Vintage Size vs. Modern Size: Finding Clothes and Patterns That Fit
Marilyn Was Not What We Would Call a Size 14
Marilyn Monroe was NOT a size 14. She was a size 8. Let me clarify: in 1960s sizing, Marilyn Monroe was a size 14, which would be a size 8 in modern ready–to-wear sizing. Today's size 14 is more like size 20 in Marilyn’s day.
Don't Panic! It's Just a Number
When purchasing clothes, whether they are vintage treasures or off the sale rack at Dillard’s, the only thing that should matter is how well it fits. Don’t get too hung up on what size it is. If it looks great and you love how you look and feel in it, then why does a silly old number matter? No one has ever walked up to me and said, “Fabulous dress! What size is that?” If anyone did, I think I might just punch him or her right in the jaw!
Sizing up Sizing
Trying to understand how women’s clothes are sized is like trying to figure out trigonometry with only an elementary understanding of math.
A basic rule of thumb to follow is that vintage sizes are at least four sizes smaller than modern sizes. The further back in time you go, the smaller the clothes get, and you may have to adjust up another size or two.
Say you wear a size 10. You spot a lovely, Jean Harlow-worthy evening gown from the 1930s. Hold on, chica! Unless that dress is marked size 16—I am very sorry to say this—it’s probably not going to fit you. On the other hand, if it is marked size 16, don’t be put off by the “larger” number. Like I said, it’s just a silly number. Who cares?
Now if you see the perfect 1970s gold lamé disco dress, with a plunging neckline and leg slit which is totally in this spring, and it's marked size 12 or 14, try it on! It might just fit, and you will look stunning
Vanity Sizing: Inflation in Women's Sizes
Clothing sizing has undergone what is called “vanity sizing” in the past 20 years. It is true, gentle reader, as the American public has become larger, so have our clothes. Each clothing size is now at least two inches bigger than it was 20 years ago. Does that explain why your size 10 wedding dress from 20 years ago no longer fits, but your new size 10 dresses do?
Have you also noticed you have to try on dresses in several sizes to find one that fits, only to become frustrated and give up? You can thank vanity sizing for that too. Some manufacturers use it and some don’t. Then there’s "catalog sizing" which uses yet another standard. No wonder we can’t find anything to wear!
Every time I try to purchase something that is ready to wear, I am reminded why I started sewing my own clothes -- because nothing fits me. This has always been a problem for me, even at my skinniest. My top half is much larger than my bottom half. I was often encouraged to “go for separates.” But I love dresses!
Pattern Sizes vs. Ready-to-Wear
Remember that six-size difference I mentioned between now and the '50s? It applies to patterns as well. Because of my broad shoulders and ample bosom my top half is a modern ready-to-wear 14, which means I need a vintage pattern for my top half in a size 20.
Now, to add insult to injury, patterns are sized to B-cup.
There are exceptions to these rules; some patterns offer lines in “modern sizing.”
When you buy a pattern, always check the sizing chart on the back of the pattern to make sure you purchase the correct size. And more important, icut out the right size as many patterns are multi-sized.
Some pattern companies also now offer patterns with cup adjustments. I learned the hard way that when using such a pattern you need to go down a size or two. Use your under-bust measurement (you know, the number your bra is, for example 38) to determine the proper pattern size.
Getting the Perfect Fit May Cost You
Time to face the truth: most of us are not the perfect size 8, 12, 14, or even 20. If you want your clothes to fit you as if they were made for you, there are a few options.
Your first option, if you have access to tons of disposable cash, is to have a seamstress custom make your clothes.
Option two, if you know how to sew, is to make them yourself. But if you think this is going to save you money, think again. Patterns can cost anywhere from .99 cents on sale to $20 regular price. Fabrics, nice apparel fabrics start at $10 a yard and a dress takes a minimum of three yards, if it has a very slim skirt and no sleeves. I’ve made fabric-hungry dresses that take up to eight yards of fabric! Then there are the notions, thread, zippers, buttons, etc. Figure another $5. Plus there’s the time you have to spend making it. It takes me at least 16 hours to make a dress from cutting and marking to sewing and finishing. Oh, and did I mention the sewing machine? You are going to need a very good one. Plan on $800 to $2,000.
Option three is to make friends with a good alterations shop. Buy good quality pieces that will hold up through the test of time and repeated washings. Get the size that fits your largest part best, and then have it taken in on your smaller parts for the perfect fit.
Questions & Answers
Are fractional vintage US sizes like 7/8 equivalent to today's 27"-28"?
I am not sure I understand the question. I vintage 7/8 would be a size 0 or 2, depending on the era.Helpful 6
What size vintage pattern would I need for a child's size 5T today?
Go by your child's chest, height, waist, and hip measurements.Helpful 1