Vintage Fashion: Ask Miss Vivian DuBois, Part II

by Crystal Cook

Dear Miss Vivian,

Vintage clothes can be lovely, but the sizes are confusing- and buying online is totally intimidating. What  is your secret for finding vintage clothes that fit as if they were made for you?

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Oh, Kittens- Miss Vivian feels your pain! Many’s the time she has pulled a frothily lovely vintage frock off the rack and squealed with delight to find it her size, only to face debilitating and demoralizing defeat when it barely fits over her head, to say nothing of her voluptuous curves. All part of the joy and heartbreak of loving and living vintage, Kittens! But never fear: armed with a bit of information and a measuring tape, this need never happen to you!

First, we simply must get one thing straight: garment sizing has changed significantly over the decades. Vintage clothing may run as much as six sizes smaller than a comparable modern garment. Six sizes! Why? I’m so glad you asked, Kittens! First of all, we are getting larger as a species. In the 1940s the average woman was 5’2”, 129 pounds. These days the average gal is 5’4” and weighs 145 pounds; not a huge difference, but it accounts for a size or two, at least. In addition, there is no standardization in US sizing, so similar garments in the same size from different stores or brands may fit completely differently. And just to confuse matters, clothing manufacturers realized they could sell more of their product if the tag had a smaller number, regardless of the actual dimensions of the garment. Voila- vanity sizing was born! Honestly Kittens, would you buy a pair of dungarees in a “size 10”, when you could get the identical pair in a “size 6”? Miss Vivian thought not!

What to do, what to do? Below, Miss Vivian bestows upon you her golden rules of shopping vintage for the perfect fit!

1.) If you can try it on, for Pete’s sake Kittens- try it on! This is Miss Vivian’s number one rule for vintage (or any other kind of) shopping. Granted, vintage and thrift stores are not known for their luxurious accommodations; their dressing rooms are often not for the faint of heart. But gird your loins and give a go, Kittens! You’ll save yourself tears in the long run.

2.) Know what styles work for you body, generally. For example, if you are blessed with a voluptuous hour glass figure (like your humble blogger), the 1950s is a treasure trove of nipped in waists and forgivingly full skirts. If you sport the slender, slim-hipped look, how lucky you are: the 20s and 60s offer sartorial splendor that only the gorgeously boyish can embrace! Experiment, and figure out what looks good on YOU.

3.) Don’t get hung up on the writing on the tags. Like age, size is just a number, Kittens! Approach vintage with an open mind, knowing full well that things were different in the way-back-when. Give it a whirl; if it doesn’t fit, blame the dress rather than your lovely body, and move on. (And for my sisters who were designed on a generous scale: a.) you “have qualities which littleness can never possess”, and b.) it can be a bit more difficult to find vintage in our size, but it is by no means impossible, as Miss Vivian’s positively bulging closets can attest!)

4.) Buy, and use, a measuring tape. Vintage stores can be pricy, and with the rise of the internet seller, it can be virtually impossible to find vintage in thrift stores these days. That leaves buying on-line. I know, Kittens, it’s a bit scary, and it directly contradicts Miss Vivian’s first rule of vintage shopping. But… if you know your measurements, you can buy with confidence. Here’s how: in the nude, (or a well-fitting bra), measure around the fullest part of your bust, your natural waist, and the biggest part of your hips. Keep the tape level and firm, but don’t pull; there should not be indentations in your fabulous form. Now, add at least two inches in the bust and hips, and at least one to one and a half inches in the waist; this wiggle room is critical for fit! These are the numbers you’re looking for when you surf for pretty things on-line. Miss Vivian finds it best not to negotiate with these numbers, no matter how divine the garment, unless you are- or know- an excellent seamstress (in which case you know these rules already).

5.) Understand how measurements are used in vintage selling. Most sellers will provide the three measurements we discussed above: bust (which may also be labeled “armpit to armpit”), waist, and hip. When skirts are voluminous rather than fitted, the hip measurement may be listed as “full.” Occasionally, sellers will add total length, or length from shoulder to waist; these can be important if you are particularly tall, or very long- or short-waisted. It is customary for sellers to measure a garment flat, in which case you will have to double the measurement given to find the actual size of the piece. If you aren’t certain or need additional information, it is well within accepted etiquette to contact the seller and ask.

So, Kittens, now you too can find the dress of your dreams or the frock of your fantasies! Miss Vivian would be lying if she claimed she has never splashed out on a lovely vintage piece, only to find, upon receiving the package, that it didn’t quite fit. However, the successes far outnumber the failures these days, and the pay-off is a completely unique, utterly fabulous wardrobe! Happy shopping, Kittens!

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