Friday, January 15, 2010

Measurements and Body Proportion

Shopping for vintage on the web can be daunting, especially when it comes to determining size. You need to know both your own measurements and how to compare them to the ones pertaining to the garment of interest. Online dealers usually give a number of measurements, the most common being Bust - Waist - Hip. Some are more thorough and will include sleeve and hem lengths as well as shoulder width but there is one fitting issue that very few dealers think to address and that is proportion.

Proportions vary from person to person and they also change as we age even if our measurements stay the same. Some of the common proportion issues that vintage shoppers run into are longer or shorter waists, lower or higher bust lines, longer or shorter limbs and the rise or crotch line for pants. Age changes our proportions. Girls in their teens and early twenties often have higher, smaller bust lines, smaller rib cages and more narrow waists. As we age our necks and upper arms can become thicker and some people actually loose height in their torsos, shortening their waist length. Manufacturers have been creating clothing with age specific proportions for decades so it helps to know if a vintage garment was cut for a Junior or a Misses market.
To make things even more complicated, each era had it's own proportion aesthetics. Pants from the 1950s and 60s have a really long rise which puts the waist up much higher than we are used to in modern clothing. Dresses from the same era have high bust lines as opposed to the 1930s when the bust point was quite low. The 1970s tended towards narrow shoulders and we all know about the exaggerated 80s shoulder line. I cover a lot of this in my book The Little Guide to Vintage Shopping but to start you off here are a few tips to help you with two of the most common proportion issues.

1950s Junior proportion dress with small, high bust and shorter waist

The most common issue I have noticed is waist placement on dresses with a defined waistline, especially from the 1950s and 60s. Even if all of your basic measurements match that of the dress it's important that the waist sit properly and not ride too high or low. The best thing to do if you are concerned is to e-mail the dealer and ask if she might give you the back length from neck to waist (pictured below). This measurement is taken from the base of the neck (around c5) to just a smidge below the SMALLEST part of the waist. This number should not be any shorter than yours. If it is the waist will ride up. If the number is longer, by more than a little, the dress will bunch up, although you can sometimes cover this with a belt.

Example of a high neckline

The second issue I often see is too tight armholes, sleeves and necklines. If you feel this may be a problem, again, ask the dealer for measurements. If the upper arm sleeve measurement is roomy enough (allow for at least 1" ease, 2" is better) then the armhole should fit. For sleeveless garments you will need the number for the opening of the armhole to compare to your own measurement (from the top of the shoulder, down the front of the shoulder, under the arm pit, and up the back of the shoulder). If a neckline is high and you worry it might be too small (cheongsams are notorious for this) measure your neck at the base and ask for the neck opening number to compare. Again, allow for ease.

How to measure diagram

Make a note of sleeve and hem lengths, sometimes customers overlook this. If the item does not include these numbers then ask.

Always feel free to ask as many questions as you need to help determine fit. Vintage merchants are eager to help, our ultimate goal is to make online vintage shopping as easy and successful as possible :)

Until next time, best to you all



  1. This is a really helpful post, thanks. Btw I've seen your book here for sale in Australia. Congratulations!

  2. your blog has so much great vintage stuff with good info that other blogs dont have! i love the blog! thank you! check mine out and follow it if you get time. some vintage stuff and other randomness...

  3. This is a fantastic post. Thank you.

    I sell some vintage clothing and I completely agree with everything you have mentioned here.