Rare, Vintage, Retro? or just Old?

Rare Vintage Retro

I have two great loves in my life – sports and music.  Okay, three, if you count my wife and kids. 

The Who just kicked off a tour to celebrate 55 years in the music business.  In 1994, I bought a four CD set, celebrating the 30 years career of The Who.  With the set came a t-shirt – The Who – Thirty Years of Maximum R&B.  It’s still in my closet.  Soft as silk from years of washing.  The jet black is faded a little, but it’s still primo.  Vintage? Definitely vintage.  Rare?  Probably.  Retro?  Absolutely.

I’ve been a Buffalo Bills fan since their debut in 1960.  I’ve got a sweatshirt I’ve had for over twenty years.  Faded, lettering worn out, starting to get a little threadbare.  It doesn’t get much use here in Texas, but I break it out when I can in the winter.  Vintage?  Not likely.  Rare?  Maybe.  Retro?  No likely, either.

So, what’s the difference between these two shirts?  Both over twenty years old.  Both have that faded, distressed look that vintage and retro shirts should have.  Why do I think of one as retro and the other as not?  Let’s come back to that in a few minutes.

Let’s talk about vintage first.  I think there are a few mandatory elements before something can be considered vintage.  Old is a given; if it’s not old it can’t be vintage.  That doesn’t mean you can only buy used clothes to get a vintage look.  The look is old, not necessarily the product.  But, conversely, just because it’s old does not mean it is vintage. 

Think about cars as an example – a 1965 Ford Falcon and a 1965 Ford Mustang.  Or maybe a 1965 Corvette.  All old.  But all vintage?  Hell, no!  To me, vintage needs value and authenticity; otherwise it’s just old.  To take it a step further, it has to be a symbol of the era in which it was born.  The word “iconic” is overused, but I think it applies as we talk about vintage.  If you ask pretty much anyone to name vintage 1960s cars, I pretty much guarantee one of those two will come up.  I doubt you will hear the Falcon on the list.

So vintage t-shirts?  What qualifies?  Some jump right out for me.  If it’s a band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, by (my) definition, the t-shirt is vintage.  Product advertising shirts?  Possibly.  Jack Daniels logo, for sure.  Budweiser?  Not so sure.  Cartoon characters?  Smurfs or Smiley face.  No.  Mighty Mouse or Rocky and Bullwinkle.  Yes.  Movies, records, television – the Jaws shark, anything Woodstock, The Rolling Stones tongue and lips logo.  You get the picture.  Shop around on this site, and you’ll definitely get the picture. 

So, if that’s vintage, what is retro?  The retro look is fairly easily defined.  Something faded, maybe even distressed a little.  Old-fashioned immediately comes to mind.  Retro might be the little brother of vintage.  Take away the iconic stature of vintage, and you probably end up with retro.  Bring something out of the past; if it’s currently cool, possibly even culturally relevant, definitely needs to be recognizable, then it most likely is retro.  At its simplest, I guess you can say retro is new stuff, inspired by and drawn from the past.

Here’s a differentiator for you.  Pre-washed, stone washed, faded, ripped jeans.  You see them everywhere today.  I grew up wearing faded, ripped jeans.  But they weren’t bought that way – I made them that way from my day to day activities.  So, does that mean the jeans you see today are retro?  Not in my mind – it’s a new culture, a new style, not an old one.  Not retro.  Certainly not vintage.

John Sandford, the author of the immensely popular “Prey” series of novels, introduced a spin-off series featuring Virgil Flowers.  Virgil is a long-haired, cool, laid back country boy, but deadly in his cop role.  Think Mathew McConaughey in central casting.  This character only wears old rock and roll and Indie band t-shirts.  Definitely retro. 

Clothes from the disco era could be considered retro, but definitely not vintage.  NFL throwback uniforms are definitely retro.  Are they vintage?  Here’s where we get into the personal side of vintage.  To a fan, a uniform worn today that looks like the 50-year-old uniform is probably vintage.  To a non-fan, it’s just another piece of clothing. 

So, swing back to my two shirts – The Who and the Bills.  My Bills shirt is pretty special to me, but, unless you’re also a Bills fan, you wouldn’t look twice if I walked by.  So, without that cultural relevance, I don’t think you can call it vintage, or even retro.  It might be rare, but only because it’s just old.  This causes me pain to admit it, but it’s just an old sweatshirt.

Now over to The Who t-shirt.  Absolutely culturally relevant.  These guys have been doing it for over 50 years and are still rocking the world.  Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of fans.  Definitely an iconic musical act.  That boxed set, and the t-shirt that came with it, were the culmination of their (at the time) thirty-year history.  That t-shirt is emblematic of their career and their musical influence.  It is surely both vintage and retro.  So, this is, admittedly, one man’s opinion.  T-Shirts make a statement about you.  They can be a way to express your opinions, your individuality, your personality.  Retro and vintage are just words, and subjective ones at that.  But find that special t-shirt here, the one that speaks not only to you, but to everyone who sees it, and you’ll know what vintage and retro really represent.

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