Five for Friday: my least favourite ‘historical’ phrases

1. ‘Vintage‘ for anything pre-21st century.
I’m sorry, I don’t care what etsy says, 1993 is NOT ‘vintage’.  I sewed clothes that I can still wear in 1993.  I’m pretty sure I’m not old enough to be vintage.  Even if it’s 1960s it’s NOT vintage, it’s retro.  Equally, nothing post 1920 is ‘antique‘, it’s just vintage.  And you know what, there is a really good reason to have these classifications.  They make life easier.  It really sucks to be searching for vintage 1930s patterns and having to slog through pages and pages of 1980s blouses and 1960s mod dresses.  There is nothing wrong with retro items – retro is a wonderful classification.  Some of my favourite things are retro.  But they aren’t vintage!  So do the world a favour and don’t call anything made after 1920 ‘antique, anything made after 1959 ‘vintage’ (personally, I think it should be ’55), and don’t call anything made after 1990 ‘retro’.

McCalls 8296 – Cute, but not remotely vintage!

2. Back in the day.’  Back in what day?

Back in the day…

…they chopped people’s heads off…

…if they didn’t know how to fix a cassette tape…

3.  In olden times‘  Which olden times?  I’m always tempted to contridict any sentence starting with either #2 or #3 with “Actually, back in the day/in olden times (insert completely accurate historical fact that refutes whatever was just said and comes from a completely random period)  happened”.  It’s equally true!

In olden times (in a galaxy far away)…

…Dinosaurs and people played together. Blazer tag. It’s true!   Image via Arrrr

4. ‘  ‘Flapper’  for any woman in a 1920s dress.  This term bugs me for three reasons.  First, it’s hideously overused.  Any term used that much is going to become loathe-worthy.

On a more academic level, what the average punter thinks a ‘flapper’ is has very little to do with what a flapper was in the 1920s.  In America, a flapper was simply the modern woman: fun-loving, playful, liberated, fashionable and luxury focused, but in a simple, streamlined fashion.  This is a flapper.  She certainly wasn’t overly provocative and promiscuous.  This is not a flapper.  Ironically, half of the images labelled ‘flapper’ on the internet get it closer to right in depict women in (for the standards of the time) perfectly conservative, modest, not at all outrageous, dress, but that’s only because the labelers appear to think that those were outrageous outfits in 1925!  In reality, wearing bobbed hair and a knee length skirt in 1924 no more made you a flapper than wearing a plaid flannel in the 1990s made you a lumberjack.

Furthermore, while they were aware of the American meaning from films, ‘flapper’ did not mean at all the same thing in the UK, NZ, & Australia.  The term was first heard in the 1900s as a slang for a busybody or a gossip – someone, usually but not always, a woman, whose mouth ‘flapped’.  This usage was quickly replaced by ‘flapper’ as a description for a slightly mischievous and precocious (in an entirely non-sexual sense) teenage girl.  The usual British flapper wore braids and a tartan school uniform – hardly our image of fringed dresses and rouged knees!  So seeing British photos labelled ‘flapper’ by British historians is just, well, sad.  Even in America a ‘flapper’ was more likely to be a sassy teenager than a saucy woman (the film The Flapper is literally about a naughty schoolgirl and the pranks she gets up to).

When I’m feeling particularly grumpy about the whole issue I’m tempted to start a pinterest board titled ‘This is not a flapper’ and then pin every image on Pinterest labelled ‘flapper’ to it.

Look! She’s a flapper AND a lumberjack! (yes, this photo was tagged ‘flapper’)

5. Corset‘ for anything laced or hooked  or with noticeable bodice seaming, from Renaissance gowns, to stays, to swiss waists, to modern bustiers and laced tops.  Things have names, give them their name.

Here. Have an image of an actual corset. Looking at all the images of things that are not corsets labelled ‘corset’ depressed me too much to pick one.

So yes.  I’m picky.  And a bit of a historical snob.  And, just for tonight, feeling a bit grinchy.  And I’m sure I’ve made blinding historical mistakes in my own time!  But I do try to correct myself and my accuracy all the time. And at least I try to be as nice as possible when I correct mistakes.  😉

So what do you think?  Are any of these on your ‘Gah!’ list?  Did I miss any that never fail to make your teeth hurt?


  1. Robin's Egg Bleu says

    I like the way you think. And I agree whole heartedly!

  2. I agree with the term confusion. As a piano teacher everything gets referenced as ‘classical’ Classical is actually an era not just a broad heading. What about Baroque, Romantic and 20th Century?

    • I hear all my music friends complain about this!

      I do try to differentiate in my mind between terms that are specific to a field, and that we should get correct in a technical sense, and terms that are used for the broader public. Academic vs. colloquial. And I think to some extent music falls under this (but a little wider knowledge would be appreciated!)

  3. Ha! It drives me batty when a 1980s prom dress is described as “vintage.” I’ll occasionally use “vintage” to mean “not at all vintage” in a tongue and cheek way (as in “pristine vintage wallpaper” to describe my laundry room…), but it is terribly frustrating to wade through what I can only assume are sellers trying to appeal to as broad a market as possible by calling their yard sale castoffs “vintage.” (Unless of course we’re using the term in the wine sense–“the 1992 vintage”–which I don’t mind applied to things other than wine if done deliberately.)

    My biggest gripe relates to your “back in the day” and “in olden times” rant–the assumption that “before ‘modern times’ everything, for all times and places, was done the same way with the same results.” Blerg. Vague terms like “colonial” to describe clothing or social norms also bug me–colonial what? America? The Caribbean? Moon colonies of the future?

    • Well, you can describe an ’80s prom dress as ‘vintage 1980s’, implying that it is the quiescence of the 1980s, but that still doesn’t make it a vintage prom dress!

      Agreed on the colonial. Colonial NZ is a much different thing to colonial America! My students are under strict instructions to never, ever, under any circumstances if they want to pass my courses, use terms like ‘back in the day’ and ‘in olden times’ in their papers.

  4. Haha! Great post, although I have to disagree with the first one. In the museology classes I took, “vintage” was classed as anything between 15 years (some sources prefer 20 years) and 90 years old. “Antique” was 90 years and older. “Retro” has nothing to do with dating at all, but classifies items that are a throwback in style to an earlier time. So…”60s does 20s” – retro for the time, but also vintage now; or all the 50s revival that happened a few years ago – retro, but not yet vintage. Straight up 1960s clothes can’t be retro – what are they retro of? – but they are definitely vintage.

    • So before I posted my long comment, you cleared up “retro” – I’m glad I’m not alone thinking that! It’s precisely why my classmate’s comment about my 1970 dress being “so retro” seemed so funny to me back when I wore it to the grammar school graduation exams in 2007. 🙂

    • I’m afraid I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with you on this one. First, museology and general useful practice are not the same thing. Second, I’ve never encountered a museum (either the three I worked for, or the hundreds I have worked with), or any museology course that used such a system – it’s just too large and vague to be useful as a guide. Museums use specific artistic periods and dates for descriptors.

      In fact, the only one of the three terms (antique, vintage, retro) that is actually used as a descriptive term by any museum I know of is Retro. While it did start out meaning ‘Retrospective’ or a throwback to earlier styles, it has been used to refer to Retrospectives of mid-20th century styles so much so that it is now fairly widely accepted as a term for mid 20th century styles, in much the same way that Art Deco was not used as a term for the style during the period of the styles use, but dates from a 1966 exhibition. Today Art Deco is the most widely accepted term for Style Moderne. ‘Retro’ may have begun as a term for items that looked back, and can still, to some extent, be used in that sense, it has picked up the connotation that it specifically looks back to the period 1950-80

      Granted, everything is ‘vintage’ in the sense that ‘vintage’ just means age, but for a descriptor on the marketplace, 15 years is just too young!

      • Retro is a 1970’s term for artwork with a nostalgic bent, and the term is still in use today for contemporary work. There was retro art/design in the seventies, but not everything can be classified as such – that would be as silly as calling all women in the 1920’s “flappers”. 😉

    • Agree with you, Lauren.
      “Antique” = 90+ years old.
      As someone who appreciates wine, “vintage” to me means the harvest of a particularly good drop! Of course, it also means “a past time”, no line in the sand, but personally put this at 20 years past, meaning you’re “vintage”, children of the ’80’s!
      Finally, “retro” = in the style of an earlier time, so I could make a “retro 1950’s” frock tomorrow.
      Aren’t dictionaries great?

      • The Mad Purple Chicken says

        Does this mean my stays are retro?

    • I learned these terms in costume history classes (for theatre and fashion students) as well. I don’t remember if they came from the textbook or not, but from what I understood it was terms only used for clothing. Other items, like cars, which are considered antique after 25 years, have their own dating system.

  5. Jamie says

    I totally agree about vintage/retro/antique! Especially vintage/antique — isn’t there some specific time period (25 years? 50 years? or is that just old cars? haha.) That and “antique” stores, where 90% of everything is just piles of overpriced crap. I’m not very knowledgeable about how to actually find good stores, I need to learn more. So many sellers seem to have no idea what anything even is, either — I went to one store recently and saw a big plaster statue, painted, but the thick thick paint was chipping very badly in places — you could see the GREY PLASTER underneath, and the person listed it as -wood-. What?!

    My other unrelated pet peeve is people using the word “upcycled”. It just sounds so goofy.

    • Haha, upcycled, so true! It always makes me think of washing machines, somehow – you know, the washing cycle. *puzzled by her own thought processes*

    • As Lauren has pointed out, Antique is usually 90+ years (which I simplified into pre-1920s, but of course it is a moving target).

      I just check out ever antique store, and if I wince or roll my eyes too many times, I don’t go back 😉

      I’m not a fan of upcycled either. Upcycling is in the eye of the beholder – just call it remake or recycle or ‘hey, I used some parts that had been used before’

      • I think “upcycled” is silly, too, but nonetheless I use it as a tag on Etsy because it’s a big trend right now. It’s supposed to be virtuous to re-use stuff and if you call it “upcycling” you can sound all hip and modern.

        *tongue firmly in cheek* ;-P

  6. “Flapper” is a mystery to me, especially seeing as it’s an English term and does not have a Czech counterpart. But then, neither does “vintage”. I draw the line somewhere around 1970 myself, depending on the style itself, too. Maybe because I’m younger than you? 😉 “Retro” is a fine term, but for me (maybe it’s a Czech thing again, or maybe it’s me), that rather means a modern creation styled after the time. Ah well.

    But I’m so with you on 2 and 3. And 5 often goes hand in hand with that sort of thinking: “back in those times, women had to wear corsets and laced themselves so tight they could not breathe”. Something along those lines.

    Another pet peeve of mine (not really a phrase) is the claim that women in the Empire/Regency era did not wear corsets at all. Czech sources never speak of the existence of Regency stays, which drives me mad, because it gives a completely distorted idea of the era, one relatable to the “flapper” problem. And why hadn’t any Czech costume historian wondered about the purely practical implications of that yet? It seems they just copy the claim from one another. Do you know the situation in your parts of the world?

    • You just wait. The flapper plague will invade the Czech republic, and every feather boa will be a flapper original.

      Re: Regegency undergarment, based on the number of extent prints and supportive undergarments, I’m pretty sure they thought that women wore some sort of support in the Empire/Regency. Of course, they didn’t wear corsets, because that is a later term 😉

      • Apparently, the communication’s a bit complicated here.

        I did not mean to say the word “flapper” is not used in the Czech Republic. I meant to say there is no Czech word with the same meaning. And the meaning of the English word gets a bit hazy with appropriation. Which means it’s probably even hazier than it is in English.
        Ditto for “vintage”.

        As to Regency stays: You have not read Czech sources, and you do not know the trouble with Czech sources, so I’ll try to ellaborate.
        You see, the terms are much less clear-cut in Czech. Many things in costuming do not have a specific Czech name. Like busk – I wasn’t able to figure out what that is called when it applies to the wooden thing stuck into stays and not the metal thing that serves as a corset closure as well. (The Czech equivalent of “corset closure” is the only term I came across as an equivalent for “busk”.)
        Both “corset” and “stays” could be called “Å¡nÄ›rovačka” in Czech, but that word usually suggests folk costume (thus outerwear) and is therefore usually avoided (although I personally would prefer it over “korzet”, because of all the confusing ballast connected to corsets that you mentioned in 5). Moreover, we do not have a word that would specifically mean “stays” in the historically determinative sense, and therefore everything ends up being called “korzet”.
        The books usually specifically claim that “they stopped wearing corsets” or something like that; the word “korzet” is always used. Sometimes they do sort of acknowledge that was the ideal, but they never acknowledge the existence of supportive undergarments in the era. Moreover, they usually go on to claim that corsets started to be worn “again” after the era ended.
        So when the sources claim that no corsets were worn in Regency/Empire (another trouble with English/Czech terms, here), they really mean “no supportive undergarments”. Which we know not to be true.
        I’m not sure where that claim springs from. It may in part be a translation confusion (truly no corsets in English sources), but I don’t think that explains why it gets repeated over and over. Something is off about Czech sources and sometimes I’m very much afraid it’s a general recklessness and subscription to myths…

        • Elise says

          How interesting! I adore language and translation. I wonder…Did the Czech Republic (or maybe Czechoslovakia ‘back in the day’) use the Czech language among the middle class and nobility in the 19th century? Or were they more like Russia insofar that the upper classes–the classes that would have worn fashionable dress–spoke French or English?

          If Czech was “the peasant language”, like English was during the “olden times” of the middle ages, and if the Czech speakers wore more traditional dress, then it would make sense that the Czech words would be more focused on the garments worn by Czech speakers.

          • It’s all a heritage of our chequered history, so this will, again, be longer to make things absolutely clear.

            Since approx. 10th century to 1526, Czech lands (Bohemia, Moravia and parts of Silesia depending on the point in history) were more or less independent. (Slovakia, as far as I know, was part of Hungary.) During this time, Czech language was the main language, although nobility often spoke also German or French, and there were many Germans living here, so of course there was a lot of German and French influence on the language (not to mention Latin).
            In 1526, a Hapsburg became king and since then, the Czech lands were more or less part of Austria. Over the course of that long time, Czech became the peasants’ language; especially after the Thirty Year War, when many Czech nobles had to flee the country and their lands were given to foreign nobles. Therefore, nobility, and middle classes up to some point, spoke German (or French, at times), also because German became the “official” language (I don’t remember when, might have been during the reign of Maria Theresa — 1740-1780).
            In late 18th century, a group of people started trying to revive Czech language, culture and everything, and the movement slowly spread throughout 19th century. They made up Czech terminology for sciences, which in general caught up really well (seeing as a lot of those things were new discoveries and inventions anyway), and tried to have Czech words for everyday and cultural things as well, which very often did not catch up so well, because they were too forced. By the turn of the century, I believe, most people who counted themselves as Czech spoke Czech, but it was by no means a standardised language.
            Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918. That meant Czech became the official language and had a far better chance of developing (sometimes at the cost of other languages, admittedly). But some things simply never got their Czech name, because at that time there was no need for it anymore…
            Case in point: historical corsetry. For understandable reasons, people mostly turned back to those times when Czech lands were independent, and corsetry was mostly a thing of the time when it was not… so it was a foreign thing. That sort of thinking – though I have no proof as to corsetry itself, I think that’s how it came to be. And it still goes on that way. I think every country has its favourite eras, and in the Czech Republic the re-enacting movement focuses mostly on Middle Ages.

            And, obviously, in terms of Czech terminology, the times when we were independent are easier than those when we were not, because there are no, or less, written records in Czech from the Austrian era.

          • Elise says

            Wow–thank you so much for the history and linguistics lesson. So cool.

  7. My personal pet-peeve? Describing anything remotely mid-century (and by remote I mean anything that is from/could be from/might have been inspired by the decades 1940-1970) as “Mad Men”. Perhaps this loathing is partly due to my never having watched the show. Perhaps because if I want to look for menswear patterns on Etsy I have to slog through multiple ill-described women’s patterns. Perhaps because, using “mad men” as a descriptor, (especially when its for items that don’t seem like they fit the 1960’s vibe I’ve seen in others’ sewing projects based on the show) just seems like lazy/copycat marketing (which annoys me).

    Ok. I feel better. Thanks for letting me rant on your page.

    • Haha! Totally agree! I could do a whole post on this. Anything ’50s is Mad Men. Anything ‘teens is Downton Abbey or Titanic. Anything 20s is either flapper or Great Gatsby (with a nod to the almost-as-overused Roaring 20s). Anything 1860s is Gone with the Wind or Civil War (newsflash. It’s the Civil War because it only happened in ONE COUNTRY). Anything 1810s is Pride and Prejudice

      Of course, there is the equally irritating ‘describe things by famous people’ trend: Marilyn, Jackie O, Audrey etc. etc.

  8. I was just complaining about the overuse of “flapper” the other day – these things drive me crazy. I would totally support your “This is not a flapper” pinboard.

  9. Ok, along the “flapper” lines, I absolutely HATE the over-use of the term “pin-up”. Excuse me? Every single 50’s girl that wore a halter dress was a pin-up girl? Are you kidding? I’m sorry, but pin-up girls were models for mass-produced pictures that had sexual overtones. And when I wear a 50’s dress, I am most DEFINITELY not trying to be sensual. I’m being modest, classy, and pretty, thank you very much. You should start a “This is not a pin-up” board. 😀

    • Hear, hear! I wholeheartedly agree! People tell me I look like a pin up and I have to really swallow the retort and say thank you, because they mean well. I try to look like a well dress, independent, educated, ’50s housewife/university professor. They existed!

    • I know what you mean. I hate having to trawl through ‘pin up’ dresses when looking for a 50’s dress.
      I don’t want to be a pin up. I’m a nerd. I dress 40’s and 50’s because I like the modest elegant lines.

  10. You know what? I LOVE THIS POST. Yes, yes, yes! To all of these. I’m am, by no means, as educated as you when it comes to garments and history, but I do research. Lots and lots of research (as a non-fiction writer, historical accuracy is my friend). I’m kind of amazed, sometimes, by people who purport to be “in the know” total lack of “in the know.”

    And as a child of the 80s and 90s, I VERY MUCH so agree–I’m not old enough to be retro, let alone vintage!

  11. I agree with a lot of what you’ve said, and your post contains facts that I was not aware of (in particular, about the use of the term “flapper”). But I do disagree with some of your statements about the term “vintage”.

    I was born in 1959. Knowing that, and knowing my own age, reminds me that anything made in 1960 is over 50 YEARS OLD. I think that’s old enough to qualify as “vintage”.

    On the other hand, I agree that it’s absurd to refer to fashion from 1990 forward as “retro” or by any other special designation, since many items from then are indistinguishable from items people are buying, brand new, to wear right now. And I’m inclined to agree with Lauren’s comment that “retro” should be reserved for modern (i.e., current) clothes that mimic, or at least are inspired by, “vintage” styles.

    • Elise says

      I know. It was so weird, today, to walk into my tea shop and see the girl wear a shirt that was almost identical to one that I had back in ’95. Of course, she paid a lot more for it at Urban Outfitters…

    • Wait, really? There’s no fashion things you look at and think “That’s so 90s?” Baggy trousers, tops that end right at or just below the natural waist? Certain combos of bright colors in repeating directional prints, often cartoonish? The exact line of certain princess-seam tank-style dresses? Subcontinental-inspired beading on too-bright-to-call-jewel-tones?

      I can’t even quite get on board “vintage” 90s (even though I’m in the yes-vintage-80s crowd), but I find it surprising that people don’t identify certain styles as seeming very very 90s.

      • I agree with you. I can pick out a 90’s outfit at 100 paces. And I wish I’d never given away one of my 90’s dresses….as I’ve never found a modern dress the same.
        I still have some tops from the late 90’s but it the early 90’s stuff that was most distinct in style in my mind.

        • Elise says

          Babydoll dresses. I miss those. The high-crew-neck-crop-top, however, did nothing for me. I definitely still do skirts and docs–but I often get asked where I got my docs. I reply “in the 90s”

          And yes, I can also spot a 90s outfit at 100 paces–although there is sort of a renaissance–or a reninetiessance–so it’s harder to tell.

          • I do not look forward to the inevitable winds of fashion changing back to shorter tops and tank lengths. I like my long-line tanks, and I don’t look forward to having to make them myself.

            Other than that, there’s not much I particularly hate about ’90s fashion (and that didn’t really bother me at the time), but it’s completely identifiable.

  12. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, a lot of knowledge is an old lady rant ready to explode! I have peeves on this scale too, about things I am ekspurt in, and things like the random and inaccurate use of apostrophes drives me doolally.
    Most entertaining – I think Lauren has a very valid point re ‘retro’ but I also infer the use in your context of dressing retro i.e. the clothes being described as such are assumed to be part of a look, ergo the modern woman dressed in 1960’s is going retro.
    I feel like we are one term away from a zero base line here however. Not sure what it is!

    • Oh dear, I’m so enjoying this discussion I’m going to litter it with my replies! Apostrophes, totally! Especially funny as I’m a foreigner! Very understandable since I’m a foreigner who’s made English her (sort-of) area of expertise…

      As such, I would like to ask you about the meaning of your second-to-last sentence. I’m sure I do not understand what you mean, which drivesme doolally. Slightly.

      Good point about retro, too. These terms always only apply when you’re describing the era from today’s viewpoint, which is probably why it is so fuzzy. “Today” is a shifty thing. “Antique lace” nowadays is not the same as “antique lace” in 1890s; that is, in the “today” of 1890s, “antique lace” may have been 1790s lace; in the “today” of nowadays, “antique lace” includes 1890s lace, too.
      Sorry about the abundance of antique lace (that’s not a bad thing, though, is it?) – I wanted to make myself absolutely clear and avoid any ambiguous “it”s. (And phew, that looks ugly, but I wanted to avoid ambiguous apostrophes as well.)

    • Yes! Exactly, it’s the same word, being used in two different ways, but meaning the same thing. A garment is ‘retro ’80s does 20s’ or ‘2012 does 1950s’ or a modern person does a modern house in ‘retro 1960s’ – all looking back. Right. Can we all agree on that?

      I still think it’s helpful online to not have to wade through a bunch of ’90s stuff labelled vintage, and to be able to find ’60s stuff under it’s own designation (retro)

  13. Wow, this is a hornets’ nest of understanding and usage isn’t it. The internet has given everybody an education but not everybody cares how they use it. From a linguistic point of view this is just language taking its course: following fashion, sliding down the social (or specialist ) scale, being misused and so on. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, Vintage specifically related to cars -post 1918 and up to 1930. Antique was over 100 years old. Then I picked up the Retro tag and that was particularly applied to 1950s memorabilia. Vintage also came to mean classy retro. Entering the world of Trade Me was when I first came across Vintage used for anything up to the 1980s and now that I have opened an Etsy Shop it’s in that Vintage category! Am trying to only use tags that make sense to me (Mad Men, Eames Era, seem to be in cavalier use for sure), and to describe items based on personal experience backed up by research.
    I asked 85 year old mother last night what she called the little glass I’d just bought for 50 cents. That’s a liqueur glass she said. Most people call it a nip or shot glass, but liqueur was a contemporary (possibly English only) term for little glasses.
    Two things that bug me:
    Homely, sentimental items from the 20s and 30s labelled Art Deco. Art Deco was not a homely, sentimental movement!
    1950s Moderne or International (not sure of best label) styling – including NZ’s flat-roofed houses, described as Art Deco. Similar for sure, but not.
    What a rant. I don’t often comment here but I do enjoy your robust challenges – oh and the clothes 🙂

    • Elise says

      For me, all of the made-up post-modern words get to me. Once, I even heard the word ‘dividual’. I supposed it was a person with full agency? No idea. I’m going to make up my own: (il)legal is what happens to closed-minded American conservatives when they see a Mexican succeeding and it makes them sick.

  14. I get so annoyed at the term “flapper dress”. I was recently at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, seeing the First Ladies’ Dresses exhibition for the first time in years and years, and Mrs. Coolidge’s evening dresses were labeled “flapper dresses” and ugh, really? Fortunately, my cataloguing internship means I get to at least eradicate it from one museum’s files!

    • Oh no! Flapper, for a president’s WIFE? Maybe for his daughter (Alice Roosevelt was a bit of a flapper before its time), but not a first lady!

  15. Kim says

    The corset thing really get to me. Especially if when even the word corset gets a roguish look or “you’re so naughty” look. I always ask people what they think women wore. Unless you have no chest at all, going completely unsupported has always been uncomfortable and not everyone wore sexy undies all the time. Of course most people don’t even realize the array of undergarments worn at various periods of time.

    • Elise says

      Haha–I can tell you, even with itty bitty titties, going unsupported is not comfortable. And I feel for larger-breasted women in our bra-times. I imagine it was much more comfortable for a woman to be supported at the waist, than by two little straps that dig into shoulders.

      • Amen to that, Elise. I’m here to tell you, corsets do a much better job of supporting oversized chest furniture.

    • Kim,
      I definitely have to agree with you, and the Dreamstress on the corset issue. Especially among the steampunk crowds and the younger generations, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had young ladies complain about how they can’t “breathe in their corset.” At that point I have to take a deep breath and explain that while they are wearing a laced garment with boning, it’s not actually a corset and the reason they cannot breathe is because they have purchased the wrong size.

      I was on staff at a local steampunk convention this weekend, and I had many people comment on a Swiss waist I had made for my ensemble, saying it was a beautiful corset. I actually explained the difference between the two and directed them towards your wonderful website Dreamstress.

      This comment thread is lovely, I love the intellectual conversation/debate that occurred.


  16. Lynne says

    Flappers are young birds – ducks, geese etc – that are at the stage of flapping their new wings but don’t yet have the muscles or feathers to fly. The metaphorical flapper should be trying her wings (not the tartan skirt!) and dressing like a young woman having fun. Old ‘flappers’ need not apply. It is an overused expression.

    I am right with you on the mis-use of ‘vintage’! When I discovered the magic world of eBay, I was initially confused, until I realised that some people seemed to thing anything older than ten years was ‘vintage’. Good grief! So frustrating, wading through the modern to find the true vintage.

  17. Ohhhhh yes, agree with you. And I got fed up to the back teeth with trying to search for genuine vintage cloche hats – the hats some people describe as a cloche are HYSTERICAL. A cloche is supposed to be close-fitting woman’s hat with a bell-like shape. Originally almost brimless they also came with wider brims as time went on but they aren’t berets, fedoras, or bowlers or many of the other weird and wonderful shapes I’ve seen applied to the term. And yes with the scrolling through screen after screen of NON cloches.
    I grew up (here in Australia) understanding antique to mean 100 years old, period/vintage used to be between 50 and 99 years, and anything more modern could fall into categories like retro or just described as 50s, 60s, 70s etc.
    The vintage shows I go to now accept vintage as up to and including the 80s. Good grief. The first time someone said ‘oh yes that’s vintage about an item I used to wear’, I felt like Methuselah. Now I know I’M a very FINE vintage!

  18. Hmmm, I always use and hear used “vintage” to mean it’s an authentic several-decades-old piece and “retro” to mean in-the-style-of. A modern reproduction 1950s dress would be “retro”, and an actual 1950s piece would be vintages.

    And much as I might feel old or whatever, I think ’80s is “vintage” now. It’s not contemporary.

    • “It’s not contemporary” is dangerous, though. To someone, it may make last year’s model “vintage”. Or last season’s. (I don’t think that’s going to happen, because to that same person last year’s/season’s model is simply “out”, but I wanted to point out the problem with that sort of categorising.)

      • It’s a fuzzy line, but most things are. I think 20 years is a reasonable cutoff to say it’s just not really meaningfully “vintage”, but the line remains fuzzy no matter what. Even if something’s not vintage until it’s 80 years old, it’s not like that thing that’s 79 years old is CLEARLY less vintage than the barely-80-year-old thing.

        • Of course. I, personally, would draw the line somewhere at 30 years old, but really, it IS fuzzy. And 30 years old makes 1982 vintage right now, which does not quite line up with me also drawing the line somewhere aroung 1970 or 75…

  19. The word “Victorian” used to describe any kind of long skirt with some kind of support under it. Honestly, I saw a picture of Anne Boleyn tagged that way not long ago! I’m sure she would have suprised to learn she was a Victorian…

  20. I agree with you on the vintage/retro thing! But especially with the corset thing. That really bugs me! If it has some grommets and lacing they call it a corset. I get really pissed off in a lingerie shop when the salesperson tells me they sell corsets, by which they mean the flimsy lace body’s with two plastic bones in them. I make corsets, I don’t need a saleswoman to tell me what corsets are!

    And I agree with Hana Marmota. As a Napoleonic reenactor I really hate it when some people say that people in the regency time wore nothing to support their breasts at all!

    • Mona says

      Semi-related: I always find it odd if people wear ‘wedding gown corsets’. It might be a style issue, but for me they are still lingerie, so why get married in underthings, even if they are very pretty?

    • While I haven’t personally seen people claim NO ONE wore support in the regency, and there are plenty of extant regency long and short stays, so that’s dumb, clearly SOMETIMES people didn’t wear anything under their dresses. This is demonstrated in period paintings, e.g. “Young Woman in White” (possibly by Jaques-Louis David)

      • While I agree with you that there were definitely some women who didn’t wear undergarments in the early 19th century, paintings aren’t a good way to judge this, as many of the ‘visible nipple’ paintings that we assume mean women were support-less were actually meant to evoke antiquity, and don’t actually represent a style that women wore publicly. The models are playing dress up, not showing off the latest styles. Jacques Louis David was particularly known for painting women in the classical (e.g. supposed to be Greek or Roman) style.

        I suspect that women who went without support were probably pretty small busted (after all, I can go braless now without it being noticeable), or very avant-garde. There is definitely a bit of ‘gasp, shock, horror’ in period writings that mention women without undergarments, and in period cartoons. In Boilly’s famous image, for example, the man assumes the woman is a prostitute based on her dress.

        • Oh, very interesting about those paintings being intended to evoke antiquity. I didn’t know that. Or at least, I didn’t know they were fully intended to be classical dress-up. I knew the thin white muslin high-waisted style was intended to evoke what they thought of as classical dress in the first place, and thought that was as far as it went with showing those styles. That’s definitely my lesson for the day!

          I had also sort of taken the writing on “bosom friends” also being called “bust improvers” to indicate that there was some wearing of dresses without undergarment support since that indicates there was some overgarment support. I can definitely see wanting some support while traveling to a dinner party but being OK going braless while just eating and sitting around.

  21. The whole Vintage, Retro and Antique thing…I’ve always thought of pre 1920’s as ‘historical’ in reference to re-producing fashion.
    Kinda ‘historically inspired’ ‘Vintage inspired’ and Retro Re-imagined/Reproduced’.
    As for the flapper thing…I only discovered that recently when I wanted to have a 1920’s ‘dancer’ [jig]doll made (if you want to know what one is its a percussion instrument of sorts that turns up in a lot of local folk music sessions).

    btw. flapper & lumberjack comment made me spit out my tea with laughter. And if that’s a flapper I have several photo’s of ancient flappers that are my ancestors. lol!

    Things that annoy me the whole are generally music related.
    There’s the Song, and Tune thing. I got told off for it so I understand how it happens but now its stuck in my head.
    A song has words, a Tune doesn’t. So what you put on you i-pod if its just instrumental is a ‘tune’ but if it has a singer its a ‘song. 😉

  22. fidelio says

    I have a list myself, but I’ll spare you, especially since it’s not all related to clothing.

    Did you know the 1929 General Election in the UK was called the Flapper Election, because it was the first time women under 30 were allowed to vote in a General Election–the Flapper Vote controversy there arose from the extension of the vote to women in two stages–the powers that be decided that women under 30 were too giddy to be trusted with something important like voting, unlike men in their 20s, who were always sterling examples of reliability and responsibility. So while it might have been a little disrespectful of younger women in its application at times, it didn’t mean they were Girls Behaving Badly–just young and inexperienced.

  23. Sometimes I love you so much, there are just no words. I LOATHE when people refer to the 80s and 90s as vintage. Hey, folks – last time I checked, I am not vintage. I’m 28. Not vintage. I agree with all of these so very much – I cringe each time I hear them used!

    • Good point. Just exactly how young are these people trying to refer to ’90’s clothes as “vintage”?

      • Daniel says

        I’m 33 in a couple weeks and have no such qualms about considering good quality design from early 90s to be vintage.

        I realised how absurd the whole thing was about 15 years ago when I saw sixty year old dealers getting hysterical and their panties in a twist about 40s and 50s dresses being called vintage. The sheer absurdity of it all made me decide not to get all precious about things and to just view good clothes and textiles and good, representative fashion of any era, be it 1920 or 2000, as vintage of the future. But it depends on the piece….

    • Manda says

      Technically, you ARE vintage! I was taught that vintage (specifically in regards to clothing) is 25-99 years old, and antique is for 100+ years old. So, as cringe-worthy as it is, anything from 1913-1987 is vintage. Believe me, it kills me to see little teeny-boppers running around in things I wore in grade school! 🙂

  24. Oh my goodness! Way to hit the nail right on the head–I argue about all 5 things with people all the time! I mean seriously, some of these things (the corset issue, the vintage issue, the flapper issue) are treated without any sort of respect for correct labeling. I cringe every time I see something mis-tagged on Tumblr, or when I google “corset” and just see a princess seamed bodice….*shakes head*

  25. Daniel says

    Let’s see if I can post this now…

    “”Gonna have to disagree on “vintage” – as I understand it, vintage is 25 years or older – so I’m afraid from the 1980s back is vintage, including the first decade of my life.

    I used to be a rabid psychotic vintage snob who thought that anything made after 1950 wasn’t vintage and therefore barely worth the waste of eyesight or effort, but then I hit my teenage years and realised that actually, it was one of those “hate grows into love” things. Still wish I’d been less snooty when I had the chance to pick up £3 Celia Birtwell-printed Ossie Clark dresses and whatnot, but oh well.

    Anyway, I do have a sliding scale of rationale – 70s crimplene dresses with bleached out crotches cast off by the local retirement home are never ever going to be vintage, not now, not in 200 years time, not in the year 7775/349×10/012 slash acorn when a puzzled twenty-eyed creature from Zog finds the charred remains floating around the galaxy long after the Earth has burned to a cinder. I believe crimplene granny dresses from the 70s are up there with cockroaches and Cher (and others) as the great indestructibles.

    But yes, I have for the last 10-odd years been looking at the early ’90s with a “oh, hello vintage” eye now. I would go as far as to say that if a garment is well made and/or exceptionally designed and holds the essence of the time in which it was made, and will obviously be vintage one day – then it’s vintage.

    As Doris Langley Moore said:

    “A good specimen is one which is not only in sound condition and of nice quality, but which embodies the features of its period in an entirely representative way. A good specimen is completely of its period. If it was ever meant to be fashionable, then it will carry with it still the aura of fashion”

    And to me, that’s vintage, regardless of when it was made. Not everything is vintage, or necessarily will be vintage, but some things WILL obviously be vintage one day, and I’m not going to go all ageist on them for it. ;)”

    • As much as I admire Doris Langley Moore as a modern dress-history pioneer, I’m very glad museums are turning away from this sort of acquisitions philosophy – to which practice this quote must surely relate. It’s far too Cunnington-esque for my liking. From a museum acquisitions mandate perspective, that is. Regarding the apellation of ‘vintage’ I can see her point. Though I still currently refure to acknowledge anything 1980s or later as vintage – which I admit may just be my stick-in-the-mud-ness.

  26. Joie de Vivre says

    What I think is fascinating is that the origin of the word vintage relates specifically to wine (same roots as vineyard, vitculture, and vintner), originally the harvested grapes. Then eventually to the age/year of the grapes harvested. And then it change from referring to the age of wine to old things.

    Words change in meaning over time. Some words may become locked down for academic purposes eventually (as the Dreamstress’s example of Art Deco illustrates, and has, I believe?, also happened to the words used to refer to other specific periods of time for historical, fashion, and musical purposes) but even then the meaning of things can be fluid. It seems to me, and the fierce debate here seems to support this, that these particular words have not been locked down for meaning in either academic or popular usage. (Dreamstress, didn’t you say that these words are specifically not used in an academic context?) Given how flexible these words are, and the lack of agreement about how they should be used, I personally try not to get hung up on what people use. They’re not experts. I’m not an expert. Why should I get upset at them for using a term in one of many many common usages? I can figure it out from context.

    The very fact these words are being used more often as buzzwords, even with such wide variety of meaning, suggests to me that perhaps there is an increase in interest in “things of an age other than brand new” and that gives me hope that over time, more people will take the time to research, learn, and become familiar with history. And as that happens, the meaning of these terms will become solidified and we’ll go a long way to fixing issues 2 through 5 as well!

  27. I’ll add a new one: “in period”. As in (to make up an example) “In period, women wore blue stockings instead of green.” In *WHAT* period, precisely? Seriously, is it so much more effort to say “In the 15th Century…” or “Between the years 1820 and 1850…” or something to that effect?

    It’s just such lazy, vague, irritating writing. Worse, it almost always precedes a blanket statement. *gah* Luckily (?), it appears to be mostly restricted to SCA-based bloggers.

  28. Yeah, this is why I tend to avoid Etsy (to the point, I’m afraid, where I would never use Etsy to sell my work).

    I’d class a lot of these as laziness, and my tolerance level for basic laziness isn’t very high. If you’re unclear about something, all you have to do is fire up Google Search and spend a couple minutes reading. How hard is that? Of course, we all make mistakes, but there’s a difference between making honest mistakes and not bothering to try. IMO, if you’re using the phrase “in the olden days”, you’re not trying.

  29. I agree, more or less, with all 5 of these. My personal biggest pet peeve, however, is actually pronounciation relating to #5. I swear, the next person I hear refer to a corset (whether it actually is one or not) as a cor-sette is gonna get decked. (ok, not really, but lordy would I want to!) It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

    Also – referring to anything ‘historical’ as Victorian. I thought it was bad enough how often people refer to the 18th century as Victorian. Reading the comment above wherein was mentioned referring to Anne Boleyn as Victorian just adds to my ire!

    What may irk me most of all is how much the perpetrators simply don’t care. If it refers to fashion/dress then it’s ridiculous/frivolous/suspect to take it and accuracy about it in any way seriously, and anyone who does is somehow ‘weird’ or otherwise not to be taken seriously themselves.

    • Ooo! Good one with the pronunciation of corset. That is SUPER aggravating!

  30. I’ve had a great time reading your blog entry and then many of the comments as well. It’s a giggle for sure.

    And it is good to know that I am only old enough to be retro and not vintage or antique. One of my favourite frocks is one that I wore “back in the day” called the 70’s…..the 1970’s I mean.


  31. The Mad Purple Chicken says

    Yes! It drives me nuts when people call anything with lacing a “corset”. When I try to talk to non-costumers about costumes they don’t seem to know what anything is called.

    On school picture day I proudly wore a double breasted purple waistcoat I had made, and the photographer called it a “blazer”, AAAAAUUGGH. The same day a boy in my class asked me if I worked at Kings Landing, no, I do not and even if I did I wouldn’t be wearing my work costume to school. I ask you, does a ruffly white pirate shirt, a double breasted waistcoat, and a regular pair of black pants even remotely resemble a Victorian day dress?

    I know you can’t expect the general public to have even a decent understanding of fashion history, but they should at least know that “18th century” means seventeen hundreds and NOT eighteen hundreds.
    When I finished my first pair of stays my father said I “looked like something out of Sense and Sensibility”. I calmly tried to explain that that was regency and what I was wearing was 1770s, and in any case it was underwear. His response was basically “Blah, whatever, it’s all historical stuff” People don’t see differences in style, they just see “old”.

  32. I totally agree with the fact that “Back in the day…” can be very aggravating when the desire is for someone to be skirting the fact that they don’t know specific details about whatever it is that is being discussed. BUT, I really enjoy saying “Back in the day…” (in the company of friends and knowledgable companions) because it amuses me to grossly generalize a historic something when everyone already knows what period is being discussed. So, I agree with that one 1/2 and 1/2. 🙂

    Best, Quinn

  33. I don’t mind “back in the day” if the time fram is previously stated. I may very well have been guilty of it myself when I feel that using the 18th century for the elevnth time in the same post. 🙂

    Once I came across an unboned fitted bodice on Deviantart which the maker called a corset. Someone commented and told her that was not a corset it was a bodice. The maker eagerly asked what teh difference was, as she was new to sewing. The asnwer was:


    That a bodice has shoulder-straps and a corset never has.

    I did think about shoing examples of corsets with shoulder-straps and to mention the itty-bitty matter of boning, but I felt it was a lost casue any way and didn’t…

  34. Yvonne Virgadamo says

    I agree wholeheartedly. Those particular terms annoy me as much as hearing a modern alarm clock going off in an 18th century campsite. I’d far rather hear someone tuning up on their bagpipes at 4AM.
    The clothing related terminology that really sends me round the twist is, “a Laura Ashley dress” used to denote a frumpy, shapeless, outdated dress. One of my all-time favorite dresses that I made (in 1981) had princess seams, with a sweetheart neckline, pointed waist, long sleeves; very full at the top tapering into fitted lower arms that buttoned from mid-forearm to wrist, and a full gathered skirt. The center front laced closed, the sleeves had lace insertion, bordered by ribbons and lace edging down the center. The bodice and lower skirt had pintucks, ribbon and lace edging, working from center front outward and toward the hem, which was finished with more ribbon and lace edging. I made this dress in a beautiful lavender and cream, tiny floral and berries print, lavender ribbons and cream colored lace. While the hem fell nearly to my ankles (my choice, I lengthened the pattern), there was nothing frumpy or shapeless about this dress, the sweetheart neckline dipped lower than my 18th century Robe L’Angleise ball gown (I made it the same year). I got complements on that dress for nearly twenty years, when I finally had to pass it on because I could no longer even approach fitting into it. I made and wore it for my high school graduation and for many an occasion after. I was only able to get the fabric for it a day and a half before graduation, but thanks to the many very clear and helpful sewing hints that the pattern came with, the pintucks and embellishments went very quickly and smoothly, I was finished less than twenty-four hours after the fabric came out of the dryer. Believe it or not, I still have the pattern, and am in the process of enlarging it to fit my current size. I’m on the hunt for a fabric that I love as much as the original.

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