Tuesday, October 20, 2009

'Dear Gertie' (In Which I Attempt to Give Fashion Advice)

Readers, I love getting your e-mails. And I have a particularly interesting one to share with you today: a lovely lady named Kris wrote to me recently for vintage style advice. It was especially thrilling for me since it made me feel like a style columnist for one of them there fancy fashion magazines or something. Hence, "Dear Gertie" is born.

Kris is a beginning seamstress who would like to try her hand at vintage patterns, but has one nagging concern: her body type, which she describes as size 12-14 hourglass, or "aging Marilyn Monroe with a tummy bulge."

Here's what Kris had to say, in her own words:

Can those of us without supermodel flat stomachs wear a wiggle dress without the aid of our grandmother's girdle?

And ya know, in writing this email a new train of thought has steamed into the station. Why should I care if I have a few bulges? Rather than stressing out and trying to make myself fit the clothes, why shouldn't I just make the clothes fit me? . . . So, what say you? Should I face "reality" and continue with the jeans and t-shirts or forge ahead with the pencil skirt (and stiletto pumps) of my dreams? Can a regular, non-waspy woman make these vintage styles work without a winch and pulley system? Any suggestions on good styles for a beginner to start with?

As you can imagine, I have a lot of thoughts about all this. But let's start with the first part of the question: foundation garments. I feel like my thoughts on this subject vary from other ladies who like to wear vintage styles. Namely: I do not like girdles, and I do not feel I need to wear a girdle to make a vintage style look "right." I have one 50's style girdle made by Rago, and it does absolutely nothing for my figure. It actually makes me lumpier, with all the boning and hooks and such. I do make use of Spanx for smoothing purposes under fitted pencil skirts and sheath dresses. (Tip: I highly recommend Spanx control-top tights - perfect for winter!)

Now, to the question of facing reality. "Reality" can bite me. "Reality" tells me that I can't have a dress that fits me in both my waist and hips, that I have to choose one or the other. To this I say HA! Every dress and skirt I make needs extra room added to the hips. I could take this as a sign of defeat, but instead I like to think that conventional sizes simply aren't bodacious enough to contain me. Yeah, it takes a certain attitude. And, obviously, I am a big believer in making clothes fit ME, not making myself fit clothes.

My overall thought is this: In essence, you should definitely wear what YOU want and what you're comfortable in, and hopefully those two things overlap in some way. And honestly, Kris, it sounds like you have the perfect figure to pull this stuff off! Imagine that you're Joan Holloway from Mad Men. When I worry that I'm not skinny enough, I don't have the confidence to pull off pencil skirts and sheath dresses. But when I tell myself that I'm a smokin' hot curvy lady like Joan, it does wonders for my confidence. I guess it really is all in the attitude, huh? So here's your new mantra: What would Joan do?

As for style recommendations for curvier and plus size ladies: You might want to start with retro-style contemporary patterns rather than jumping into vintage patterns, with all their quirks and fitting issues. I think a simple high-waisted pencil skirt (try McCall's 5590 or Burda 8155) and a secretary blouse (maybe McCall's 5884 or Simplicity 2501) are very flattering on larger sizes and will help you get your sewing skills sharpened before moving on to bigger challenges.

There! I've done written an advice column! (Don't worry, I won't quit my day job.) Readers, do you have anything to add?

P.S. If you have a question you would like answered in "Dear Gertie," kindly e-mail me at gertie [at] blogforbettersewing [dot] com.


  1. Kris, you should just go for it!!! My fashion advice is to just wear all your favorite things at once ( at least start with that idea and then come up with the outfit) And comfort is important so start slowly and work your way to what you really envision.

  2. Bravo, Gertie! Love the advice you dished out here. ;) I really am a firm believer of tweaking patterns to work with your own curves. I have to constantly do this (usually it's adding more in the back skirt for my large rear, or reducing 2"+ in the bust for my flat chest), but have found that adjusting things to fit means that 9 times out of 10, the resulting project looks super flattering! It's all about learning to fit and creating an illusion. That's what I love most about sewing I think: being able to customize to me, rather than off the rack expectations about body shapes!

  3. I want to do vintage patterns in plus size so BAD! I wear a commercial size 28, and let me tell you. my choices even in printed patterns are very very limited! Even the cute suggestions you list here are too small! It is very frustrating to me to say the least..all this retro goodness and I can't wear it. I don't plan on conforming my body to the fashion world either. So I guess the only choice is to find something close to my size in a basic pattern,and try and "draft the vintage into it."

  4. As a size 14 rtw, I say "yes" you can wear vintage. I love pattern envelope "art" for vintage patterns, but they are not reality. Sometimes I look at the picture where the model has a waist the size of my wrist yet the pattern is for my measurements..and I say "how is this going to work??" I find that I need to fit my shoulders in vintage first and then grade up for my waist and hips with possible fba. Sounds hard but it isn't too bad. From experience if I buy a vintage pattern too big in the shoulders, it is trouble!

  5. Plus size vintage patterns can be found but it takes a great deal of looking. I have amassed a little collection of them and actually made a few. Believe me it's easier to start with a vintage plus pattern than to grade up.

    My favorite spots are Lanetz Living, Out of the Ashes and the Blue Gardinia. I have even found a couple of wonderful ones at The Pattern Shop. You will need to spend alot of time trolling for patterns, but they are out there to be found!

  6. I too have a waist one to two sizes smaller than my hips and always found ready-to-wear clothes such a nightmare. And then I started sewing... First it was dresses for my little girls, then I moved on to shirts and pyjamas for my husband, and one day I bit the bullet, embraced the curves, and bought a vintage pattern for myself - a 1953 Simplicity summer dress with a nice cinched waist and a New Look flare. My poor girls and husband have barely had a look-in since and my pattern collection has mushroomed to epic proportions.

    It takes some trial and error to understand your shape and measurements, and which fashions suit you best. I'm definitely a late 40s - 50s girl. I love some of the 60s looks, but they don't seem to like me back (too much foof and fabric in the full skirts, and no longer slim enough to feel comfortable with the Joan Holloway look...). I find the vintage sizes tend to be far more reliable once you know your measurements. I often buy mine in half sizes because they have slightly narrower shoulders and I then lengthen the waist where necessary and always add 3 - 4 inches to bottom hem, which is very easy tweaking. I tend to buy patterns in my size as I don't have the time or patience to grade up or down. eBay and Marge at Born Too Late Vintage have always been my friends...

  7. I agree, go for it! There are plus-size vintage patterns (although 12-14 is hardly plus size!) The most important advice I can give -- and I know this is a "duh, of course" kind of thing -- is to match your body measurements to the pattern envelope and ignore the size numbers altogether. Even though I knew better, for years I ignored the body measurements and cut out the pattern size of the RTW size I was, then prayed that I'd be able to squeeze into it. I was so deep into the "I have to be a size 6" stupidity that I couldn't accept that a pattern size six wasn't the same as a RTW size 6. Of course the resulting garment didn't work, and I felt worse about myself and sewing. One day I had an apple-on-the-head epiphany -- "Oh! Sew the size that matches my body measurements!" and everything got much better."

  8. I have a lot of vintage patterns and I say "go for it." But, be prepared to make a lot of muslins ;). I recently made a "wiggle dress" for my decidedly not vintage proportions and this is what I came away with: http://cheapandpicky.blogspot.com/2009/08/final-photos-and-recap-of-vintage.html. I did have to make a lot of alterations, but in the end, a pair of spanx is all I needed, and I consistently get a lot of compliments whenever I wear the dress.

  9. "Dear Gertie!" That's great!

    Dear Gertie, I love your attitude.

    Isn't this why we sew so we can wear what we want to wear and adjust the pattern to fit our bodies?

  10. It sounds like I have a figure very similar to yours, and I love vintage styles like you're talking about. Wiggle dresses with a midriff band can be very flattering if you're small above the waist and then have a below waist tummy pooch (like me). The one thing I would recommend is converting any darts in the skirt of those styles to tucks or gathers depending on your fabric. Darts tend to create an odd hollow below the tummy pooch.

    If you're worried about vintage patterns fitting, there are always a few modern ones with retro silhouettes. I've made Butterick 5333 ( http://www.butterick.com/item/B5333.htm ) with the pencil skirt on the dress bodice several times, and everyone assumes it's vintage.

  11. Rock ON, lady. I am so glad to hear someone speak out against retro foundations for modernized retro looks. I do NOT want to shoehorn myself into a girdle ... well, pretty much any time, but especially not when I'm rocking a vintage dress.

    And I think your advice to Kris is spot on. She was on the right track herself, and I'm glad you encouraged her to just embrace her pencil skirts.

  12. First of all, today is my first time on your blog. And I love it! I added you to my Feed Reader.

    How pleased I am to hear you say you don't like huge foundation garments (b/c I don't either!) and that "reality" (as the OP framed it) can BITE YOU. What a great attitude to have!

    Trudy wrote, "Isn't this why we sew so we can wear what we want to wear and adjust the pattern to fit our bodies?"

    I've been sewing for years, and I can tell you for intermediate / advanced seamstresses that doing alterations for fit is NORMAL. Most people have variations of shape from the size models. And not just, "my butt is big" or whatever - but high hip, short arms, longwaisted - etc. In fact, someone who is a "true" size whatever and needs no adjustment is rare. They're called Fit Models (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fit_model). "Fit For Real People" is a wonderful book that has a very interesting chapter about how the pattern industry comes up with their sizes.

    I'm currently sewing on a pair of pants that are even more "vintage" than most hear likely sew - 1850's Western-style trousers. I am adjusting for my typical adjustments. I agree with what's been said here: the first thing to do is throw out the size numbers and look at the measurements.

    If anyone here wants more specific advice on how to adjust patterns to fit one's shape, patternreview.com has excellent forums populated by helpful and talented stitchers!

    Oh and incidentally, this week is Fat Free Talk Week:


  13. Dear Gertie,

    Just found your blog today. Love it. Have to read it. Won't be able to live without it. Had wanted to begin sewing garments from some of the Vintage Vogue patts - was a lil nervous, but I see it can be done!

  14. Thanks for the post Gertie and thanks everyone else for the comments and suggestions. After a bit more thought and a bit more reading I've come to realize that it's more about my own body image than about the clothes. I've allowed myself to become so beaten down by society's message that I should be a size 6 that I've turned into a sloppy, boring, timid dresser with the style sense of a trained sheep. Ugh!

    Vintage sewing, here I come! Just as soon as I clear the cats off the cutting table.

    Thanks again! Kris

  15. Kris--you can do it! It's perhaps one of the singlemost empowering things you can do to make a garment that fits you well. I agree with the others--if you sew for fit, the look will almost always be flattering.

    to Gertie--I like the idea of Dear Gertie. And I must say you have really helped me start to believe that it's okay to be curvy. Thanks!

  16. Kris, you can be a vintage diva! I'm a wee litle thing, and I WEAR pencil skirts, because I like them, but I can't ROCK them like you can!

  17. while I absolutely DO agree that we should wear whatever makes us happy, sew with alterations for perfect fit, and throw size numbers to the wind, I have to say but.....

    So, I found this blog through Burdastyle. First thing I sewed (after a 15 year hiatus on garment sewing) was the JJ blouse. After swearing that I will never make anything with ruffles again, I have to say, I love it. Thrilled with it. So happy I made it and can wear it in public and all that jazz.

    Next up? The Zoe dress. Simple, easy peasy pattern, super cute in a retro 60's mod kinda way right? So into it, so wanting to rock the style.

    And yet - it looks like a sack on me. Can't even begin to think of what I can do to make it better - I KNOW it needs to be more body skimming, but if I take it in, it will become horribly unflattering...which is NOT what we want, right? We want clothes that make us look GOOD

    So, yes, try those vintage and retro styles, pencil skirt your heart out (honestly, who DOESN'T look hot in a properly fitted pencil skirt?) but know when you've been beaten and when the style is just not that into you.


  18. Dear Gertie - love it!!
    You are my must read blog every day!! I don't sew vintage, so I have no advice.
    Good luck Kris - let us know when you have finished your first item!

  19. I agree with what you say about the importance of tailoring a garment to your size - I guess my issue is with celebrating Joan's 'curves', in that they're no more an accurate representation of the average female than a size 0 model is. A natural hourglass like Joan is rare, just like people who are naturally really skinny are also rare. I'm slim, but with a disproportionately thick waist and tummy, so I feel left out on both sides of the body image debate. I tire of hearing that I'm not a "real woman" because I don't have curves, but I don't fit into the other ideal of slender female perfection either. :(

    To sum up, I think that women should be encouraged to feel comfortable in their body, not just live up to another ideal (which is where I think the whole 'curves' movement is heading).

    Sorry for my rant! Probably only about 50% of that related to your post, I just needed to get it off my chest!

  20. I agree with binkydoll that not all shapes are meant for all body types. Not all vintage is created equal. That Zoe dress is a mod 60's style that really isn't good for curves. 50's styles are so much more flattering for people who have them.

  21. I love Love LOVE vintage sewing and styles. And as a plus size apple/inverted triangle figure with a very large bust, I have had to carefully choose the vintage styles that look best on me. A very wise seamstress and fellow blogger recently gave me some simple, yet powerful, advice. She said that I need to embrace what looks best on me, regardless of my attraction to other styles. I think she is correct. While deep down I am a die-hard New Look groupie (oh, I swoon over a tiny waist and full hips enveloped in an even fuller skirt.). But the truth is I just can't pull the look off very well. I have a short, thick waist and that is my reality. I am a person that never looks good in a pencil skirt, no matter how good the fit.

    However, I have found that the styles of the 1930s are very flattering to my figure. The pattern designs often include flutter sleeves or a broad, rounded shoulder cut in one piece with the yoke. The styles are created for a strong shoulder and a straighter waist/hip area, which is perfect for my shape. There are less darts and more gathers, and even the hairstyles of the time reflect my natural reality (short and curly).

    I have broad shoulders, a prominent bust, and short curly hair! I feel like a model image of 1930's fashion, and it is so empowering to sew what works for me, rather than against it.

    The more we can each pinpoint what works for us, the better able we are to adapt our tastes to our figure reality, and ultimately sew things we like to wear. And that is the ultimate end goal of sewing.

    p.s. For those of you plus sized ladies that love vintage fashion, check out Decades of Style (http://decadesofstyle.com/) for redrafted vintage patterns up to a size 46 bust! I adore the patterns I have sewn from DoS. I am their number one cheerleader.

  22. Hi everyone. Love your blog Gertie.
    I think the key is fit and flatter, no matter what your style preference is. Does the garment fit you properly? And if it fits, does it actually flatter your figure (no matter what size you are)? For instance, I know that spaghetti straps are not my friend. If I am going to go sleeveless, the best look for me is a raglan cut.
    Luckily, when you make your own clothes, you have lots of options for creating well-fitting clothes that flatter your unique shape and express your individuality.

  23. confidence is queen :O) i'm so glad you embrace your natural loveliness!

  24. I just bought these great brown fishnets from spanx and I love them: http://glammed.blogspot.com/2009/10/hello-autumn.html

  25. I know I should trust the pattern size but the problem I have is that when I measure my hips they are 3-4 sizes bigger then my bust measurement even though I know they are not that different.


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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