clean only” labels are sometimes sewn into evening wear with luxury fabrics.Around 1967 a US system of sizing was introduced into Australian made fashion: SW became size 14, W became 16 etc. During a transition period, size labels feature both systems. Measurements, if given, are in inches rather than centimetres.


Fabric composition and care labels are now required and size labels feature both inches and centimetres in the early part of the decade, and just centimetres afterwards. Most labels also indicate where the garment has been made.

Nicole Jenkins http://www.circavintage.com.au/