Even if you are illiterate in the ways of design and pop culture, you probably know that the terms vintage and retro refer to old, outdated, or throwback things, and you may think that they are interchangeable. However, the truth is a little more complicated than that.
While the terms Vintage and Retro are closely related, they are most definitely not the same, and shouldn’t be used interchangeably. Not if you want to sound like you know what you are talking about, anyway.
Today we are going to explain precisely the difference between these two popular, yet highly misunderstood terms.
What Is The Difference Between Vintage And Retro?
Vintage items are always old, generally, 40 years or more, whereas retro is more about a style. Something made today can still be considered retro if it is made in a retro style. With vintage, this is not the case.
Let’s take a closer look at the definition of vintage and retro, how they are used in today’s vocabulary, and where the term “antique” fits into all of this.
What Is Vintage?
Vintage items are typically recognized as representative pieces of the predominant style in the period in which they were manufactured.
Although the term vintage is of particular importance to the world of wines, in this conversation it refers to items that possess intrinsic value but that are not old enough to qualify as antiques.
The vintage aesthetic has gained massive popularity over the last few decades thanks to the fact that many celebrities and fashion houses have fully embraced it.
Vintage, as a movement, has been called a “postmodern manifestation of a culture which no longer believes in progress and that sees innovation in the modern era impossible”. In other words, vintage is heavily laden with nostalgia or even anemoia.
However, vintage is often devoid of ties to any specific meaning, which is the reason why vintage items from different eras can sit side by side in perfect harmony.
Function and reason have little influence on a vintage design, so if you are fond of vintage style, don’t be shy. Vintage encompasses objects and accessories of a multitude of styles and periods, and this allows you to create unique and highly personalized expressions of your identity.
Inside the vast world of vintage items, you can find photographs, cars, clothing, shoes, books, musical instruments, video game consoles, cameras, comics, toys, sports memorabilia, china sets, lunch boxes, typewriters, etc.
As long as these items are found in good quality and are, at least 40 years old, they can be considered vintage. Vintage items can be sought after for a variety of reasons such as monetary value, historical significance, aesthetic attraction, functional practicality, or a combination of all of these things.
For example, vintage clothing items from the early 1900s can be sought for their subjective beauty, objective value, and even usefulness. The same can be said for old books like Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne which is still read in high schools everywhere
While vintage items from the last 100 years are popular amongst those who seek out this sort of thing, items from the Roaring 20s and the 70s are some of the most popular.
Today, vintage culture is continuously expanding with people across widely different age groups and social groups actively collecting vintage items and even molding their entire personalities around the concept.
Rooms and even whole houses are decorated in vintage styles, with furniture and other objects from various eras used in conjunction to achieve a particular aesthetic expression. Some people will even go so far as to “move” their entire lives into a vintage world, surrounding themselves in all kinds of vintage bric-a-brac, collectibles, etc.
Around the world, vintage-themed conventions are held for people to gather and share their love for vintage, as well as flaunt their collections.
The term Vintage is often confused with the similarly-themed Retro. Understandably so, as they both relate to the past. However, they are not the same at all.
What is Retro?
Retro is used to describe items or style that is 20 years or older. The term is especially popular when referring to design, fashion, or art.
The term retro can also be used as a decorative resource whose intention is to rescue or revive a style from the past. To do this, retro uses objects that evoke other times, with style and design language from the time it intends to revitalize, but that does not necessarily belong to it.
Thus, an environment decorated in retro style can make ample use of antiques and vintage pieces, but it can also rely entirely on new objects.
In other words, while vintage items are wholly original, retro items are simply inspired by the styles and aesthetic tastes of the past.
You should think of retro as a celebratory reinterpretation of an old concept or design.
Where did Retro Come From?
According to most historians, the concept of retro as a reference to new creations that aim to emulate and celebrate particular motifs, manufacturing techniques, trends, and styles of the past, emerged sometime during the 1960s.
It is very important to understand that Retro is not a romantic historicism that aims to revitalize the deep past. The style of retro is mainly concerned with the recent past and focuses on concepts, styles, and designs from the mid to late 20th century.
As such, retro items tend to focus on the creations, fashions, attitudes, and artistic expressions produced over the last 30 to 40 years. You can say that this is one of the defining differences between vintage and retro.
Curious Fact: The word retro derives from a Latin prefix, which means backward, or from past times.
Over the last few decades, but especially starting with the 1980s, the concept of retro items has undergone an expansion that now encompasses all kinds of media. As a result of this expansion and transformation, we now have retro graphic design, retro fashion, retro interior design, retro music (one of my favorite artists is Fm-84, which focuses on 80s-themed synth-wave and pop), retro art, retro video games (one of the most popular genres), retro television, and even retro food.
One particularly interesting expression of the retro mind frame is Retrofuturism.
The Retrofuturistic school of thought specializes in exploring the dynamics and tension between the old and the new. This dynamic is deeply informed by a profound longing for a utopian future that “could have been”. Perfect examples of retrofuturism include popular genres of fiction such as steampunk or cyberpunk.
Chiptune, an increasingly popular electronic music genre that emphasizes synthesized soundscapes by using sound chips from old video game consoles and arcade systems, is a very creative manifestation of retrofuturism.
What about Antiques?
We cannot in good faith have a conversation about the difference between vintage and retro, without talking for a bit about antiques.
What are Antiques?
Antiques are items that, through their historical significance and aesthetic appeal, have a perceived value to collectors and design enthusiasts.
Most experts agree that to be considered an authentic antique, an object has to have at least 100 years of history. However, age is not the only criteria to consider when evaluating an antique.
Besides chronological age, other factors such as state of conservation, usefulness, uniqueness, character, significance, and design.
To some degree, the interplay of all these factors will determine whether or not a particular piece becomes a coveted object of desire for antique collectors. Keep in mind that while they can pop up at secondhand stores and shops, outside of museums and antique showrooms, it is not very common to find true antiques.
Is it Vintage or Retro or Antique?
People all over the world confuse the terms vintage, retro, and antique because they are, in essence, very similar concepts. However, the ways in which they differ are very pointed and, ultimately, very important to highlight.
Vintage items are authentic pieces that belong to a by-gone era, yet retain value in the eyes of many people. A perfect example of a vintage item is a fully-restored Cadillac from the 1930s or a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses from the 50s or 60s.
Retro can be old or newly manufactured product developed to celebrate and reinvigorate past concepts and designs. An example of a retro item is Nintendo’s Super NES Classic Edition, a fully functioning NES system that looks and feels just like the original console, that comes preloaded with some of the company’s most popular games of the 90s.
Antiques are very old items that possess significant historical value. Examples of true antiques include pieces of furniture from an ancient Chinese dynasty, or a map used by the Dutch West India Company to navigate Atlantic trade routes during the 1600s.
In terms of popularity, I would say that Retro is the most popular in the mainstream. This is likely because “new” retro items are significantly cheaper than authentic vintage wares.
Vintage items are a bit more niche than retro items, which makes them a bit more pricey. However, even the most expensive vintage fare pales in comparison to the price of a legitimate, unique, and rare antique.