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 = Short (?) outsized
OS = Outsized.
XOS = Extra outsized.

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


  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?

  6. G’day Nicole, I have launched a little blog featuring restored photographs of my father’s ‘Van Roth’ label. Many of his gowns and frocks were for women of larger sizes, and I have linked to your site, which explains these things a lot better than I could! It’s also a great ‘go to’ place for folk interested in that era.

  7. Thanks Michael: great site! I love all the pics. I’ve had a lot of Van Roths, although sadly none were the same as the ones in your images. I hope to get some images together of the ones I’ve had on the webshop, as all of those are inventoried.

  8. Thank you so much for this, it really helped me discover my sizes for when I buy new clothes.

    I have found a lot of vintage places take out the label and every time, it horrifies me!

  9. […] During the ’80s, vanity sizing was introduced and sizes became more generous – so if a label has Size 12 with the measurements of a modern size 8, it’s a clear indicator that it’s from the ’70s. An ’80s garment may have Size 12 with the measurements for a modern size 10. This is a whole big fun topic, so I’ll post properly about sizes at another time. (Edit: here it is) […]

  10. This is SO helpful!! And has helped me de-code vintage sizing so much.
    Do you have a similar graph for men’s vintage sizing??

  11. Thanks Janine! Menswear is much more straightforward, with the number indicating a measurement plus ease to wear, eg 40 = chest 40 inches, 32 = 32 inch waist. So they don’t vary through time like the women’s ones do. The modern sizes of M, L, XL etc are more brand dependent and can vary a little but are more reliable than womenswear. Look for the sizing charts for each brand for the actual measurements.

  12. I am trying to understand B6 B8 and J2 (not Jr). I have all this vintage clothes I am selling for my mother in law who is 22 , 24 and 26.

    Please help.


  13. Hi Ellen, how curious: I haven’t seen a sizing system like that before. Do you know how old they are and what the labels are? Some more modern companies have their own systems, eg Leona Edmiston with ‘1, 2, 3 etc’. One company even names their sizes after actresses, eg ‘Audrey, Sophia, Marilyn etc’ so if they’re all the same brand, they might have their own system.

  14. I’m a “Vintage” woman trying to figure out modern sizing…
    In my youth I wore size 8…but have put 37lbs on my 5’2” very petite boned frame and have NO idea how to size myself…
    All of my weight is in breasts, belly and hips…not butt or limbs…
    I find no simple explanation for sizing.
    Measurements are a joke…
    Nothing I order fits…HELP…

  15. Hi Shannon, I feel your pain. If you’re buying from Australian retailers, they should have their own sizing charts which are available. But you might like to do as I do and travel with a tape measure: you know your measurements, add a little for ease (depending on style and fabric) and that way you should find things to suit. It can be hard. I wish we had standardised sizing but even then, we’re not standardised women are we?

  16. Hi Nicole. Love your page, as always. Been an avid fan for a very long time 🙂

    I have a query; I am trying to find out when numeric sizing ended for men’s garments in Australia. I have what my research suggests is a late 70s men’s tracksuit by a well known brand that is sized a ’20’ on the label.

    At first I actually thought it was a women’s item ‘because’ of the size but a closer inspection of the label revealed the words ‘Mens 20’. It also has chest and waist measurements listed as 95cm and is listed as ‘Made in Australia – under License’. It’s been a long time since Australia would have produced Adidas clothing on home soil but the size 20 perplexed me. Do you have any insight on this?

    Thank you 🙂


  17. Hi Michelle, thanks for your kind words 🙂 always lovely to hear. I haven’t done any analysis on menswear but it’s a great area, I need to fill that gap in my knowledge. 20 is a strange size, I haven’t seen that – usually menswear goes on measurements, so a 32 trouser is for a 32 inch waist (so it might measure 34″). And then they introduced the modern sizes we know so well: the Small, Medium, Large and XL, etc. Would you like to email me pics and I can help date? Please include all labels, they’re incredibly helpful when it comes to modern clothing. I love a good mystery!

  18. Hi Nicole!

    Thank you for publishing such a comprehensive and well researched article on a confusing system of sizing. It seems the Australian ‘alpha’ system was a bit finer than the different British version, which has long confused consumers over here too.

    I have an article on my own blog that covers the old archaic British system of sizing and I have linked back to your page if anyone out there wants to compare the Aussie version.

    Warm regards, Emma

  19. thanks for your comment, Emma. I’m hoping to do some more thorough research into the sizing systems as they vary so much and it’s hard to follow. I’d love to know more about the British system so will check out your blog.

  20. Can anyone help me understand a tag size on a particular dress? The size shows a capital B and then a 0 (larger than the B) and then a #, so the size is B0#, but the B is smaller that the other two characters. I provide additional information in case the information may help. I am 61 years old and have never seen a size written in such a manner:

    Dress is from Sue Brett Collection

    RN 22419
    Made in U.S.A.

  21. Hi Sheila, this is a very unusual size, I haven’t seen anything like it before. If you can supply bust, waist and hip measurements I can convert it to a US size and help to narrow down a date.

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