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!