How to Shop for Vintage Clothing & Understanding Vintage Sizing

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Vintage sizing can be so darn confusing! When I started dress shopping at thrift shops in high school I learned very quickly never to trust the sizes on the tag! At the time I didn't know what the differences were between vintage and modern sizing I just knew that I was always wearing a larger size on tag than it would be if I bought it at the mall. I would shrug it off, buy the dress and rip off the tag before anyone could see! 🙂 I hope this post is informative and helpful to ladies who are interested in buying vintage dresses, but unsure and maybe a little nervous. This is based on my own personal experiences! ♥ 

Why are vintage sizes different from modern sizes? 

While I can only assume that this is based on a marketing trend (women like to buy clothes that are a size smaller than what they normally wear… who wouldn't?) I don't know the specifics of how it happened over the years. I've noticed recently that sizing has run even larger than it did in the 1990s… I know this because I've been in the same weight range since jr. high and while I was squeezing into a size 8 pair of jeans back then I can easily buy a size 4 pair now. Weird, right? Sizing has continued to run larger and larger… especially at certain stores! This means you can pick up an item that fits great that has a much smaller size on the tag than an equally great fitting vintage item. 

Growing up I always heard that Marilyn Monroe was a size 12-14. It's a great quotable fact and it's true. The only factor to be aware of is that a modern day size 12 and a size 12 in the 1950s/1960s are very different things. In today's sizes she'd most likely wear a 6 and maybe even a 4 in certain brands! If you add 6 to your current modern day dress size that's what you'll probably fit in a 1950s/1960s dress. When you're aware of this fact it's much less scary to see the size on the inside of a dress that 'look like it will fit'. Dresses from the 1970s are similar but a little bit less drastic. You'll probably wear a size about 4 sizes larger that normal. 1980s and 1990s dresses might be one to two sizes larger than your modern size and still fit like a glove. 

For this reason I don't like to estimate sizes. I can squeeze into different sized dresses at different stores at the mall. Just because an online seller says something is a size 'small' doesn't mean it will fit like a 'small' from the store I like to shop at. An estimated size is just that, a guess. Checking your own measurements against the measurements listed is the best method for finding a great fit! I'll teach you how in this post! 

The most important thing to remember is that vintage sizes ARE different and when shopping online it's best to go by measurements and not by the vintage size or an estimated size. 

How do I take my own measurements? 

This part is super simple! Once you've taken your own measurements you'll feel SO much more prepared to shop online. There are vintage dresses for most any shape and size! When you know your numbers you'll be able to buy dresses confidently and know what kind of fit to expect. 

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How to measure yourself for dresses: 

Bust: Use a sewing measuring tape to measure the fullest part of your bust (with bra on!). 

Waist: Measure the smallest part of your natural waist line. This will probably be about one inch above your belly button. 

Hips: Stand with your feet close together! Measure the fullest part of your hips.  

Add a little extra? Once you have your measurements add an extra inch if you want your clothes to be comfortable and loose fitting. I, personally, always add an extra inch to the bust but not the rest since I like a fitted waist. This part is up to you and will determine how you want your clothing to fit. 

Can you explain the sizing on the Red Velvet Site? 

Yes! This is a question we've received many times and is the primary reason for this post. 🙂 In our Dress Shop we display measurements in the same way that many online vintage shops do, "Measurements taken flat, double where appropriate". I'll explain in detail what that means! Here's an example listing with explanations… 

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Length: This is the length from the top of the shoulder to the hem. If you used a measuring tape you could see exactly how long this dress would fit on your body. The red velvet models vary in height, so it's good to use the measurement if you're concerned about length. Probably not an issue on a mid length dress like this, but with shorter dresses it's always good to check if you're pretty tall! 

Bust: This measurement is 'taken flat' this means that the dress (or shirt, or sweater) is laid on a table and measured across. This is a standard way to take measurements. You need to double all measurements that have a front & back (bust, waist & hips). 

So, for the Bust double the measurement that is there. If the dress is made of jersey or polyester you'll know that there will be some extra stretch there. If the dress has darts (or a formed bust) you can assume it will fit an inch or two larger than the measurements. This is one reason why people love 1950s and 1960s dresses, they look amazing on curvy figures and ladies with a larger bust! 

Waist: Double the measurements given. Keep in mind that you can wear a belt with many dresses if the waist is slightly big to add shape and proportion (I wear a belt almost every day!). If a waist is elastic we stretch it to a comfortable size to take the measurement. This size can fit a slightly smaller or larger waist easily. If waist reads 'open' this means it's a 'house dress' style and the waist, hips and bust are all the same. It's a more roomy style that looks best worn with a belt! 

Hips: This is the maximum allowance for hips (you'll double the number, again, of course). If the dress has fitted hips the measurements will be listed. You want to make sure you have enough extra room to walk and move! If the hips say 'open' it means that they are extremely roomy and could fit pretty much any girl who could wear the other measurements. 

All measurements on the Red Velvet website are given in inches! If you prefer centimeters try using this Conversion Calculator. â™¥

How can I find a dress that looks good on my body type?

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Dressing for your body type is a skill that is best learned by practice!

Easiest way to find a new vintage dress that you love is to look at your wardrobe and find a few other dresses that you feel pretty in and that fit you well. Think about what style/era they are and what features you like. For example, I love 1950s and 1960s dresses most because I'm not very tall and I look better in fitted clothing. 1970s styles look amazing on taller girls and late 1960s dresses look flattering on just about anyone! Find a dress you love in your wardrobe, measure it flat and use it as a point of reference when looking for other dresses online! It's definitely a learning experience, so start with items you feel comfortable with and branch out from there. 

A word about alterations…. I've benefited SO MUCH from finding my own local alterations professional! We work with several alterations people for Red Velvet. I highly recommend finding a local alterations person to take items to. The pricing can be more reasonable than you might expect, especially for small issues like shortening a hem, removing sleeves or taking in a waist! Those are the three alterations that I most often request. Since vintage clothes are often a better price than new clothes of the same quality, it's really worth it to get them custom fitted. I do this on a regular basis, maybe 3-4 dresses each month! :) 

Advantages of shopping 'Authentic Vintage'… 

Vintage dresses are in style and are being reproduced left and right by mainstream stores. This is a trend that I absolutely adore. However, one thing in the past I spent a lot of money on was dresses from inexpensive mall stores and noticed that my dresses weren't holding up very well with normal wear & wash. While I still shop at these stores occasionally, I've come to believe that one GOOD vintage dress is worth more than 5 inexpensive mall dresses. They've already lasted 30+ years and they will probably last longer than you need them! The only clothes I've saved from highschool and my early 20s are my vintage dresses and I know I'll keep them and pass them along to my daughter (or niece!) one of these days. That's my 2 cents about the quality and value of vintage clothing. The styles are often classic and timeless. I just love it! 

I hope this post has been informative and helpful! If you've been a vintage admirer, but a little nervous about shopping for yourself I hope you feel inspired and excited to give dress shopping a fresh try! We run a cute dress shop and I also recommend shopping vintage on Etsy. Vintage shopping is a wonderful hobby and my dresses are one of my dearest collections since the ripe ole age of 16! Have a lovely day! Elsie 

  • Absolutely fantastic! Thanks for this. I’ve had trouble with sizes on vintage items on ebay … the one that broke my heart was a Vintage Royal Shakespeare Theater Costume I had bought for Halloween and had to re-sell it as it didn’t fit 🙁

    Aoife x

  • Thanks for sharing all this wonderful information Elsie!!!

    Now I am prepared to shop online for vintage dresses!!!

  • thanks elsie..
    best advice of the day!! now i feel more confident to hunting some vintage dresses..

    you’re such an inspiration =3

  • Great post! You have shared so much great info, thank you. In the beginning when you are explaining about modern and vintage dress size numbering something finally clicked in my mind. I have sewn a few dresses for myself from patterns. I might wear a size six from Macey’s, but I am always always a size 12 or 14 on a printed pattern. And you’ve just explained why! Thank you!

  • Thank you for this post! I always wondered by so many vintage items were so tiny, I just didn’t understand the sizing 🙂

    Love and Turtledoves,
    Jaco

  • Love this post. I was explaining to my daughter one day that she is skinnier than I was at her age. She is a size 3 at the most (again, depending on the store) and I was a size 7. Yet I was skinny just like her. This might explain it. My size 7 in the 70’s is equivalent to her size 3 now. This makes much more sense.

  • elsie! you are so wonderful and i love this post. i completelyyyy agree that the quality of vintage clothing is far superior than clothing found in many mall stores. vintage clothing is fantastic!

  • Oh, wow, thanks to this I realized that my favorite dress in your shop is my perfect measurements :] Now I just need to come up with $40…

    This was a super helpful post though, thank you!

  • does red velvet have dresses that would fit a modern day size 14 or 16? i have large boobs and often have no luck with vintage dress shopping. :[

  • Elsie!

    you are so adorable and slim! do you have a special diet or exercise plan? or are you just blessed? 🙂

    XOXO, tina

  • This was a really great article – thankyou! I love wearing vintage and vintage-style dresses, the 1950s were a very flattering era! 😀

  • This is a great post. Your personal touch makes it easier to relate to it as well.

    BTW, the term for how ladies’ sizes are accommodating larger bodies nowadays is “vanity sizing”. One place where you’ll find measurements/sizes have stayed the same is on dress patterns (e.g., those Butterick patterns at fabric stores)–those are the “true” sizes and what sizing models in NYC are matched to.

    Sure it sucks to see that I’m “truly” a size 14 (instead of an 8-10) but it does help to know that Marilyn Monroe was close to my size!

  • Oh, how I remember in fashion design school the crestfallen faces of many girls (who were used to being a size 6 or 8) when they saw a true size 6 or 8 dress form!

    Thank you for all of the helpful and useful advice and tips you post on here. 🙂

    ~twiggy h.

  • thank you elsie, this was super helpful! i’ve been wanting to buy vintage dresses (and maybe a swimsuit) and the sizing confuses me and has been making me hesitate. i really appreciate these tips! 🙂

  • thank you, thank you, thank you! i thrift in stores and try things on. but have only recently been looking online for some unique/rare Vintage clothing finds. i kept seeing bust size 17 when i fell in love with a dress, and i could not imagine that any grown woman was 17 inches around, when my daughter is 20 inches around in the bust area… and she is 11! i kept getting depressed a bit when shopping online vintage… now i feel so much better.

    this has been MORE than helpful to me, and now i am ready to get my shop on (online)!

    xoxo
    Michele Blue

  • It’s great being able to find so many cute girls clothing online. I saved so much money by shopping online this year.

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  • Oh, thanks for these sizing and shopping tips! It does get pretty complicated sometimes, especially for a newbie, so advice like this is definitely appreciated.

    P.S. The pictures look cute too!

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  • I stumbled upon your site about twenty minutes ago and haven’t been able to tear myself away and I must add i ove your stockings in the above photo with the blue dress. Where do you buy them??

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  • I absolutely love this blog post! I just checked out your cute shop and love the “sewing kit dress”. I am so excited i found this! The other good vintage shop i found with vintage dresses like that is here: http://www.shopbila.com/index.php/vintage-inspired-peasant-dresses.html
    They have alternate types of patterns but the style is cool also!

    Also, I cant agree more with your statement about utilizing a belt in place of a waist that has extra room and this works for any proportionality.

  • Its also a good time to start tossing out and decluttering all the stuff that tends to build up in the house during the winter. Ive really been itching to get into the grandkids playroom and organize all of the toys and what-nots that have been collect…

    This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I enjoy seeing websites that understand the value of providing a prime resource for free. I truly loved reading your post. Thanks!

  • Thank you for this. I’ve always wanted to shop online but I’m scared that it will just go to waste because it won’t fit me just right. With your tips, I was encouraged to window shop online already.

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  • Um, I’m pretty sure sizes actually run smaller than they did back in Marilyn Monroe’s time. She was actually an 8 by her time period standards, while today she would be a 12 or a 14. Just saying…

  • This is a GREAT article! I am a vintage seller and am thrilled to see this information being shared. Vintage clothing is THE BEST!! Knowing your measurements is key…now go shopping 🙂

  • I’m a vintage seller, too. This is a very informative and well written post, thanks! I just have to vent about a peeve of mine. Why make buyers do the math? Yes, it is simple to double the measurements. That’s why sellers should do it. It’s enough to ask buyers to know their measurements. Make it easy for them to shop.

  • Amazing! I was like thinking : I love this dress! Very ptrtey! And then I see that I may win it? How happy I am! Ok not too fast Carole you have not win it yet! (By the way I’m french! So I will try to write the best I can ok? 😛 )1. I really like (among other things I have to admit!) the Ella Nude Shoulder Dress, because its’ “virgin, Greece before CJ” ;)Ok I like it because it’s very light, very delicate(can we say that in english? wait I will check! because in french we say “de9licat”!)YES it’s delicate! Alright and I would wear it Acne wedge, the huge ones, you see? to break the rules you know?the blue ones because with the blacks it would be too “black&white”! I want a pastel outfit! And because it’s cold outside, I would put a blazer quite long and to warm up even more a short faux fur coat! Yeah the proportion would be weird, but it’s what I like!(Now i just want to buy it! 😉 )2. My name is Carole!3. My email is [email protected]

  • This give-away is awesome, Chantal! I’m joinnig too! that lace dress is too lovely to pass up!Okay, so everyone’s faving the Ella Nude dress because it is such a beauty. I’m choosing it too.Since I’m not a fan of looking overtly feminine, I’ll be pairing the dress with a black bowler hat and some rustic studded ankle boots. For accessories, i’ll spice it up with delicate silver starling skull necklace and piles of cuffs, bracelets and rings. I’m imagining wearing this outfit while roaming an ocean park with the boy or listening to some good ‘ol band.:)

  • My favorite piece is the Mia Floaty dress. Its aorbadle and vintage and perfect for spring. You know the feeling you get when the sun is shining and the grass looks so green and you just want to run outside and lay in it all day? This dress reminds me of that. It is so cute in an understated way, I wouldn’t want to layer it too much. This is the kind of dress you throw on without anything else, and are all set… Its too gorgeous to be covered up. [email protected]

  • (Paperback) The premise of this book isn’t oniairgl a spurned woman tries to get over her boyfriend by taking up a new job. In this case it’s Rose Taylor a British female -who opens a vintage clothing store. The clothes talk’ to her and have stories that come to life when worn again by someone new. Similar books (and far better ones) are: A Dangerous Dress by Julia Holden, and the vintage dress mystery series by Annette Blair. Rose’s mother and sister don’t support her business idea, so there is some sisterly/motherly strife in the book. It’s not until the very last part of the book that Rose really comes to life. Unfortunately, the journey Rose takes us on is very boring; there are no interesting characters or scenes, and the book is primarily narrative. The author rarely uses dialogue, so you’re following Rose’s story without being an active participant in it. The whole book I felt like an outsider because the writing didn’t draw me in. As an American, I also found the book rather difficult to read (and some of the English/British references hard to understand). I would definitely give this book a pass, and look for something more interesting. The characters were poor, the storyline wasn’t active, and there were no interesting descriptions of clothes either.

  • This is super helpful! Now I can shop til I drop in those vintage stores here. Maybe I should change my style now and it’s all because of this! Great blog!

  • So informative, this is wonderful! I’ve always been too scared to look into vintage because I am skinny but have big breasts and a big behind…and that frankly is hard to shop for! But this really helped me out, thank you!