How to Shop for Vintage Clothing + Vintage Sizing Tips


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.


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.

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


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 high school 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! xo, elsie

P.S. Looking for more vintage shopping posts? Check out these!
How to Shop for Vintage You’ll Really Wear
How to Shop for Vintage Rugs

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • (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.

  • 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.

  • 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.:)

  • 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

  • Wonderful post! We are starting to carry a mix of Vintage in our store so very helpful!

  • 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.

  • 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 🙂

  • 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…

  • 札幌管区気象台によると、当時、現場付近は雪で、陸上でも風速7.6メートルの強風だった。沢田さんらを救助した登別市の「いぶり中央漁協」所属の漁船「第18幸峰丸」(4.9トン)の飯島弘孝船長は「海が急に荒れ、当時約4メートルの波が立っていた。5人の姿を確認したが、4人を引き上げるのが精いっぱいだった」と話している。

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • Hi, just wanted to let you know that I come to your site fairly regularly, and I do appreciate your post.

  • 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:
    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.

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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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  • 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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  • wow. it is unbelievable. I love it so much . Thanks for your sharing. cool .great. I sure I’ll come back soon.

  • Your post have good information photo are also inspire to me on this website…….
    thanks for sharing great information…

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

  • 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)!

    Michele Blue

  • 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! 🙂

  • 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.

  • 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!

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

  • Elsie!

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

    XOXO, tina

  • 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. :[

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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,

  • 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!

  • Good to know! I wondered why the vintage size 14 dress I fell in love with didn’t fit! 🙂

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

    you’re such an inspiration =3

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

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

  • 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

  • Wow! Thank you SO MUCH, this was super helpful! Can’t wait to go shopping now… 😉

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