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My day job is business research, so it was easy to find a lot of great sources. A dress with a tiny waist and huge, below-knee skirt screams 1950s, while a slim-fit dress with huge shoulder pads is probably from the 1980s. If your garment has "serged" seams, it probably dates to after the mid-1960s.I read a ton of books and talked to lots of people. See the "Retro Fashion History" and "Vintage Fashion and Art" links below to learn more about silhouettes and see lots of great photos by decade. Serged seams were uncommon before the mid-1960s, when manufacturers began using sergers routinely to finish seams.(1930s fashion show via Wearing History) The 1930s were a time of economic hardship for the majority of North Americans.The Great Depression vastly influenced the fashion industry, in that most families were unable to spend much money on clothing beyond the necessities.Not all of the major companies dated their vintage sewing patterns in the same way.Some placed the dates on the envelopes, some placed the dates on the instruction sheets & others didn't date the patterns at all.Look at the "Exhibits" page on this fabulous website for a decade-by-decade look at vintage dress silhouettes.
Keep in mind, though, that a lack of care label doesn't necessarily mean the piece is older than 1972. And not all clothes were made in the US, obviously. If you're still not sure, you might check out the Vintage Fashion Guild forums.--- However, homemade clothing often doesn't have serged seams, so it can look vintage even if it's not.If your item's seams aren't serged, look for a manufacturer's tag to see if it's commercially made.But a metal zipper in a dress is often a good clue for vintage status.Keep in mind that an old dress could have a plastic zipper if the original one was replaced. If your garment has a sewn-in label stating how to care for it, it was probably manufactured after 1972.