Have you ever wondered how to identify and date a vintage t-shirt? Well today’s your lucky day, because we are going to do a quick run-through of how to verify your shirt is vintage as well as how to figure out the exact date of production! These days more and more sellers are cashing in on the vintage clothing trend by selling modern reproductions and listing them as “vintage” regardless of their age and authenticity. After reading through this post you should be able to get a jump start on telling fake vintage from the legit stuff.

Now, the first thing we need to address is what does “vintage” mean? People will come up with all sorts of definitions to give you, some sellers think stuff from 00’s is vintage while some are in the camp that only pre-80’s clothing is vintage. Personally, I subscribe to the 20-year rule—if it’s at least 20 years old, it’s vintage. So, how do we know if a shirt is 20 years old?

  • Check the sleeves.
  • Check the tag.
  • Check the graphics.

It’s that simple. Keep reading and we’ll give you a break down of each step along with a few photos for good measure:

Check the Sleeves

Single stitch sleeves are commonly found on vintage tees and mostly fell out of production in the mid-90’s. If your shirt has two rows of stitching on the hem of the sleeves (double stitching) it is most likely a modern shirt. If you’re checking a tank top or sleeveless shirt, you can use the bottom hem line on the shirt instead of the sleeve. Single stitch sleeves are also back in style with the rise of interest in retro apparel therefore some current brands are manufacturing shirts with single stitch sleeves for their high end lines as well as throwback lines (e.g. Levi’s Made & Crafted and Levi’s Vintage Clothing). Be sure to check using one of the other methods described to be sure your tee is authentic.

Single Stitch Sleeve (Vintage)

Single Stitch Sleeves on a Vintage T-Shirt

Double Stitch Sleeve (Modern)

Double Stitch Sleeves on a Modern T-Shirt

  

Check the Tag

Clothing tags are by far the easiest way to identify vintage shirts nowadays. If you’re lucky enough to have a legible tag on your tee and know where to look, chances are you can most likely narrow your tees production date down to the decade. If your shirt was made in the USA you have a good chance of it being vintage as most major manufacturers moved production overseas in the mid-90’s. If your tag is printed directly onto the inside of the shirt, it is definitely not vintage so you can stop right here. If you’re shopping online, beware of listings where the tags are super blurry or cut out entirely (of the photo or the shirt). Here are some good options for tag dating:

Check these amazing resources to date your tag:

Trademark Search

Oftentimes the quickest, easiest way to lookup a tags production dates is to check the trademark on the United States Patent and Trademark Office Website. Using just the “Basic Word Mark Search” you can type in the brand name exactly as shown on the tag and browse the results to view photos of the logos using those keywords. Most results will show the “First Use in Commerce” date and all of them will show the date the trademark was applied for as well as the last renewal or the abandonment date (last possible date of production). If you’re willing to dedicate a little time to checking out the results, you’ll be amazed at what you can learn. The only downside is the large number of results certain search terms will produce. You can narrow the results down by doing more advanced searches or formatting your search keywords (using quotation marks for phrases, excluding terms, etc.).

If you can’t find any info in the American trademark database and your shirt was produced in a different country you can also check that country’s government trademark database suing Google Translate. The Canadian Trademark Database comes in handy from time to time. Be wary of the paid search options, you can almost always search for free on government websites.

RN / WPL / CA Number

If you see RN, WPL, or CA followed by a number on your tag, you may be able to use the RN Lookup Website to gather some more info on the manufacturer of your tee using the RN or WPL.

RNs began being issued by the FTC in 1959 with the number 13670. An average of 2,635 RNs were issued per year since, therefore we can estimate the year the company’s RN was issued using some simple math. You can also use this convenient RN Calculator by Independent Market if you prefer. Now, a disclaimer- though the RN can determine the first possible date of production, it does not indicate the last date of production. Therefore- if a shirts RN is estimated to be issued in 1983, it’s still possible the shirt could have been manufactured at a later date.

The CA number is the Canadian version of and RN. The CA Number Lookup actually includes the first date the number was issued, so you don’t even need a calculator with those.

Aside from helping to eliminate modern reproductions, these numbers are also useful for finding out company information if you like to geek out and get super into researching the history of your finds.

Check the Graphics

The rise of direct to garment printing and other quick printing machines gave way to an increase in fake and bootleg vintage tees, not to mention all of the brand new reproductions listed as “authentic vintage” to garner search results. Sometimes fakes are even printed on used, authentic vintage blanks and will give you every reason to think they’re legit. Every time I come across a high-ticket item or a shirt I’m just not 100% sure about I like to do a little online comparison of the graphic. The easiest, quickest way I’ve found is to search Ebay’s Sold Listings (do an Ebay search then click “Sold” on the filter) to see if I can find an authentic comparison for my shirt. I check the copyright or date on the graphic against a legit one, the colors, size, and quality of the print (and back print if present). You can even check tour dates using a tour date archive (useful for dating as well) if necessary.

Take a look at the pictures below. The first is an authentic original Spuds shirt and the second is a fake I got off Depop. The fake doesn't mention Bud Light anywhere, the watch is on the wrong arm, the colors are fewer and different shades, the shading is different, there's no copyright, and the quality of the print is sub par. The list could go on and on though to someone unfamiliar with Spuds gear they may not even notice it's a fake without a comparison. Add in the fact the fake was printed on a single stitch tank without a tag and you've got a pretty convincing "vintage" tank top.

Vintage Spuds Mackenzie Bud Light Print (Authentic)

Vintage Spuds Mackenzie T-Shirt

Spuds Mackenzie Reproduction Print (Fake)

Fake Bootleg Vintage Spuds Mackenzie T-Shirt

If you have the tee in front of you, run your fingers over the print and see if you can feel it. Graphics that have been printed using screen printing will sit on top of the fabric rather than absorb completely into the fabric and are most likely authentic. They will sometimes look like they have been painted on to the shirt. (Side note: Spuds Mackenzie vintage shirts often used a "puffy print" to create a 3d effect and is a sure sign of authenticity.) Modern printing machines will produce ink that is more readily absorbed into the fabric and you will likely not be able to feel the print with your eyes closed.

Close Up of an Authentic, Vintage 1982 The Clash Shirt

Close Up of an Authentic 1982 The Clash Vintage Band T-Shirt

Well folks, there you have it. Hopefully if you’ve reached this point you have a slightly better grasp on how vintage tees are dated and can now successfully determine if your vintage shirt is authentic. Feel free to comment or message with any questions you may have or helpful hints to add. We want to hear from you! Be sure to subscribe to our mailing list if you haven’t already for great deals and news about future blog posts. 

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