What’s the Difference Between Retro and Vintage?


Have you ever found yourself wondering what the difference is between Retro and Vintage?  We certainly have and to ensure we named our website correctly, we needed to have a clear understanding of the differences as they are often taken out of context.  So, what’s the verdict?

Retro describes something relatively new (a product, style) that imitates that of the past.  Retro is not original but is inspired to appear like the original.  Vintage refers to something original, aged between 20-100 years, is rarer and therefore has more value than its retro counterpart. 

Many people don’t take the time to truly understand the differences between these terms and therefore the words get misused frequently.  Let’s take a deeper dive into the history and meaning of these words and learn how to identify if something is retro or vintage. 

Retro vs. Vintage

What is Retro?

The word retro derives from the Latin prefix retro, meaning backward, or in past times.

According to Wikipedia, retro became “a term” in the 1960s and was used primarily to describe new artifacts that self-consciously refer to particular modes, motifs, techniques, and materials of the past.  Secondarily, many people use the term to categorize styles that have been created in the past.

Quite simply, retro refers to new things that display characteristics of the past.

Today, products are constantly being manufactured and branded as retro.  Since retro is an imitation on the look of a product or style, it can be more widely used in comparison to the term vintage.


What Are Some Examples of Retro Products?

Retro most commonly refers to clothes like t-shirts, pants, dresses, jackets, jerseys, sweaters, sweatshirts, swimwear, socks and underwear.  Similarly, clothing accessories are paired like shoes, hats, belts, bowties, suspenders, tights, scarves, gloves, watches, jewelry, pins, patches, handbags, backpacks, sunglasses, and hand fans.

Some examples of clothing and accessories popular today:

  • Professional sport team jerseys like the Houston Astros (MLB – 1983), Denver Nuggets (NBA – 1982), Chicago Blackhawks (NHL – 1973), Philadelphia Eagles (NFL – 1967)
  • Plaid and lace pencil, floral swing, and long sleeve Farrah maxi dresses 
  • Mood rings and necklaces, lockets, and snap bracelets
  • Converse All-Star, Vans, Birkenstocks, Stan Smith Adidas, Oxfords, and Dr. Martens are all gender-neutral examples of fashionable shoe styles
  • Turtlenecks (haha, we don’t even know what to say about this one.  What’s next? Shoulder pads?)

In addition to all things clothing, there is an array of other retro marketed products marketed like household items, books, electronics, furniture, games, and toys.

Other retro product examples:

  • Refrigerator, stovetops, and coolers from large reputable companies Frigidaire, Heartland, and Coleman
  • Board game classics Candyland, Monopoly, Trouble, and Risk are getting repackaged similar to their original versions
  • Vinyl Record Players like Crosley have suitcase-style models and matching furniture stands
  • Lunch boxes from notable DC and Marvel comics/movies like Batman, Spiderman, and Wonder Woman

Retro items, in general, are easy to find and have abundant quantity.  Of course, there are some special circumstances and exceptions to this rule.  An example would be a major brand, like Nike, who decides to manufacture and release a limited supply of a product, like the Air Jordan I Retro High “85” New Beginnings due out sometime in February 2020. 

The demand for these retro shoes will be extremely high and thus demand an equally high price tag, narrowing the scope of potential customers who can afford it. Ultimately this creates a rare retro product.  


What is Retro Style?

Outside of physical products, retro is often used to describe the style of something as well.  This applies mostly to clothing again, such as the way an outfit is worn (tight, loose, disheveled, clean, tied, torn, frayed), or how it is paired with accessories (platform shoes should go with a disco-inspired outfit).

However, this could also be the way someone styles or cuts their hair usually to mimic that of an icon or just what was popular during that time.

Or it might describe the color scheme used when decorating a room inspired by a certain decade.  Perhaps the font used to market an event through pop-art posters or send a digital postcard. Even the intentional 8-bit graphics used in a modern game like “Minecraft” is an example of retro style.


What is Vintage?

Vintage is defined by major dictionary organizations as the production of wine from a grape harvest, especially of high quality in a particular region, during a given season or year.

Interesting.

Unwritten, over the last century, vintage has now become synonymous with the production of something (physical or consumable product) that represents high quality, from at least 20 years ago, with a little wear and tear that makes it rather unique and desirable.

Vintage products are typically found at consignment shops, flea markets, yard sales, pawn shops, antique stores or on third-party websites like eBay.  


How Do You Tell If Something Is Vintage?

There are several ways to identify if something would classify as vintage.  All will require some degree of research to validate but here are a few steps to help get you started:

  • Check the tag or label.
    • Is it relatively old or worn?  
    • Where it was made?  What country?  
    • Who made the product such as a Union or even the brand of the company?
    • Any identification numbers like Lot or Style numbers?
    • Does the label have any care instructions, specifically with clothing?  
    • The font can even help identify if something is truly vintage.

For some context, previous to the 90s, mass-manufactured clothing was made in the U.S.A., usually with a Union tag like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).  Korea, Hong Kong, and the Philippines were other countries that mass-produced apparel starting in the mid-to-late 80s.

“Made in China” is a very reliable sign that your item is not vintage.

The Federal Trade Commission required all clothing manufacturers to include a garment care label as of 1971.  No garment care label? The piece is earlier than in 1971.

  • Identify how it was made and what materials were used.
    • Handmade?  Review the craftsmanship of the product and look for quality.  There should be some noticeable dings or scratches which tell us the product stood the test of time and was well-made.  
    • Metal vs. Plastic?  Depending on the product, metal or steel are better indicators that something is vintage compared to plastic.  
    • Fabrics (natural, man-made, or synthetic) can also be traced to certain decades when first introduced.
  • Styles should align with the period.  
  • Brand and trademark.
    • Look for insignia such as a symbol, stamp, signature, or logo that was used by the brand during that time for further authentication.  

Comparison Chart – Retro vs. Vintage

 Retro Vintage
AgeModern < 20 years20 – 100 years
OriginalityImitationOriginal
RarityCommonRare
ValueRetailValuable
QualityLow-ModerateHigh

Related Questions

Can Something Be Both Retro and Vintage?
A vintage item can technically be both vintage and retro, but a retro item can only be retro.

An example would be a toy car (such as TootsieToy) constructed in say the 1960s that imitated the style or model of another car from the 1950s. 

What is Throwback?
The term Throwback closely resembles the meaning and use of the word retro, compared to vintage.  Throwback is used to describe a characteristic or something from the past. 

It is also common to use throwback to reminisce a moment or event from the past, suddenly, and to showcase that experience with others.   

Example:  Throwback Thursday on social media platforms where users showcase a picture from their past.  #TBT

What is Classic?
Classic is more closely synonymous with the meaning and use of the word vintage, compared to retro.  When something is classic, it is held in the highest regard for its quality and ability to remain popular throughout decades and even centuries.  Classic things are truly unforgettable.  

What is Antique?
When something is classified as an Antique, it was originally crafted and no longer made today.  It will be 100 years of age or older, extremely rare, worth preserving and an absolute treasure from a value perspective.

Mark Plevyak

Thanks for reading! Throwing events can be overwhelming but to me one of the most thrilling and rewarding experiences. Since we all grew up in different decades, we can't always relate to iconic time periods of the past. There is so much to celebrate so if you are thinking of planning an event, plan a Retro one. And, if you're attending a party, ensure you relive it to the fullest. Party Unique!

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