Victorian, Vintage, or Retro: What’s in a Name?

From Ebay to Etsy and everywhere in between, the terms “vintage”, “Victorian”, and “retro” are thrown about with reckless abandon. But what do they really mean? Sellers tend to use the words interchangeably it seems, but there really is a difference between the three, based mostly on time periods of history.

Retro-inspired beaded ribbon bookmark with polka dots a la Lucille Ball.
Retro-inspired beaded ribbon bookmark with polka dots a la Lucille Ball.

Going in reverse chronologically, the first term, “retro”, short for “retrospective”, means simply to look backwards. In the buying and selling world, retro usually refers to those items made or popular during the 1950’s-1990’s. They were styles or toys you might have lived through and loved, or at least your parents did.

Stereotypical ’50’s style included polka dot patterns and somewhat simple jewelry. This was the era of sparkling brooches/pins, pearl choker necklaces, and button earrings! 60’s style retained the love of pearls, but began to transition to larger pieces (especially bracelets), and more metallics, while the 70’s emphasized big, bold colors, natural items like wood and feathers, and lots of danglies. The 80’s went neon, layered, and geometric and the 90’s emphasized simple symbols to reflect the wearer’s personality.

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Charm bracelet made with vintage buttons.

Next up, vintage style generally has in mind items from the early 1900’s to the 1950’s, but some will stretch it into the mid-1960’s as well. During this 50 years, Americans went through The Roaring Twenties, The Great Depression, and nearly everyone on Earth endured two world wars.

Some of the trends of these eras include the 1920’s/Art Deco/Great Gatsby which featured necklaces and hairpieces that were long, layered, and sparkly to emphasize elegance and modern sophistication. At the same time, costume jewelry made from plastics was introduced, allowing a wider variety and cheaper array of jewelry choices. The 1930’s saw jewelry that was much simpler due to The Great Depression and WWI, but pieces also tended to have international flair inspired from the East. During the 1940’s, jewelry retained their simplicity, but included more florals, brighter colors, and plastics.

Victorian inspired necklace made with vintage beads.

“Victorian Style” refers to the fashion sense of a specific time period: the reign of Queen Victoria of England, from 1837-1901. This was the era of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Sherlock Holmes, and Oscar Wilde, but it was also the Age of the American Pioneers. This style is characterized by simple choker necklaces of velvet with Cameo figurines, intricate collar necklaces with dripping beads, relatively simple earrings, and the color black.

*Bonus! “Steampunk” is a modern style inspired by popular films and TV shows that is an interesting cross between Victorian, Gothic, and modern fashions. Gears, watches (especially pocket watches), antiqued metals, and goggles in addition to the aforementioned Victorian preferences sets Steampunk style apart.

Read more about vintage style:

Read more about the history of jewelry:

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