By Karen S. Murray, ISA
How do you describe and identify your collectables and treasures? If you buy a toaster at a flea market, can you call it “vintage”, or just “used”? If you acquire a stunning velvet Elvis portrait, do you view it as “retro” and therefore very valuable? The terms “vintage”, “retro” and “antique” traditionally have very different meanings, but have become a bit muddled in recent years. As Catrin Morris of ApartmentTherapy.com puts it, “An item’s age is a key determinant of its value, considered alongside its condition, quality, and relative rarity. And the age of an item is evaluated not only in terms of its actual date of origin but also in the context of contemporary fashions and socioeconomic trends. For example, in lean economic times there may be nostalgia for decades associated with comfort and stability”. However, nostalgia for “the good old days” really does depend on which good old days you belonged to. Hence, the need for more uniform definitions and distinctions.
It seems as though the term “vintage” is heard more frequently than ever. Whether speaking of household collectables, décor, clothing, jewelry, music or style in general….it is a term that has become very broad and non-specific (and extremely trendy, especially with younger generations). We also hear “retro” a lot, especially when referring to a certain style. And then there’s our oldest (pun intended) friend “antique”, which can also mean different things to different folks. So let’s take a closer look at these three terms.
Merriam Webster defines “Antique” as “a relic or object of ancient times, or a work of art, piece of furniture or decorative object made at an earlier period and according to various customs laws at least 100 years old.” Wikipedia defines it as “an old collectable item. It is collected or desirable because of its age, beauty, rarity, condition, utility, personal emotional connection, and/or unique features. An object that represents a previous era or time period in human society. It is common practice to define antique as applying to objects at least 100 years old”. (An exception to this would be automobiles). Okay, so we can all agree on the one subjective part of these definitions, hopefully. Antiques should be at least 100 years old. This only applies to objects, not people. Those are centenarians, and do not like to be referred to as antiques (or vintage for that matter).
So, that one out of the way, let’s discuss Vintage vs. Retro. According to our word expert, Merriam Webster, “vintage” relates primarily to wine and is an altered form of the French word vendage, meaning “the grapes picked during a season”. One of its secondary definitions is “a period of origin or manufacture”, or, “length of existence: age”. So, the primary use of this word belongs in the wine-making world. It has obviously expanded beyond that a bit and according to The Free Dictionary, as an adjective it means “characterized by excellence, maturity and enduring appeal; classic.” But it also says it can mean “old-fashioned or obsolete”. As well as, “being the best of its kind; choice”, or “of, imitating, or being a style or fashion of the past, retro”. (Our third term! More on that in a minute). Vintage, then, is a bit trickier to define. Generally speaking, most agree that it refers to an object that has age (at least 20 years) and speaks of a certain era or time period. The age stipulation of at least 20 years has been a real focus as of late, because of online sales and the rules of description enforced by sites like Etsy and Ebay for example. You cannot list an item as “vintage” if it was manufactured less than 20 years ago. Some describe items as “vintage style”, but many seem to want to keep it short and sweet with just the one word. This, it seems, has led to much of the confusion. It also gets complicated because as mentioned, we all have differing perspectives. What is considered “vintage” is relative to the time period in which you grew up! Fashion and décor from the 1980’s is often referred to as vintage and the music as “oldies”, but some may disagree (especially if they grew up in the 80’s and don’t consider themselves to be “old”….ahem.). Herein lies the probem….it really can get quite personal and subjective.
The term “Retro” is defined by Merriam Webster as “relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past: fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned” Wikipedia adds that it is an “outdated style that has returned to fashion”. Think of the word “retrospective”, meaning to look back. Perhaps we can say that “retro” refers to a nostalgic look back to a certain style. The word seems to be a more general term referring to the “look” or style of something. A nod to mod; a mad men mood; a throwback to avocado and orange (please no). Retro fashion or decor items can in fact be brand new, but the style is not. Vintage items, on the other hand, have real age. And antiques have even more.
There you have it. Simple!
Now, shall we consider all of the other terms we hear floating about these days? Shabby chic, kitschy, mid-century modern, primitive, farmhouse, minimalist, industrial, granny chic (granny who?). Well, let’s just say…. to each his own and call it a day.