Reader Request: Styling Era-specific Items

Tips for making past-era clothing and accessory styles look modern and updated.

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Reader Krysta posted this question in a comment:

I’d love to see a feature where you give suggestions on how a “dated” item – a sweater duster, a superfringey bag/jacket, etc. – could be styled/worn so that it reads less “dated” and more “updated.” Or something. We all have items we love that look like their year of provenance, and minimizing that look would be useful and interesting…

So. For starters, there’s a fine line between pieces that are recognizably retro, like this vintage printed dress:

And pieces that will potentially read as dated, like this 90s-reminiscent duster cardigan:

So what makes an item recognizably vintage? Depends who you ask, I’ve found, and I’m sure some purists will balk at my definition. But if you’re asking me, vintage clothing is at least two well-defined eras old. So, for instance, I think of 90s style as the most recent previous era, which means that 80s clothing is now vintage by my standards. (Frightening, I know.) Anything older than 80s also qualifies too, of course. In my experience, an item is more likely to seem “dated” if it is from a very recent but distinctly past era of style. So the era in question here is the 90s, and to some extent the 00s though many of the styles from that decade are still prevalent (low rise jeans, tunics and leggings, flip flops, etc.). However, some showy vintage items – like the fringe purse that Krysta mentioned – may also look dated if worn in certain contexts. So let’s take a peek at some ways to style era-specific items:

Seek updated details

Maxi skirts hearken back to the 1970s and some of them will visually recall that decade. But seeking versions that have modern details can make all the difference. Maxis made from cotton voile, styled with tiers and/or ruffles, and featuring drawstrings or embroidery are more likely to seem dated. Paneled and full versions in solid colors or featuring modern prints, columnar versions in rich textures, and pleated versions in diaphanous fabrics will all seem very current. Of course, this piece of advice will only help if you’re considering purchasing a new item that you fear might look dated. Doesn’t help with pieces languishing in your closet already! In those cases, you could:

Switch up silhouettes

Already Pretty outfit featuring purple draped cardigan, notch neck tunic, ponte pants, Frye Harness 12R, Infrared Studio skull earrings

Naturally, the main trick to updating older items is to style them in modern ways. Here’s another sweater duster – not quite the ankle-length, open-weave style we favored back in the 90s, but definitely longer than the average “boyfriend” style cardi you’ll see on the racks at the Gap.

So! Long cardi. If I wanted to make it look dated, I’d have paired it with a graphic tee, flare jeans, and combat boots. To make it seem contemporary, I went for a more modern silhouette with a tunic, leggings, and harness boots. Consider pant rise, skirt hem length, waist/belt placement, and heel height as potential factors when choosing how to style your era-specific items. Also consider garment shapes: Leg styles for pants, fullness for skirts and dresses, tapering and shaping for tops. Many garments that can look dated won’t if they’re put into a mix of items that create an updated, modern silhouette.

Go classic

Here we have the “baby tee,” a 90s staple that has since been replaced by other t-shirt styles. I absolutely refuse to give up my baby tees since they are made from ribbed cotton and have actual shaping to them, while many modern styles mask my waist completely. How do I keep this tee from looking unbearably dated? Well, for starters, it’s not cropped, so the silhouette has been updated from the 90s. But it’s also a plain, classic white. It’s worn with a rather wild skirt, but in a timeless, pleated, full shape that works with my curves. It’s paired with summer standby espadrilles. An era-specific piece mixed with more classic items will generally look updated.

Utilize contrasting pieces

Already Pretty outfit featuring floral corduroy blazer, maroon tank, cognac belt, mustard skirt, cognac pumps

That’s a pretty loud, vintage jacket there, is it not? Paired with some flared cords and a peasant blouse it would give a very different impression. But in this mix with my flared skirt (classic) and fitted top (modern), balance is created. Attempting to mix personality-laden pieces from multiple eras can get dicey; An oversized 80s blazer might look off paired with a pair of glam, 70s platform sandals. But using one item as the centerpiece among more subdued but contrasting pieces is easier; Try the same blazer with a silky blouse (classic) and skinny jeans (trendy), and a more modern outfit is born.

Mix with current trends

Check me out: I’m in a poncho. And I don’t look like I’m about to head to Woodstock. My cage sandals and drapey silk pants both draw upon recent trends, and drag that poncho kicking and screaming into modern times. If you want to wear high-waisted, pleated pants add a polka dot blouse, chunky necklace, and wooden wedge sandals to the mix. If you want to wear an oversized plaid shirt, do it with skinny jeans and ballet flats. Sprinkling recent trends into an outfit can keep era-specific items from looking dated.

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details. Sustainable options are either used, handmade, made in the U.S., artisan made in non-sweatshop conditions, or made using sustainable/fair trade practices.

Originally posted 2012-03-26 06:20:57.

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14 Responses to “Reader Request: Styling Era-specific Items”

  1. LK

    I wish the shorter t-shirts would come back. I’m so tired of getting shirts that come half way down my thighs. You can’t tuck them in and, unless you’re really tall, they cut you in an odd place. I end up having to cut and hem mine.

    • Sal

      I know, LK, I feel the same way. I hem mine, too, but I’ve also started buying petite tees and tops occasionally. They’re still a smidge too long, but definitely shorter than most.

  2. Katie

    Great, informative post today! I loved the look with the baby t! Perfect for spring 🙂

  3. Lili @ Relatable Style

    Thank you for this informative post 🙂 I wear a lot of classic stuff (or so I think) so the need to update something doesn’t happen to me often, nevertheless I devoured this. You never know, right? 😉

  4. Anne

    This post is so helpful. I’ve noticed lately that I seem to be buying clothing that despite being new, skews vintage. (shirt waist dresses, full skirts flared jeans) I’ve been concerned about coming off as “costumey” so these tips will be a big help.

  5. Marie

    I try to always include a modern twist into my vintage favorites. Love this advice and hope it encourages everyone to keep loving their vintage! I also have a modern hairstyle that I think helps keep me out of an “era” costume when I wear a decidedly vintage dress.
    Marie @ Lemondrop ViNtAge

  6. Krysta

    Ooh ooh that’s my question, yay thank you! You are so good at this–both at the style thing, and at explaining your process.

    • Krysta

      Hello there, fellow Krysta! When I saw the start of the post, my first thought was “why did I ask that?” LOL

  7. hellotampon

    I have trouble with this sometimes. For example, years ago I bought several 70s dresses from the thrift store. They’re 100% polyester in crazy, brightly colored patterns. One has this great fit-and-flare silhouette that fits me perfectly and most of the others were maxi dresses. I hemmed the maxi dresses up to above the knee, which made them look a lot more contemporary, but sometimes it’s still hard to pair them with anything without the outfit looking like a period costume. I think if you’re drawn to something of a certain era, it’s because you LIKE the style from that era so naturally you’re going to think it looks good with other stuff that was worn with it…. and then you end up with a costume. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten frustrated trying to figure out what shoes go with my lime/bright pink/purple dress! I’ll definitely be consulting these tips!

  8. christine

    where oh where did you get the beautiful skirt in the baby tee pic????? Its absolutely lovely!!!

  9. Marsha Calhoun

    If being “dated” is the worst thing about anything I wear, I count my blessings. I don’t think I’ll ever figure out why something is supposed to stop looking good after X amount of time has passed – what does the passage of time have to do with how it looks (not counting figure shifts or mechanical issues such as material deterioration)? If I like it, I like it. I am striving to develop the courage to wear what I like rather than wear something whose major appeal is that it isn’t (yet) dated.

  10. Erin

    I’ve given in, and accepted that my style skews a bit costume-y. And I love it.