Here’s a subject that comes up quite often: what is the actual definition of “vintage” and how do you know if something really should be described as such?
Google’s definition, which I rather like, is, “denoting something from the past of high quality, especially something representing the best of its kind.” Really the word belongs to the world of wine, and simply denotes the year a particular wine was produced, but like many another good & useful word before it, it’s leaked out into other areas and the connotations of quality and age have gone along with it.
There is no official “age” that an item (or a style) should attain before it can be considered vintage. At the market I regularly trade at, the agreement is that things should be, to the best of our knowledge & belief, 25 years old or more. Which brings the huge shoulders of the 1980s firmly into the “vintage” rearview mirror, but to someone of my age, that’s hardly any age at all; it was only yesterday! And that, I suppose, makes me too somewhat vintage, provided I can dredge up a bit of quality from somewhere. But to the young fashion students who often buy from us, the 1980s are out of the Ark – practically prehistory!
All of us will sometimes have items that we don’t know the age of; we can’t (economically!) carbon-date clothing or fabric, for example. But we do know quality, or quirkiness, or classic styling, so we will usually describe things as “retro” rather than vintage if we know or suspect them of being less than 25 years old. However we could, with justification, use the word “vintage” to describe something only 5 years old, if it ticks the “high quality/best of its kind” box. Needless to say, some vendors elsewhere exploit this to the fullest & will happily label any old secondhand stuff as “vintage” which rather muddies the waters & is in danger of bringing the whole game into disrepute. And there are things, and plenty of them, which may well be more than 25 years old but will never be vintage, just old tat. Mind you, I’m assuming that that phrase probably originally comes from the use of “tatting” as an inexpensive substitute for more complex & expensive bobbin lace, so I’d actually be very interested in genuine old “tat” anyway!
I have some “Golden Homes” magazines from the 1970s somewhere; you could swap many of the room sets into a current IKEA or Habitat catalogue and I genuinely doubt that anyone would even notice, because good design doesn’t have a sell-by date or built-in obsolescence. Not that everything IKEA sell is good, but we have things we bought from them way back when they first opened in the UK, over 25 years ago, and they are still doing the job we chose them for, and still look good. They have now, in my understanding, become vintage; perhaps they always were.
When I’m challenged about the exact dating of something, I have now learnt to say that vintage isn’t about an exact date; it’s about quality, design & style from the past. Quality doesn’t vary, but each stallholder will have different ideas about style, and that’s just how it should be; each of our customers will have equally different and equally valid ideas too, and will combine, wear, use or display the treasures that we’ve found for them in a myriad of different ways. Many of those undreamt-of when the item was new, and often mixing & matching the best of old & new. The best of both worlds, in effect, carrying our past forward into the future…