Decoding vintage sizing

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.
etc

Here’s a sizing chart from= the 1930s to give you an idea – all measurements are in inches. This one is from The Mutual Store:
1930s sizing chart

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:
1940s how to measure
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.

How to measure yourself, 1966 and the sizing chart.
1966  how to measure

1966 sizing chart

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).

Circa Vintage Webshop 1586023

Here’s a darling 1970 “how to measure” and sizing chart;
1970 how to measure

1970 sizing chart

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.

1971 sizing chart conversion

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.

Circa Vintage size conversion chart

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9 comments

  1. Love this post! So many thoughts:
    i) I’m horrified vintage sellers are taking out labels! That’s awful!
    ii) It’s interesting to see the alphanumeric system assumed women got taller as they got larger. That doesn’t tend to be the case anymore, I don’t think? Hence the existence of petite and tall options (especially in the USA). I would have been destined for a life of skirts and pants too short, being a 5’8″ “‘small’ slim woman”! Mind, now that I think of it, lots of dresses I see now I skim straight over because I can tell they will be a bit short in the body and finish at the upper-thigh, making it look like I’m wearing a child’s dress. Things that look really lovely and hit just-above-the-knee on my 5’3″ friend. But I think that’s just a fashion/cost-cutting thing, rather than shorter lengths being associated with different sizes. If there is a difference in length between modern sizes, I’d be super-surprised to find out it’s 18″ between smallest and largest sizes!
    iii) I think the hip to bust/waist ratio has changed a bit over time? Most modern charts would have 36″ hips associated with a 34″ bust, I think? The trend seems to be toward more a ‘tubular’ shape.

  2. Clare, it makes so much sense for garments to increase in length as the size increases because you need the extra length to get over the additional girth eg, a bigger bust means the fabric has to travel further to the waist.

    I’ve discovered that the shoulder-to-waist measurement is really important if you’re busty, because if it’s too short the waist will sit too high. The waist needs to sit in the right place for the dress to feel and look good.

    You’re right though: there’s also the category of bigger ladies who are also tall, and they’re more common that the very slim/very tall variety.

    You’re right about the bust-waist-hip ratio changing too. Firstly, each era/style will have a preferred silhouette and so the proportions reflect that (eg, the ’40s-50s emphasise the waist so the bust and hips tend to be generous in comparison because the bigger they are, the smaller the waist looks) and yes, modern sizes run about 2 inches smaller on the hips than my chart above. There’s a certain amount of standisation in the chart above because consistency was needed but modern fashions are very skimpy on fabric compared to vintage – not only with sizes but also the absence of seam and hem allowances for adjustments.

  3. “Clare, it makes so much sense for garments to increase in length as the size increases because you need the extra length to get over the additional girth eg, a bigger bust means the fabric has to travel further to the waist.”

    Oh, of course! Being fairly straight up and down, I forget this (and I mean that in no humble-brag kind of way, but a matter-of-fact ‘all bodies are different’ way). It’s funny how one’s own experience in a body shapes how you interpret things to do with clothes. I remember a very tiny friend bought me a cropped sweater as a gift. I loved it, but she admitted when I put it on that she hadn’t realised it was a cropped sweater (or would be on me), because it would have reached her hips. Even though if you’d asked her, she would tell you I am much taller than she is! I guess some solid fashion education would train you out of that kind of thing (hopefully).

  4. What a great post! I’ve been browsing your site for years, but mostly only the online shop. It’s been incredibly frustrating trying to figure out what will fit, and I have bought pieces in the past that don’t come close – usually too small for my curvy shape.

    It’s absolutely amazing to see the way sizing has changed in the last few decades, and also kinda reassuring to know that I’m not fluctuating as much as I think.

    I will say – I sort of wish we still used the old style codes. Small woman sounds so much more accurate to my size and shape, and feels strangely empowering – far more so than saying “size 10-12, depending on the cut”.

    Thank you so much for this post. 😀

  5. You’re welcome Alanna – glad you like it! I wish that I had something like this when I first started out but I had to figure it all out. I really like the old system too – as you say, SW sounds much better doesn’t it?

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