Hello vintage lovers!
Shoppers know well the frustration that comes with vintage sizes: those innocuous little numbers or letters you find on labels that vary from meaningless to distressing and are generally no help in determining whether something will fit you.
When I first started out on my vintage love I didn’t even look at labels, I simply bought what I liked and then altered it to fit. Fine and dandy if you’re good with a needle and thread (and have time to spare) but most of us don’t live that way. We also like to buy vintage online these days and so it’s very tempting to decipher that label- but what does it mean?
Companies that offered mail order introduced standardised sizing quite early and their catalogue charts are helpful guides.
For the first part of the 20th century Australia used an alpha system – it goes as follows:
XXSSW = Extra, extra slim small woman.
XSSW = Extra slim small woman.
SSW = Slim small woman.
SW = Small woman.
W = Woman.
XW = Extra woman.
SOS = Small(?) outsized
OS = Outsized.
XOS = Extra outsized.
You can see it goes up to size XOS: a modern size 20 – proof that not everyone was tiny back then!
I found a nice graphic from the ’40s about how to measure yourself, that I thought you might like:
Sizing is pretty consistent through the ’30s to the ’70s, although occasionally you find wacky systems. There’s even the occasional numeric size but those are usually from other countries like the US (a lot of American vintage has found its way to our shores in the internet age). This system works for most though.
Here’s Becky Lou in a mid ’60s frock because we need some colour in this post – coming soon to the webshop (studio lights at last! Very exciting).
For a long time, I’ve thought that we introduced a numeric system in the late ’60s but the above chart suggests it was later – or at least the mail order companies took a while to adapt. Here’s the earliest numeric chart I could find, and it’s from 1971 and includes a handy conversion. Love that.
Those sizes are awfully big numbers aren’t they? SW (modern 10) is now a 16 – and who of us wishes to try on a garment that looks like it’s three sizes too big? It’s not uncommon for vintage sellers to remove these labels for that reason, which is a pity because along with the size you lose a lot of information about a garment. Better to forget the number and just concentrate on finding clothes that fit.
Since then, sizes have changed a lot – in the ’80s fashion companies discovered that they could sell more clothes if they were generous in the sizing and so the sizes started to plummet. Additionally, each company might have its own system depending on the sort of fashion they sold. It can be quite idiosyncratic, which is why it’s best not to tie your self-esteem to a particular size.
I prefer to think of the numbers as a guide – and when shopping for clothes, I recommend taking a size each side of the one you think will fit best, into the fitting room with you. Then, start with the biggest size as it’s a pleasure to discover something is too big, and much nicer than getting stuck in something that’s too small. Another option is to do as I do, and take your tape measure everywhere.
You’re probably wondering what use all these systems are to you, modern vintage lover? Just for you, by popular request, I’ve created a chart that compares the sizes to help you in your adventures in vintage.
Note that this only applies to Australia, as other countries used different systems. I’ve also tweaked it an inch or so for consistency as different eras focus on different parts of a woman’s body – for example, in the ’30s it was mostly the bust measurement and in the ’60s mostly the hips.