Material Pursuit is a monthly column dedicated to the dos and don'ts of vintage shopping, the secrets of finding the right size, and the history behind uncovered vintage gems.
The way clothes are made these days is dirt cheap. Plain and simple. In our hyper-industrial age, It’s all about mass production – maximizing profit with as little overhead as possible. Because of this, we end up with clothes that fall apart and, quite honestly, feel like a bunch of 1-ply toilet paper stapled together. So, in the age of fast fashion domination, isn’t it a breath of fresh air to actually own high-quality, luxurious garments?
Enter vintage fashion, with all its luscious fabrics, glamorous silhouettes and unique designs.
I’ve been wearing vintage since high school, but started taking it seriously a couple years back. I had realized that during every Goodwill donation spree, closet clean-out and Marie Kondo-fication of my apartment, I was only ever tossing out fast fashion garments — never my vintage ones.
Vintage just felt better. It fit better. I found myself gravitating towards those garments in my closet and feeling happier and more confident in the outfits I put together with them. They made me feel beautiful in a way that fast fashion never could. It’s funny how nice fabrics and higher-quality construction will do that.
Vintage clothing is an easy entrée into Glamour, but vintage shopping is not easy for everyone. If you’re someone with a 28 inch waist, vintage shopping is probably a breeze for you. Most vintage garments you’ll find on the resell market have anywhere between a 21 and a 28 inch waist.
This is obviously due, in part, to a fashion system that has catered to a thinner body. But it also has to do with the fact that the most common sizes [M, L, XL] are the most worn. Well-worn, damaged garments don’t last as long as, say, the sample size dress that’s been sitting in a box at the bottom of a closet for 90 years.
So what are people who, like me, aren’t able to squeeze themselves into a 20-something inch waist supposed to do? That’s where I come into the picture. This installment of Material Pursuit is for all those fashionistas out there that need a little more help hunting for those coveted larger sizes. Since this is the World Wide Wonder issue of Byline, I figure there’s no better time for me to show you how to find these vintage treasures online!
Online shopping is tricky. When you don’t have easy access to changing rooms or the ability to actually touch and stretch the fabric, it can be very difficult to suss out whether or not an item of clothing will fit you. It takes a certain set of skills to sniff out and hunt down a beautiful vintage gown on the internet. The first thing we need to acknowledge before we begin is that sizes are made up. Totally made up. Over the years, the sizing scale has changed drastically. By now, it’s all but abandoned any kind of standardization. You can be a size 6 in one store and a size 10 in another– with both pairs of jeans fitting the exact same way.
I’ll give you an example: My measurements are 42-33-44. This would come out to a “standard” XL or 10/12 in modern sizing. But if I went into Etsy and typed in “Vintage Dress Size 12”, I’m going to get lots of results with garments that are a modern size 4.
When shopping online, you always want to go by measurements. Bust, waist and hip are the most important. Once you take your measurements, you need to determine which of these measurements you’d be most comfortable squishing — the measurement you’d be comfortable sacrificing in the name of Glamour. With vintage clothes, especially the older ones, it’s highly unlikely you’ll find one garment in multiple sizes. So, you may need to be a little creative with sizing in order to get the look.
Take the time, make peace with your body, and figure out which measurement you can play around with. It’s different for everyone. Some people love hip hugging garments, some love a tight bust– for me, it’s the waist. I love corsets and longline vintage bras, so I am very comfortable cinching my waist way beyond its natural state. This affords me the opportunity to peruse a larger array of garments than if I was only, very rigidly, interested in clothing that was exactly my size.
Now, let’s boot up our computer (or phone) and go to Etsy Dot Com. Etsy is my absolute favorite place to find vintage fashion. In my opinion, they have the widest variety, the easiest access to speaking with the sellers and the most user friendly interface model. Other good options are Ebay and Instagram. I would steer clear of Depop. Some people find great success on the platform– but for me at least, I think most of the listings are greatly overpriced for what they are.
A helpful keyword while perusing the site is “Volup." It’s an abbreviated version of the word “Voluptuous”. I’ve found that many vintage sellers, while listing plus size or mid-size clothing, will include that term in their posting. Another trick I find very helpful is to type in the era and garment you’re looking for in the search bar, then add “33 Waist” at the end. So the search bar will look something like: “1940s sweetheart dress 33 Waist”. Of course, tailor the info to fit your needs– and feel free to play around! This is part of the fun of hunting for vintage: learning which key phrases will get you exactly what you’re looking for.
So now, you’ve taken your measurements and you’ve found a vintage garment you like– let’s see if it’ll fit! Most sellers will use what they call “flat lay” measurements in the description of their listing. This means that they lay the garment flat and measure from one end of the seam to the other (not all the way around). So, to see how this garment would fit you, double the flat lay measurement and compare it to the circumference measurement you took of your own body earlier.
For example: I see a beautiful dress– a 1940’s rayon nightgown. The flat lay measurements say the waist is 16 inches across. I take 16, multiply it by two and find that this dress has 32 inches in the waist. My waist measurement is 33– it’s only an inch off. Could I squeeze into it? Maybe!
This brings us to my next point: Fabrics. Knowing what the dress is made of can help you greatly in online shopping. I’m an XL but I have many, many dresses in my closet that are smalls and even extra-smalls, and that’s because of the fabric.
Spandex, Rayon, Jersey– if you see any garments with these fabric types listed, you know that these are going to have some stretch to it. So, you can feel a little bit more comfortable purchasing a garment that’s an inch or two smaller than your squish measurement.
You have to be cautious when you see garments with fabric types like crepe, wool, leather, or denim– those types of fabrics (especially in vintage clothing) have little to no stretch. When shopping for garments like these, I would honestly only purchase something that was a little bit bigger than my measurements– just to be on the safe side.
This particular dress in my example is made of Rayon. Rayon is an early precursor to Spandex and, when included in a woven or knit garment, has a decent amount of stretch to it. I’m now pretty confident that this beautiful 1930s nightgown will fit– time to add it to my cart!
“Knowing what the dress is made of can help you greatly in online shopping. I’m an XL but I have many, many dresses in my closet that are smalls and even extra-smalls, and that’s because of the fabric. ”
So quick recap: Know your body well, always go by the garment measurements–never the numbered size, and be mindful of your fabric types! Pretty easy– no?
I’m so glad you’re here for the first installment of Material Pursuit! Hopefully, I was able to give you a good intro to the Basics of Online Vintage Shopping. Every month, we’re going to take a deeper dive into the world of Vintage Fashion— so stick around! It’s going to be a wild ride.