Vintage Clothing Sizes. Vanity Sizing. Never the Twain Shall Meet.

Oh no! Why can’t I fit into my vintage dress?!

Sound familiar? For lovers of vintage clothing, we’ve all been there.

A Fashion Fairytale (or Nightmare) Begins…

For many of us, while we acclimated ourselves to the “new normal” brought on by the tumultuous times we’re living in, we yearned for a simpler way of life. A less hectic pace. Fond memories from our past…a wistfulness of sentimentality…crept into our thoughts. The past beckoned.

Perhaps some of us became drawn to the cottagecore movement because it encompassed all those things: an opportunity to escape the tumult around us and cherish all the charm and nostalgia that cottagecore, farmcore, grandmacore represent:

Laura Ashley dresses…long, flowing, flowery…and Gunne Sax dresses…ribbons, buttons, lace, corset bodices, calico…our minds wandered back to days of long ago. Maybe we fondly recalled days of watching The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie, or Anne of Green Gables.

Cottagecore Ignites a Demand for Vintage, Sustainable Clothing

Oh, sure, life had its challenges then, too. But we look past them – after all, we’ve got enough of our own right now to handle. So many of us love the cottagecore movement for its symbols of romance, being at one with nature, that divine representation of a simpler life.

Whether or not we’re aligned with any particular aesthetic, many of us have been seeking ways to incorporate the comfort, coziness & nostalgic of days gone by into our everyday lives.

Shabby chic furniture. Lace curtains. Floral wallpaper. Quaint teapots. Granny doilies. Everything ruffled, rosy, dainty and well…cottage divine!

Of course, we can’t leave out those beautiful Gunne Sax and Laura Ashley dresses. The enormous surge in popularity of vintage 1970s prairie dresses has had many women scrambling to find one – or two, or three – of the now iconic dresses or skirts.

Yes, many of us have decided to treat ourselves to a special vintage Gunne Sax. Or Laura Ashely. And then…well…

It’s happened to the best of us…

It’s Not You. Blame the Fashion Industry.

After weeks of persistent, diligent research, we find the vintage clothing item we have been yearning for…dreaming of. Oh, the excitement! We take a cursory glance at the tag size…note that it’s so much bigger than the size we’re wearing now anyway…and poof! Our fingers quickly rush to click that magical ‘buy’ button…

And when our long-sought after vintage dream clothing item arrives in the mail, we eagerly tear the package open, longing to feel the garment we’ve been pining for. Heaven. And so we pull the dreamy fabric over our head….start to pull it down onto our torso…but hit an oh-so-major obstacle: our body!  We find ourselves literally stuck in our new vintage garment!

Oh, no! It doesn’t fit!

Next the gasp with an I-Can’t-Believe-This-Is-Happening moan. How can it not fit? The size tag is three sizes bigger, at least!

Don’t worry. It’s really not you. It’s the fashion industry.

It’s Vanity, Darling. Vanity Sizing, That Is…

Waistlines have changed throughout history, so fashion designers adapted by changing sizing. The real term is vanity sizing and the long and short of it is simple: vintage sizes are smaller – much smaller – than today’s sizes. A size 6 or 8 years ago might convert into a size 12 or 14 today.

And really, think back:  when you did visit a department store and sorted through racks of dresses for instance, looking for that perfect party dress, you were sure you knew your own size. So when you came across THE dress, you rushed into the fitting room – only to discover it didn’t fit. But yet it was supposed to be your size! The tag said so!

That’s pretty much what happened to sizing….it never was a perfect system. Some say the sizes of the 1950s came from measuring women who served in the armed forces during WWII – women who would have naturally been leaner and fitter – and smaller sized. And, truth be told, we’re all different sizes, shapes, heights and weights. How could a size 10, for example, fit each and every person that the fashion industry pigeonholed the tagged size for?  There had to be give and take – just like the fabric.

Marilyn Monroe, a Classic Example of Vanity Sizing

Take the iconic blonde bombshell with the classic hourglass figure:  Marilyn Monroe. In her day, the 1950s- she wore between a size 12 or 14. Today’s modern sizing would have Marilyn wearing a size 6 or 8. And if you’re curious, Marilyn’s measurements were approximately 35-22-35 and she was 5 feet, 5 inches tall. History records her weight as fluctuating over the years, with some sources suggesting anywhere between 115 and 120 pounds.

Marilyn’s sizing is a perfect example of vintage vs. modern sizing. If you’re looking for that dreamy Gunne Sax or Laura Ashely dress, go by the dress measurements the seller notes – not the tag size. Vintage sizing is much smaller – at least 3 to 4 sizes smaller – than modern sizing.

Vintage Clothing Sizes 101: A Quick Wrap-up

Say you wear a size 6 today – a vintage size 6 isn’t going to fit. Better size up (no pun intended) two or three or even four sizes, depending upon the manufacturer and dress style. And measure yourself! It might have been years since you took out the worn, fabric tape measure – but you want that Gunne or Laura Ashley dress to fit & flatter, right?

So now that you’re over the embarrassment of getting stuck in your vintage dress, well, have a laugh over it. Waistlines, diets, and the fashion industry all contributed to the confusion over sizing.

Tips to Navigate the World of Vintage Sizing

Use these tips to help navigate the oft-confusing world of vintage clothing sizes:

  • Compare the measurements of the garment with a similar piece you already own that fits well.
  • If you don’t have a similar garment, you can compare to your own body measurements – but be sure to add a few inches to your natural msmts to allow for a comfortable fit.
  • If you’re partial to a particular brand, familiarize yourself with the general sizing. For instance, Gunne Sax often ran small, and many prairie dresses of any manufacturer from the 1960s-1980s era were really junior clothing lines – meaning – they were super small.
  • Some manufacturers did run large, or produced particular designs to correspond with a fad of the time – some of the Ralph Lauren oversize blouses from the mid-late 80s era are an example of this.
  • Fond of Laura Ashley or another UK brand? This can add even more confusion to the convoluted world of vintage sizing. Laura Ashley tags often stated both UK & US sizes, but were in general nowhere near modern clothing sizes. We have a Laura Ashley vintage mini dress tagged size 10 that my petite 5’ daughter weighing under 100 lbs can’t even zip.

When in doubt, refer to the vintage clothing measurements.

Any good seller will be willing to provide you measurements or extra photos if you ask, and while it can seem like an extra step before buying, it can also save the hassle and disappointment of receiving a piece of vintage clothing that does not fit as expected.

Rest assured, though. There is a Gunne Sax or Laura Ashley dress or skirt out there, waiting – just for you! Enjoy the thrill of the hunt, especially searching around for those elusive vintage size 13 prairie dresses.

And here’s a secret from all of us Gunne Girls out there – can’t pass up that pretty print or charming corset even if it is a size or two too small?

Who says you have to zip – or button – that fab dress all the way up?! A strategically placed dainty cardigan can help conceal a button or two undone or a zipper that doesn’t quite go all the way up. Shhh, we won’t tell – your secret is safe with us 😉