Women's Clothing by Decade: Vintage Style and Body Shape, Part I
Clothing made prior to the 1920s is considered to be antique rather than vintage. Items from so long ago are rarely in perfect condition, and have to be handled very carefully. Such pieces are likely to be purchased by specialist collectors, museums and designers seeking inspiration for their collections.
Apart from condition, a major consideration when buying preloved garments is the variation in sizing. One of the main concerns people have when ordering vintage clothing to wear is whether or not it is going to fit. A lot of older pieces come up on the small side. To some extent, there’s a correlation between how old the item is and its size. Victorian clothing, which may have been corseted, is likely to be extremely small waisted. However, some garments from the early 20th century are much more forgiving.
In this post, I share some of the things I have learned about vintage dress sizing, and how garment shapes through the decades may suit different body shapes today.
1910s - Art, Craft and Less Corseting
Most suited to: Slim women with small waists, or medium to large sized women, depending on the type of garment.
Least suited to: Women with broad backs, or thick waists.
One of the most timeless and easy to wear pieces in any wardrobe is the simple duster, or cocoon coat. This type of design tends to suit all sizes, and these coats can be worn open to detract from a larger bust, or if the sides won’t quite meet together. It is important to make sure the garment fits across the shoulders, but this is usually not a problem in view of the looser, more slouchy cut of such coats. It is more likely that those with smaller frames may appear slightly swamped by the cocoon coat. Though the duster has become popular over jeans as an oversized, floaty addition to vest tops, or t-shirts. If the coat has a high or feathered collar all the better for older ladies, as this will definitely flatter your neck. Alternatively, for dressy occasions, vintage opera capes are perfect for making an entrance, and suitable for all sizes.
Edwardian dresses are not so fitted as their heavily corseted predecessors, but may still come up small, especially across the back and under the bust/armpit area. If you are able to find dresses from this era that are still in good enough condition to wear, it is essential to check the measurements as the garments are unlikely to be sized. Also remember that these pieces will not have zips, and hooks and eyes may be missing, so you may need to carry out some repairs.
If you have an hourglass figure, the Edwardian dress may be for you, but only if you are exceptionally slim. The 'Gibson Girl' look favoured athletic body shapes, but waists were still small and often corseted. Some blouses may be loose around the bust area, and tied behind the waist, which may work for medium sizes too.
1920s - Flapper Dresses and Freedom of Movement
Most suited to: Small breasted, slim women, with straight, athletic torsos.
Least suited to: The hourglass figure.
If, as some say, we are returning to the Roaring Twenties, I am praying we don’t return to wearing flapper dresses. Flapper dresses are ideal for very slim, small breasted women. They are perfect for adolescent girls and those with the physique of Twiggy. Even Kate Moss would probably not look that great in a straight sided, knee length dress.
If worn belted, this was usually below waist. For anyone with a waist and/or larger hips, these dresses can be very unflattering. Large busted women should be reminded that, in the 1920s, flappers taped over their breasts to accommodate the style.
Some 1920s styles were longer and included bodice panels that were a little more flattering for larger sizes. The 1930s was a much more inclusive time for female dress.
1930s - Hollywood Glamour and the Bias Cut Dress
Most suited to: Both slim and curvaceous women.
Least suited to: Those with saddlebag thighs and/or bulging tummies.
This was the era of Hollywood style. Bias cut evening dresses, often in silks, satins and metallic thread fabrics, are especially suited to taller, statuesque and athletic frames. However, bigger busts and gently rounded tummies can be accommodated by these flattering styles too, even if many vintage dresses are small around the back. If you are large waisted, it may be an idea to look for looser fitting garments from this era, which could be worn unbelted - though belts were quite popular at this time.
Another common textile of the era was crepe, some dresses were made in plain thick crepe, and floral tea dresses were often made from a lighter version of this fabric. Floral fabrics tend to suit slimmer ladies, but because of the length of the dresses, and commonly gathered or cross-over v-neck bodice design, a lot of the styles are flattering for larger sizes too. If they are in good condition and there is enough fabric, it may be possible to alter a dress and let out the seams.
1940s - Utility Chic and the New Look
Most suited to: Hourglass and broad shouldered/narrow hipped shapes.
Least suited to: Large waisted women.
During the war, when food was rationed, women's sizes were still considerably smaller than today. Whilst shoulder-padded garments drew attention to the upper torso, the fitted and tailored nature of much clothing from this era makes it smaller than it looks. It is likely that any size indications will be several sizes smaller than those of today. Whilst looser-waisted day dresses can be found, most dresses, skirts and trousers from the era are very small waisted, meaning that these styles (even the military uniforms) tend to suit slim, hourglass figures. However, 1940s coats and cardigans are wearable by a wider range of sizes than the fitted jackets of the day.
1950s - The Prom Dress, Swing Coats and Pencil Skirts
Most suited to: Hourglass shapes and narrow-backed, bustier ladies.
Least suited to: Large waisted women.
Whilst prom style dresses with narrow waists and full circle skirts may suit those with wider hips, later shapes from this era were more pencil-skirted. This was the ultimate era of hourglass dressing, with icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Gina Lollobrigida for inspiration. Women wore foundation wear in the form of girdles and pointed bras under their clothing to achieve the look. However there were also more gamine, balletic icons, like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. Straighter shapes from this era include Chanel suits, and roomy loose-fitting shirts (though these were worn with high and small waisted trousers or skirts). Evening dresses from this time are notoriously small, so do not be alarmed if your vintage size is two sizes above your current size. 1950s swing coats and evening jackets are more forgiving, but you may wish to avoid this style if your bust is on the larger size.
What's Your Decade?
When making preloved purchases, it is advisable to carefully read the measurements provided, along any tips from the seller. At ShopCurious, we use our mannequins to try to estimate the current size of vintage garments. Over time, you will get to know which decade(s) most suit your shape, but we are always here to help. You are welcome to email us and request additional information, for instance to find out if there is any room in the seams or hem for alteration if necessary, or simply to ask our advice regarding your particular requirement.
Coming Soon in part II, the 1960s to Y2K and the Noughties.