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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.
And a newer item with a metal zipper could have been homemade. The US government started requiring full care labels that year, and many clothes made before then did not have them.
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.
This is an outstanding study resource, featuring tons of beautiful photos of vintage dresses from museums around the world.
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.
Since then, I've practiced on hundreds and hundreds of items. I've also included other sources to contact at the bottom of the page. Older garments also sometimes had very large seams to allow for alterations.
They might also be finished by "pinking," or cutting with zig-zag scissors.