Sizing Up Vintage Clothing Sizes

You may be used to going into a department store and looking for clothes in your size, be it 6 or 14. But this just isn’t possible when purchasing vintage clothing.

In vintage clothing, size labels are often nonexistent and when they are available, they tend to be completely unreliable in comparison to modern sizes.

So why are vintage clothing sizes so unreliable?

First, because many vintage clothes were made to measure by dressmakers or home sewers. When someone is tailoring clothes to your body, size becomes irrelevant.

Second, almost all vintage clothing is sized MUCH smaller than you expect. I am petite and wear a contemporary Size 0 (sometimes even children’s clothes) but I have vintage items in my closet that are labeled up to size 8! If you wear a current size 8, don’t be surprised if you end up buying vintage dresses that are a size 14 or swimsuits that are a size 16.

But don’t let that upset you. Sizes are meaningless anyway. What matters is how the garment fits and if it’s flattering on you.

How can you tell if something will fit when purchasing a vintage fashion item from an auction site like eBay or from a vintage clothing website?

Reputable sellers will take precise measurements of the garments for sale and list them on their product pages. Usually, these measurements are taken with the garment laid flat.

Common measurements include:

–Back shoulder seam to seam
–Bust (measured underarm to underarm and then doubled)
–Waist (measured at the waist and then doubled)
–Hips (measured about 10 inches below the waist or at the widest hip area and doubled)
–Sleeves (measured from the top shoulder to the cuff)
–Inseam (measured on the inside of the leg from the crotch to the hem)
–Rise (measured from the crotch to the top of the waistband)
–Length (measured from the top of the garment to the hem or sometimes, from the waist to the hem)

The best thing for you to do is grab an item from your closet that is similar to what you are purchasing: a dress, a coat, a blouse. Then lay your wardrobe item flat, take the same measurements above and compare to the measurements stated in the listing.

If the measurements are close, you can be fairly certain the item will fit or perhaps need only a minor alteration. If the measurements are widely off, then you have to make a decision if you want to chance receiving the item and having it altered.

Should you alter a vintage item? It depends on the item. Items with draping and ruching could lose their shape if you have take in or let out the seams too much. And a collectible piece of vintage clothing by a well-known designer could lose much of its value after being altered.

Then again, I’ve purchased vintage items simply for the fabric which I then used to make halter tops, scarves, belts, and more.

Also, remember than many vintage items, from the 40s and 50s especially, were designed to be worn with structured undergarments like bullet bras and girdles. If a vintage dress is looking a little big on top or a little snug at the waist, pairing it with a good quality padded bra or tummy-tucking girdle could do the trick and save you from having to do alterations.

Also, anytime you’re searching for vintage clothing items on a website or auction site, it pays to click through and check the measurements. What one seller calls a Small, another seller could be labeling a Medium. And it would be a pity to miss out on a great item because you didn’t take the time to check the posted measurements.

So grab a tape measure, jot down your measurements and then go cyber-shopping for some great vintage clothing!

Mary Kincaid has been buying, wearing, and collecting vintage clothing for over a decade. Visit her website at Zuburbia to shop in her eco-friendly vintage clothing boutique and join the Vintage Crusaders, an online community of vintage clothing lovers.

Copyright 2005, Mary Kincaid. May be reprinted in its entirety with full credit given to Mary Kincaid and a link to

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© Mary Kincaid 2006-2009