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What's the difference between retro and vintage? (or antique for that matter)

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vintage refers to the year wine was made if it's of the same grape harvest and vinyard. retro is a type of thruster on a rocket, to make it slow down. antique is the noise an ant makes when it's surprised. –  Matt Эллен Feb 1 '12 at 20:40
    
Note that the joke got more votes than the highest-scoring answer. :-) –  Jay Feb 2 '12 at 20:18
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5 Answers

up vote 19 down vote accepted

From Merriam-Webster:

retro, adj. : relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past : fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned

vintage, adj.

1 c : of old, recognized, and enduring interest, importance, or quality : CLASSIC, VENERABLE

2 a : marked by an advanced age : dating from the past

You can have new clothing with a retro style that harks back to an earlier era; or you can have vintage clothing that dates from, and was actually manufactured in, that era.

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"Retro" means something patterned after an old style. "Vintage" normally means something that really is old. I think the difference between "vintage" and "antique" is a matter of degree. A 20-year-old chair might be called a "vintage chair"; it wouldn't be called an "antique". A 200-year-old chair would be called an "antique". A chair made in a style that was popular 20 years ago would be "retro". I don't think I've ever heard "retro" used to describe something mimicking a style that was popular hundreds of years ago — it's more like decades.

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"retro" often implies that something is cool and hip, and also old or based on an older-than-current style. Example:

"I love that bright red retro bean-bag chair my mom got in the 1970's!"

"I just bought some awesome retro-style running shoes!"

"Vintage" is used for objects that are usually older than "retro" implies. There is also some implication that the object is classier than if it were retro. Example:

"We bought a vintage armoire at the antique market, and it's in excellent condition".

There's also probably some situations where either word would be appropriate. Was there a specific context you saw that raised this question?

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"Retro" means something done in an intentionally old-fashioned style: A retro 1950s-style mp3 jukebox

"Vintage" means an authentic piece from a specified time period in the past, though not necessarily long ago: A vintage 1978 clock radio

"Antique" refers to something from a long time ago, typically several generations and various defined (in different areas) as 50 to 100 or more years ago: An antique Victrola phonograph

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In my opinion:

"Retro" refers to old styles or designs of objects that were considered cutting-edge in the past, and then fell into disuse, but that are considered "cool" or "hip" again now, due to their historical goodness. Examples of things that are considered retro in some groups are classic cars, clothing from the 1960s, and 3.5" floppy disks.

"Vintage" refers to old, usually mass-produced objects themselves that are relatively recent, but have fallen into total disuse; these objects are valued by today's collectors due to their historical interest. Vintage objects, due to their collectability, are often worth much larger amounts of money now than when they were first retired. Examples of vintage items are Macintosh SE computers, Ford Model T cars, Soviet dolls, and 5.25" floppy disks.

"Antiques" are very old objects that are kept out of historical interest; these are so unuseful and in usually bad shape that they are not often collected, but certain antiques made by notable individuals may be worth considerable sums, as they are very sought-after by museums and historical societies. Antiques are generally one-of-a-kind, as they come from an era before the advent of mass-production. Many antiques, especially antique furniture, is still found in rural communities and trading posts*. Examples of antiques are chests from the 1800s, Ancient Chinese philosophical writings, the Great Pyramids, and 8" floppy disks.

* Yes, there are still trading posts in the world, and even in the United States. There's one down the street from here. Also, I intend no offense to those living in rural communities, as I am in one now, and I both love it and hate it. I hate it only because the Internet is really, really slow.

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