Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Why Can't I Find a 50s Dress That Will Fit Me?

James Galanos, 1955

That's the#1 question I get in my inbox. Other versions are, "Why are the waist sizes on all your 50s dresses so tiny?" or "My measurements are 36-30-37 (or 42-37-44, or 39-33-38). Do you have a 50s dress that will fit me?" In fact, I get this question so often, I am going to address it here for all of you who have been frustrated in your search for an authentic vintage dress.

The fact of the matter is, the industry standard for measurements in the 1950s was a 10" difference between the bust and waist. That means if you find a dress with a 36" bust measurement, 9 times out of 10, that dress will have a waist that measures 26". If you don't have a waist that is 10" smaller than your bust (and believe me, most of us modern women don't), that explains why you're having a difficult time in your search.

So what's a gal to do? Here are some suggestions to help you overcome the obstacles.

#1 - Consider foundation garments.

Yes, a girdle. In the 1950s, every woman wore one nearly every day starting in her teens. If you'd been wearing a girdle from the age of 15 or so, you'd likely have a tiny waist too, as it would have been trained into shape! I've talked about the importance of wearing foundation garments with your vintage dresses before. If your waist is only 1"-2" larger than what it needs to be to fit into that dress, wearing a strong girdle or waist cincher may be just what you need to get that dress to fit. I'm not talking about Spanx or shapewear. They just won't give enough support. Here are some suggestions for finding the correct modern foundation garment for you.

#2 - Consider separates.

If you can't find a dress that will work, consider separates. Look for a vintage skirt that will fit your waist and pair it with a blouse, a knit top, or a jacket that fits your bust. Voila!

#3 - Consider a dress from the 60s instead.

Pierre Cardin, 1966

By the mid-to-late 60s, women were moving away from wearing a girdle at all times, and styles moved to a more relaxed waistline. If there is a 6" or less difference between your bust and waist measurements, your body type may be more suited to a shift or empire waisted style from the 1960s. Try it!

#4 - Have a dress altered to fit you.

Many vintage dresses were made with the understanding that the new owner would have the garment altered for a custom fit. As such, they are often made with sufficient seam allowances to let a dress out at the waist by 1"-2" or more. You can also consider letting out the back darts in the bodice to gain more room, although this sometimes leaves visible needle marks in the fabric. A talented seamstress can add narrow panels into the side seams to let out the waist even more. While an alteration like this is not invisible, it is a workable option if you need to let out a dress more than 3". Before buying, ask the seller how deep the seam allowances are or if there is sufficient fabric in the hem to cut narrow bands for those extra panels.

#5 - Sew your own or have a dress custom made.

Most of the major pattern companies now offer modern reissues of vintage styles. And vintage patterns abound on the web. If you can sew and know how to alter a pattern to fit, making your own dress is a great option. If you are going to use a vintage pattern, you'll likely have to know how to grade the pattern up or down to fit your size. If you can't sew, find a good custom dressmaker in your area to do the job for you.

I hope these suggestions help you in your search! If you have another to add, please post it in the comments!


Jessica Cangiano said...

Hi dear,

Terrific post and points, thanks for putting this article together.

One thing that can also help (if you're looking for a certain set of measurements) is to seek out vintage teen/juniour and (adult) half sizes, as such garments were sometimes cut with different b-w-h ratios than Miss/Adult/Mature sizes were.

As well, vintage shirt waist dresses are are great way to fashionably accommodate a broader range of measurements, as such garments were often gut more generously than many dresses of the 50s (especially in the bust area).

Wishing you a joyful Tuesday,

Ant Queen said...

I was recently cataloging my Australian Home Journals (women's mag that included 3 free patterns). My copies span 1947-1961. In the 40s & 50s, the patterns provided where one size only based on an "average" women's figure of 36" bust 30-31" waist and 40" hip. Then in the 1960s they started including patterns in different sizes, but the ratios also changed. Examples from 1961 are 40-32-43, 36-28-39, and 32-25-35.

I found it fascinating as an insight as to what the magazine publishers considered "average" and also that it appears the "average" figure measurements got slightly more hourglass in the early 60s compared to the 50s, though the shape of the dresses is the reverse!

I'd be interested to know if the sizing methods for patterns were the same as the sizing methods for manufactured garments.

Couture Allure Vintage Fashion said...

Jessica, those are also good suggestions. Junior and half sizes will have a shorter shoulder to waist measurement, though, so buyers will need to watch out for that. Shirtwaists are good options as sometimes the buttons can be moved enough to accommodate a larger waist.

Ant Queen, that is very interesting. I know when I did home sewing in the 60s and 70s, you had to be careful from pattern company to pattern company about sizing and I definitely took a larger size in a pattern than I did in ready-to-wear. I would imagine that standards varied from country to country as well.

Retreauxgirl said...

Great post! This ones a keeper!!

Sandra @ Debutanteclothing.com said...

Great tips!

Erin said...

Great trick to use fabric from the hem to add to the waist. I don't know that I would have thought of that on my own.

Couture Allure Vintage Fashion said...

Thanks Retreauxgirl and Sandra! Glad you enjoyed it!

Erin, I've seen a few dresses alter this way. It's not ideal, but if you "have to have" a certain dress, it could work.

meganockas said...

Another reason is that 'misses' patterns and 'fashion' sizes sport the 10" difference between waist and bust - a leftover from the Victorian 'ideal proportions' waist 10" less than bust hips 2" more than bust. We all knoe the Victorian's urilised corsets to acieve this difference. However 'women's' patterns have allowed for a much thicker waist since the 1930s and possibly earlier.

A corset, worn regularly, can easily offer a 4" waist reduction, which is, roughly, the difference between the 'woman's' and 'misses' sizing...

K.Line said...

This is fantastic info! Do you know you were picked up by Jezebel? http://jezebel.com/#!5773719/why-50s-vintage-clothes-never-fit

Couture Allure Vintage Fashion said...

Thanks K.Line! I wondered why blog hits were through the roof!

Molly M. said...

Great post! I just got my first real foundation garment and I love it! It makes a world of difference and that's even coming from someone with a naturally smaller waist.

Rebeccak said...

I just found this via 'Already Pretty'. I clicked it because this is actually why i LOVE '50s dresses - they fit me!!! They fit me perfectly, when I often find shopping for a dress now days a fraught task - compromising on a too-wide waist, or putting in the time to alter it.

I guess it just goes to show that women are all so differently shaped! If only sizing reflected this!

Rachel said...

Fascinating! I've been frustrated with this myself-- I'm quite petite, and an hourglass by modern stanards, but I can never find '50s dresses that fit my waist while being remotely suitable for my bust.

I'm pretty ignorant about alterations, so I'm curious to know-- would it ever make sense to buy a vintage dress that fits in the waist and have the bust altered down? Or would that be too dicey, what with having to narrow the shoulders and fuss with the sleeves?

Thanks for an interesting article!

Couture Allure Vintage Fashion said...

Molly - So glad you found something that works for you! What brand did you purchase?

RebeccaK - Lucky you! You're right. We're all different and we each have to search to find what works best for us.

Rachel - That type of alteration depends upon how much you need to take the bust in. Anything more than 2"-2 1/2" and you're going to have difficulties with the sleeves, neckline, and shoulders, as well as where the bust point ends up. If the sleeves are cut-in-one with the bodice, this type of alteration is really difficult.

Carrie at In the Hammock Blog said...

Lots of great tips here! Love that 1960s dress!


SMR said...

Ha I am the the opposite! My beloved grandmother blessed me with the genes for a 1950s shape, just happened to come in the wrong decade. Hence why I started making clothes when I was 12 and rarely wore dresses that weren't customized

juliemarg said...

wow this is cool! thanks for sharing it!

Candice Gonsalves said...

If you want to alter something it's always easier to get something that's too big and make it smaller than it is to add to it.

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