Friday, March 12, 2010

Vintage Sewing and Body Image

So we've talked a lot here about sewing and body image in general, but it's occurred to me lately that the sewing of vintage patterns brings with it a distinct set of issues. I spent last night painstakingly fitting my muslin for the background dress, and it's interesting that even though the basics of sewing and fitting haven't changed, fitting modern bodies into the silhouettes of eras past can be rather disheartening.

First of all, there's the fact that vintage patterns are available in limited (usually smaller) sizes. There's nothing like shopping for vintage patterns and being confronted with bust measurements that are several inches smaller than my waist. Patterns with a 36" bust are often marked as extra large or the seller will make a fuss about how unusual it is to find a pattern in a particular size. (Speaking of which, have you guys seen this shop Booty Vintage? She specializes in larger patterns.) Patterns for plus size women were often matronly (remember Mrs. Exeter?). Shopping for vintage patterns can make you start to feel gigantic and alienated, no doubt.

I also find that fitting changes needed for vintage patterns can be far more intense and dramatic than contemporary patterns. (Makes sense, right?) I sometimes sew from a 34" bust vintage pattern. This will usually fit me in the shoulders, but beyond that, many inches need to be added all over. With every inch I add, I can choose to beat myself up or not let the measurements determine my self worth. I know what I'd like to choose every time, but emotions can take over. It's easy to start to feel like your body is abnormal if you don't match the 34-28-37 figure prescribed by your pattern envelope.

The other interesting thing about sewing with vintage patterns is that it can be very obvious - and disconcerting - how much fit has changed over the decades. In fact, the fit of vintage patterns can feel downright alien at first. Bodices were often long and blousier than we're used to. Waist seams were sometimes severely nipped in, creating an uncomfortable digging-into-the-midsection feeling if you're not wearing a girdle or waistcincher. The fit can be so different from decade to decade that it can feel like a complete crap shoot when you open a vintage pattern: what the heck is this thing going to look like? But perhaps that's part of the fun of it, too.

And then there are the illustrations on vintage patterns. Pattern illustrations of the past were idealistic at best (like the fabulous one above; pattern available here). It's easy to fall in love with a wasp-waisted dress, only to discover that it doesn't live up to your expectations once you put it on your body. So often the blame can be laid on our own bodies, rather than our optimistic expectations from looking at an exaggerated illustration on a pattern envelope.

For me, sometimes fitting something beyond recognition can be helpful, body-image wise. The background dress has required so much fitting that I've lost track of whether I'm adding or subtracting inches from the original pattern as I go. This takes away the trap of placing a value on each alteration that I do. All I notice is that I start to look better with each tweak. What I've learned most from sewing my own clothes is that nothing is more flattering to my body than a perfect fit, and that's the most confidence boosting thing of all, don't you think?

Thoughts, anyone? Are there particular body-image issues that you've come across while sewing from vintage patterns? Or do you think the issues are generally the same no matter what decade your pattern is from?


  1. What I've started doing when I fall in love with a vintage pattern is to google the pattern number or search for it on Flickr to see actually examples of what it looks like on a real person's body. Obviously this isn't going to show me what it will look like on my body, but it's definitely closer than what it looks like on the illustrations.

    I've tried to not be obsessive about sizing for a while now, even with store bought close. My size fluctuates depending on what store I'm at and who the store caters to, so I've stopped being fussed if I'm a medium one place and an extra large somewhere else. I'm trying to apply the same to patterns, although apparently my measurements dictate that I should be wearing a vintage size 18. (Who were all these tiny 1950s women?!)

  2. I am extremely leery of pattern envelope illustrations and realistic about my own body shape -- even with foundation garments, I am never going to look wasp-waisted. Never. That is fine. I move on to a style that will suit my body type better.

    Maybe the reason why there are so many 32 and 34-inch bust patterns floating around out there is because the ones in more wearable sizes got used and therefore removed from circulation. In other words, what we're seeing is not a realistic snapshot of body size at the time but the opposite -- the patterns we're using were left over because they were too small for most women.

    This glut of smaller patterns is great for me -- I sew partly because I'm too narrow-hipped to fit pretty much ANY skirt or pants available on the UK high street -- but I can understand its frustrations for anyone bigger than a 34 bust.

  3. Well ... back then undergarments were different, so that helped with fit.

    Also, I like to think that the larger size patterns are hard to find because they were used to pieces and don't survive.

    Sort of like how everything thinks that older houses were all made better. Well, the ones that survived until now WERE made better - that's why they are still here. The houses that weren't made well have been destroyed.

  4. First of all: love your blog, found it some weeks ago when I was ill. And I am waiting impatiently for the background dress which I love, love, love.

    When I saw your FOs I was astonished that the fit was so perfect. I am not good at fitting because I don't really know what I am doing. And astonished I was because when I tried my first three vintage patterns it did not work out at all. And yes, I felt it was my fault: too stupid and too bad build, it seems to make it work ;-)

    I am in fact a 34" bust (yay, no problem finding vintage patterns for me) but fitting - not without lots of inches taking out. The shoulders fit great, the back is ok, but the bust and the waist are way too big, enormously so! Hips can be a bit tight, but this is an easy change even for me. After the first try I felt like a complete failure with my too wide hips, my short torso and my non existent bust (or so it seemed in this bad,bad dress.)

    But just a week ago (encouraged by your blog, really)I made another one and took it in, changed gathers into darts and well, it kind of worked. Thanks to you!

  5. I can only agree. Perfect fit is flattering.

    The idealistic paintings on the pattern envelope? Look at the envelope of the pattern in this post. Their waists are as thin as their faces are wide! How unrealistic and weird isn't that?

  6. I like the way you explain these feelings - I can relate! And I like the sense of journey towards body acceptance. It is a positive process for us as seamstresses to conquer old fears and reinforce new attitudes. I feel this carries over into all areas of my life and improves my confidence. The most flattering garment is one that fits.

    It is interesting to me that some of my youngest relatives are braver about this. I have a niece with a 34G bust with a wasp waist and hips. I will be sewing a prom dress for her soon (a vintage style that she will ROCK) and my DD is a big-boned gal. I am sewing a party dress for her this weekend. She told a hilarious story of being nude in an Asian bathhouse and dealing with stares from Asian women. She held her head high and mentally told them, "I paid my $2 and I am going to enjoy my bath. I you want to stare at me, be my guest!"
    I am heartened by the confidence I see in these young women. hee hee, you always inspire people to write REALLY long comments!

  7. First, I think you have to take the artist's illustration with a grain of salt - anyone can draw a perfectly fit garment in a sketch, but that doesn't mean it will look exactly like that in real life.

    Regarding the sizing - one could argue that the small ones are in existence due to lack of use. But you cannot ignore the fact that people are bigger than they were 50 years ago. Some of this can be attributed to better nutrition. For example, adult women who were sewing in the 1950s were born during the Depression (or earlier) and grew up in WWII. Those years were not exactly known for an abundance of food in the US (or the rest of the world). If people spend their childhood and teenage years deprived of key nutrients and calories, growth will be stunted. Poor nutrition has not been an issue in the US since the 1950s, and then of course with the advent of processed foods, our food supply has increased dramatically.

  8. From an anthropological perspective, it makes sense that bodies are bigger now. But there are other things at play that are contributing to the vast difference in sizes between women of fifty years ago and women now.

    The bioavailability of synthetic hormones in our food and in prescription drugs certainly has an effect on the human body. Fifty years ago cows were not treated with BGH and birth control pills were not as widely available. If you increase a person's exposure to hormones and estrogen mimickers, there will be a variety of responses in the body, among them things like fat tissue deposition and and increase in breast tissue.

    Studies confirm that girls are going through puberty earlier, which means that bodies are growing faster (and larger).

    The end result is that we are bigger and curvier than we were a century ago. We also live in the age of vanity sizing (I know that's a delicate topic, but as a person who is on the low end of the size range, it is frustrating that a size 00P is too big for me, and I own some vintage dresses in size 6 that I cannot even zip up around my 25waist/31 bust.

    Of course I love the 'idea' that a double 00 is too big for me and that I have to use vintage patterns in order to get a proper fit (I love the "Junior Petite" sizes from the 1960s - they are a much closer fit for me). But the reality is, I am the exact same size now as I was in high school, and in high school (early 1990's) I wore a size 4 dress.

    I find the topic of body image and fashion/sewing interesting, but as a person who is in the health/medical field, I find it hard to jump on the "it's ok to be bigger/feel good about your bigger size" bandwagon. I am in no way advocating eating disorders or suggesting that women should maintain an unhealthy low body weight in order to fit into certain clothes. But, I cannot ignore the weight issues that our country is facing (as the person who has to test and counsel people about their risks for heart disease and diabetes, and it is very clear that the easiest solution to the problem is to lose weight, it's frustrating to hear larger people say "I just accept myself the way I am." Ok fine, but your ECG shows signs of lateral wall ischemia, your blood glucose levels indicate pre-diabetes, and you're cholesterol is too high - are you going to accept that too?)

    I think we need to come to a happy medium - a place where we maintain an appropriate weight for health purposes. That means that most of us won't fit vintage patterns, because of things that I mentioned earlier (better nutrition, exposure to hormones, etc). But, that doesn't mean that we should just accept things like being extremely overweight, or embrace the concept of body acceptance regardless of size. If you are healthy and have reduced or no risk of disease due to maintaining a health weight, then it should not matter how clothes fit. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that in addition to biological variables that we have no control over, we certainly do overeat and are facing a major weight problem in this country.

  9. I'm working on a vintage dress now (Simplicity 4701) and having some similar issues. The top is rather blousey in the back, when I was expecting it to be a bit more fitted, and of course I had to widen the whole outfit a few inches to fit my non-vintage bod. (Less in the top than bottom, unfortunately!) But I'm counting on the awesome scalloped front of the top to take people's attention away from my lower half :-)

    But if you study history, you'll see that in general, people are bigger than they were generations ago, for a variety of reasons. Take feet for example: My mom wears a 6, I'm a 7, and my friends' teen daughters are 9s and 10s!

  10. I love vintage patterns and I love to watch folks bring them to life. For me I can't get passed the images on the envelope. I know my waist is not that small so it won't look like that on me. Ad thats crazy. I wish folks would be more diligent about posting their pics so I can develop the courage to sew a truly (not 80's) vintage pattern

  11. I'm going to agree with a lot of the other comments here. The trouble with illustrations over photographs of the actual garments is that illustration is all idealized. Fashion drawing starts with the concept that the ideal body is nine heads tall, and yet we all learn that the average person is only 7 heads tall. This is an impressive distortion of what people actually look like.

    In patterns, vintage and current, I have discovered, that while my bust and hips are definitely two different sizes, almost always my shoulders will never fit. So I take inspiration from the patterns, maybe purchase one to see how the experts managed to figure out a seam line but then I go and futz with my measurements and dress form until I have something that will fit and flatter me.

  12. I know that I have been intimidated in the past by the pattern much so that I would pull the pattern out, sigh, and put it back in the drawer......instead of trying to sew it - for fear of just not being able to adjust it to my - uhhh- "curvy" figure. :) Swearing to myself the whole time that once I lose a few more pounds, I would finally start sewing those vintage patterns that I have so lovingly collected over the years. Just this year I said screw it - I want to and deserve to sew for I am on a mission to make them work now. I won't be shamed into not wearing/sewing something that I love due to my ample curves. I will take the time to alter the patterns, to do what it takes to make them work for me. All girls, even us plumper ones deserve awesome vintage looks!

  13. i feel extremely lucky at times, having an average height and an hourglass figure with average measurements, i don't have to adapt patterns most of the time. i'm only starting to sew vintage patterns, made a muslin for a fifties dress some time ago (but still no time to make the actual version) and i didn't have to alter anything...

    i do agree with the whole 'vintage patterns are so small because the regular ones have all been used'. that's a problem i run into at every store: it's nice being an average size, but that means that way more people are going to buy the clothes you also fit into and they will be gone first.

  14. I think it might be comforting to take a look through old art - art that rendered a woman in comfy clothes or none at all. Even in the height of corsetry, women pretty much looked like... women.

    The other factor is that yes, they were just smaller. Smaller everywhere! Smaller feet, smaller hands, smaller... everything. And if we're looking at 50s fashion, we should remember they've just come off a decade of mandatory diet (the Depression) and regulation (the war years). Of COURSE they aren't as big as we are!

    Love your site... even if I think I look better in Edwardian fashion than 50s. ;) Now King Edward, there was a man who appreciated a mature figure... LOL.

  15. I find this all very confusing. I have always understood that this waif thing in fashion started out with Twiggy in the sixties. And in fact when I've seen movies from the 1930s, old swimsuit fashion shoots from teh 1940s, etc, the women are much closer to looking "normal" than todays. (Shocking! Dancers in those Busby Berkeley montages have thigh muscles!) Yet, then there are these patterns and sizing issues you refer to. Is the idea that you had so much underwear holding you in that you could fit into these? Maybe the average woman is bigger today, but seriously, are modern measurements THAT different that a 36 inch bust is extra large? Or did people buy patterns they knew wouldn't fit and know how to alter at home--much as many people stuff their feet into a smaller size shoe just to not feel like they have big feet? (I'm 5'10" so, of course, I don't even go there...)

  16. I've made many vintage patterns as theater costumes. I find it helps to visually undress the models in the sketches. Then you can see that artist has distorted the human body beyond recognition. Of course, the 9-heads proportion is standard for fashion sketches even now. (Height of an average person is 7 x the length of the head. Fashion sketches show the model 9 x the length of the head)
    More helpful is to look at fashion photos of the time, and see how they were actually worn.

  17. I read a lot about how hard it is to find patterns one likes, in one's size. And I always wonder, why don't people make their own patterns? I majored in apparel design in art school (before I transferred)and we covered basic patternmaking in a semester. I know it's an art, but it's not the hardest thing in the world.

    I would think this would open a new world of pleasure, creativity and body acceptance to a person who sews. So that even if it's very difficult, it would be worth it. You'd save a lot of money, too.

  18. I agree that the more perfect the fit, the more flattering. We all have to get dressed, right? Women take things so personally, me included. So the vintage pattern measurements are far from yours, what can you do about it? You can either make it work for you or go without. I think most gals would agree that a beautifully fitting dress in an adorable vintage style is infinitely more attractive(albeit larger than you would like) than whatever frumpy, poorly constructed, poorly fitting thing you can find at the mall.
    In response to the comment concerning health, I think it's important to note that thin by no means equals healthy. My mom has at least 5 peers who have died of cancers or heart attacks and each of them were the "picture of health", adhering to a lowfat diet, daily exercise, supplements, you name it. Not one of her larger, less health consious friends have any notable health issues. I'm certainly not downing healthy eating and exercise, I'm all for that, but I do think that excess in either direction is unhealthy, particularly to the skinny side. Being too thin damages hormonal systems in your body and is proven to cause premature aging, and it shows. I resent the taboo associated with being "normal"( I use that term loosely). I'm sure that many of these vintage patterns where drafted with the understanding that the wearer would use restrictive undergarments. Also, in talking with my grandma, I've learned that women often intentionally constructed their dress waists to be too tight and then forced themselves to suck it in all day. I don't have the energy for that, nor do I have the time, energy or desire to perform the litany of other womanly tasks that my grandma felt compelled to perform. Modern women hold to different values. I am more concerned with what I accomplish in my clothing than what my clothing accomplishes in me.

  19. Great post, Gertie! I've been thinking a lot about this with my first forays into vintage sewing. I've been making a size 34 vintage maternity dress and while it fit perfectly in shoulders and back I had to add 6" total to the bust in front and 12" to the belly area (did women then not get AS pregnant?)

    But I think even modern pattern envelopes can be quite deceptive and misleading, even the ones with photos instead of illustrations.

    My solution to the pattern-envelope-deception (inspired by the advice in Gale Hazen's Fanastic Fit for Every Body) has been to create a digital croquis. I photographed myself from front and back in my underthings, traced the image on the computer, and now before I attempt any pattern I carefully draw it onto my croquis for a realistic idea of what it will look like. I think of it as trying on a pattern before I buy (or sew) it.

    Here are some examples I did with vintage maternity patterns.

    And I've been doing the same thing in preparation for the PR mini-wardrobe contest--this example better shows how the croquis looks raw.

    I think this has helped me even more than just simply facing up to my actual body measurements.

    Now, I happen to be a cartoonist, but Ms. Hazen has instructions in her book for even the most artistically-lacking to do this... and maybe I'll also post a tutorial sometime soon!

  20. I can understand the frustration of not finding patterns! I have a good size for vintage pattern, but they are so very, very rare and therefor very expensive in Sweden. How I'd love to be able to buy from ebay and etsy! Customs...

    It's very good to hear that even you have trouble fitting vintage patterns sometimes, then perhaps I don't need to feel like such a failure... =) My latest project is a mess, and I'm getting to the point where I'm sewing the darn thing together no matter if it fits or not. Perhaps it will fit someone else.

    My greatest problem, both with vintage and modern patterns, is the area around the front armhole and the shoulders. My bust is 34, my overbust 32 (thank you all for making me aware that's where I should've been measuring all along! I'm quite bust-y for my size, I wear a DD) and my shoulders on the narrow side.
    Question: should I be trying to take in a 34-pattern in the shoulders and waist, or should I start with a 32? It seems like so much to add to a 32 pattern! Where and how do I make it bigger to make room for the bust?

    Have a great weekend everybody!

  21. Erika, from all my reading (see Fit For Real People) and studying and FBA experience, it is ALWAYS better for a full-busted woman to start with a pattern that matches her high bust and not her full bust because it's the upper chest and armhole area that is hardest to adjust.

    I say this as someone who has a 35" high bust and a 41" full bust--I've been having to do 3" FBAs (for a total of 6" added) and it is not fun, but the results have been good.

  22. I have a 1950s body figure, so I cant make comment on not being able to find patterns, just to say that I sell patterns and clothing and I know for a fact there are quite a bit of larger sized vintage patterns out there. I come across them a LOT. Obviously not as much as the 34 inch bust, but I do see them quite often.

    And honestly it goes back to foundation garments. if you look at pictures of average people then, even the bigger girls have cinchers/girdles on to make the shape to fit the pattern (save for older women)
    Plus there was an amazing article written by a UK magazine that outline just how much we have grown (size wise) as people in comparison. All those processed foods we have been raised on are not helping us, our waist lines are on average 10 inches bigger ( I *think* the article said 10..) than they were back then.

    Not that its our families faults, more so the food industry, but these terrible habits have been bred into us since birth, we pay the price in our adult years with not being able to shed the "problem areas"

    Oh man this is getting long, I guess I am done... I just want to say that our bodies are completely different than they were back then so no one should get upset if vitnage dresses/patterns are not their proper fit.

  23. I've been struggling with body issues related to fit my entire adult life. I'm a plus size girl, but I'm also very short - so it's next to impossible to get stylish RTW clothes to fit me right, which is why I'm learning how to sew. It's actually even hard to find sewing patterns that fit my measurements well, so I'm working on developing muslins that fit me right, and sometimes it's frustrating because I have to do quite a bit of tweaking to get the right fit (bigger waist, shorter length, smaller shoulders, bigger bust, etc). It gets me down sometimes because I feel like I must have a really weird figure if I have to work this hard just to get things to fit. But then I remember that the garments I'm making will look so much better because of all the effort I'm putting into fitting them. Thanks for talking about this in your blog - if a pretty girl like you struggles with fit, it makes me realize I'm not so weird after all :)))

  24. There's nothing quite like a size 0 person lecturing about weight to get my blood pressure up.

    She wrote: I find it hard to jump on the "it's ok to be bigger/feel good about your bigger size" bandwagon.

    Seriously? Perhaps you can tell us exactly what size is appropriate for us to be according to your standards. Maybe bring back the height/weight charts from the 50s. (Which btw, were developed by the life insurance industry with stats pulled out of thin air and bearing no relation at all to science.)

    Being thin does not equal longevity. Being thin does not equal health. (Take a look at the Winter Olympic female athletes. Some of them look "fat" and "big." And of course on a BMI chart they would rate as "overweight.")

    It IS possible to be "fat" and fit and healthy. The real health problem is SEDENTARY LIFESTYLE (yeah, like reading blogs all day). If people would stop worrying about weight and get moving at least 30 minutes a day their health would improve.

    I'm tired of "health experts" giving us a hard time because we have 10-25 "extra pounds" we "need" to lose. (According to who?)

    If losing weight were so easy, then the leading researchers in the field, like Kelly Brownell of Yale, wouldn't be fat.

    The fact is despite the mountains of research, science still doesn't know much about what makes us fat, how we store fat and how we lose fat. (And no matter how many times it's repeated in your favorite magazine or on TV, the myth of calories in-calories out is just that, a MYTH.)

    Anyone who is interested in an excellent take on this subject should check out NYTimes science writer Gina Kolata's book "Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss--and the Myths and Realities of Dieting."

    As far as body image. It's getting really out of hand in our society. I had the chance to take a fashion course recently with several dozen young women, most all of them quite slim. They all seem to loathe their bodies. Each could point to what was "wrong" with her body. Truly sick.

  25. Looking at pattern illustrations across the decades cured me of any issues. The body shapes are so stylized for each era that I just look past the illustration to the design details. Let's not forget that a woman would be assumed to have worn the 1930's wide-shoulders-no-hips styles in her twenties AND the 1950's tiny-torso--wasp-waisted-curvy-hips dresses when she was in her forties. Human skeletal structure doesn't change just beacuse pattern illustrations do!

    I love fitted vintage patterns for the opportunity to tastefully show the shape of my body with structure (instead of tacky, unflattering, clingy stretch). Wearing bigger/looser contemporary clothes makes me feel bigger than I really am. I bought the recent Vogue Tracy Reese dress pattern (1086) and then decided not to make it due to the intentional bagginess in the bodice. How is that ever going to be flattering?

    The other issue with waist fitting in vintage patterns is that the undergarments limited the change in a woman's waist shape between standing and sitting, so less ease was required. That's my theory anyway, based on wearing a waist cincher with my 1950's dresses. Have you ever measured your sitting (or slouching!) waist measurement? For me it's much bigger than my standing waist measurement. You can fit the waist much more snugly if the undergarments keep the waist measurement constant. Undergarments also make me much more aware of my posture, so my slouchy rounded shoulder issues practically disappear when I'm wearing the waist cincher. And the improvement in my posture makes my whole body look and feel better!

    Regarding the tiny 1950's women? My guess for a contributing factor (in addition to the diet/nutrition/hormone stuff) is: SMOKING! A metabolic stimulant that stunts your growth! Perfect for staying tiny (and dying early of debilitating disease or cancer)!

  26. Great post and interesting comments!

    Pattern envelope illustrations remind me of an incident in high school chemistry class. My chemistry notebook was selected by the teacher as an example of what not to do in a chemistry notebook and stated: "this is an example of an artist's remdition of a chemistry notebook."

    So now when I look at a pattern envelope illustration, I always see an artist's rendition of what the outfit looks like.

    I understand frustration about sizing in vintage patterns but once I found the FBA my frustration dissapated.

    I also have to add in that in my family I am much smaller than both my mother (3 inches taller) and grandmother (4 inches taller) and posssibly great grandmother. My family seems to be shrinking!

  27. I think it's important for everyone to remember that "back then", most women still didn't have the necessary body type to fit into the idealized fashions without special undergarments. Imagine how they must have felt without the option to dress any other way.

    Yes, we are all getting bigger, but we shouldn't romanticize the past so much that we think that no one back then ever had to adjust a pattern to accommodate their natural body, or to believe that every woman grew into the perfect cookie-cutter shape. They're not our enemies, who somehow had the secret to perfection. They're our comrades and predecessors in the battle not to let the media and other societal pressures brainwash us into thinking there's always something wrong with ourselves that, luckily, there's a product or method for.

    And let's say you can buy any pattern off the shelf, sew it up and it fits you perfectly without alterations - does that guarantee happiness, or confidence? I don't usually have any trouble sewing with a size 14 right out of the envelope (luckily, because I don't think I have the skill to improvise alterations) but that doesn't mean I've always loved or been satisfied with my body. I am now because I don't compare myself to other women, or stylized illustrations, or give any worth to the opinions of people who don't care about me.

  28. kerry, you make a lot of valid points...

    It is ALWAYS OK to feel OK about yourself.

    Feeling OK about yourself helps you take good care of yourself and your health. I do not promote unhealthy behaviors, but I do not control what other people do, either.
    I'd rather support every person's basic right to feel OK about themselves.
    You seem to think self-esteem should not be allowed to fat people, or am I just reading that wrong.

  29. If we're talking about body image issues - there were photos of Laeticia Casta and Elle McPherson in the newspapers yesterday modelling for Louis Vuitton (I think) and both look positively large compared to the current catwalk model trend. Both women looked great (although Elle McPh's bodice would have looked even better had it been a size up). So what exactly is the fashion industry's excuse for using underage waifish girls?

    Women come in all shapes and sizes yet for decades young women have been conditioned to feel ugly and undesirable unless they conform to a certain size. My mother grew up thinking that to look beautiful was to look like Audrey Hepburn. And so my mother taught me to diet and throw up (I kid you not), projecting her own body image issues onto me as I grew up. It's taken me years (and overcoming boulimia in my late teens early twenties) not to care so much about size, yet to this day my mother can still cut to the quick with a single remark about how much nicer and flatter my tummy would look if only I cared to wear a girdle!

    The fashion and beauty industries have preyed upon women's insecurities for decades. Now the health industry adds to that voice... (women used to smoke, take diet pills, etc. to keep their weight down; can't have done wonders for their health). I keep hoping we will learn to rise above it and the backlash starts here... but old habits do die hard.

  30. OK, kerry, I just read your whole entire post one more time and it did not piss me off as much on the 2nd go round. sorry if I was rude.

    You did post right after I did, though, so it made me feel like you were criticizing my daughter.

    That's stepping into dangerous territory.

  31. I find 1950s patterns fit me better than today's patterns. I wear a 36 bust, sometimes a 38, and I find that my seamstress can usually sew those up with few alternations. That said, as a pattern seller, the most plentiful vintage patterns seem to be in bust 30-32. Bust 30s sit on my site and rarely sell. I've gotten to the point that I almost never even buy them. Frustrating.
    I do find the illustrations on old patterns more realistic for my body type than the skinny minis on today's envelopes.

  32. I definitely know what you mean! I have a small bust but a larger waist and hips according to the size standards on patterns, and it can be disheartening to hear the pattern tell you,"You're too small here, but too big here." In other words, it can feel like you're not perfect enough. However, we should realize that these standards are humanly impossible, that even a supermodel would not fit it (too skinny in all the wrong places)! I think the thing is to take control; the pattern is the oddball, thin and large in the wrong places, and you need to change it (not it needs to change you). There are moments when I could cry because my almost finished sewing project doesn't fit :(

  33. Gertie, I hope you will not take this comment the wrong way. I love your blog and generally think the relationship between sewing and body image is interesting. Sometimes though I feel that I have read one too many body image posts and I want to role my eyes. Let's review some fact shall we?

    1) You are a beautiful woman.
    2) You have a great sense of style
    3) You have the sewing chops to create garments that suit you stylistically and physically. Lucky you!
    4) All patterns require a lot of adjustments to achieve a great fit. This is not because pattern companies are evil but because all women are shaped differently. I am never ever going to be able to buy a pair of pairs off the rack that fit, or a pants pattern that can be sewn up without tweaking. Again that's not because the fashion industry is out to get me but because (I have learned) my pelvis tilts forward more than the average woman. Thanks to sewing (and with a lot of muslins) I can now make pants that fit. Yay me!

    You don't have to feel bad about your body! No pattern can make you feel bad, nor any drawing, nor any advertisement. If you decide that your body is beautiful it *will be* beautiful. And everyone will be able to see that.

  34. spottedroo, point taken, but I don't just write these posts for/about myself. A lot of what I write doesn't come just from personal experience but from empathy I have for other women's experiences. The point is to generate a discussion that takes into account diverse points of view, not to harp on about my own issues or make you roll your eyes. I do appreciate your feedback though as I try to make the content here very balanced.

  35. I find a ridiculous amount of ease in the bust of patterns from the mid 1940s - mid 1960s. Is this caused by the different undergarments? They fit in the shoulders, so I would assume so. So usually I would have to remove fabric from the bust, but add to the waist and hips. I'm not experienced enough yet with fitting to understand how to remove and add in those areas smoothly, but I'm trying to get better. I'm also learning to ignore the pattern illustrations to an extent - they never properly show blousiness in the bodice for example. The first vintage pattern I tried made me feel upset about myself, but I'm realizing that people are all different shapes, and what's important is learning to fit myself!

  36. Gertie, I love your posts about body image. I don't care if you do them every day! They speak to me equally powerfully each time.

    I think it's worth pointing out that Adele Margolis, whose books you know well and were published in the 60s, speaks frequently about fit issues and body types ("The Complete Book of Tailoring" and "Dressmaking for Beginners" spring to mind immediately). Even then, she emphasizes that nobody is a perfect 12 or 14, which is why she wrote a 400-page book about fitting.

    Her advice, which I take as gospel, is to measure yourself accurately and learn how to adjust patterns to fit. She instructs you to get to a place where you know your body so intimately that you immediately make the necessary adjustments--1/2" off the shoulder, added to the waist, etc.

    We all have body image issues, but I think learning how to provide yourself with a good fit is the first step to moving past them.

    ...not to say that I have managed to do anything of the sort quite yet :)

  37. Gertie,

    Fair point. I know lots of people have had the experience of visiting a fitting room or making up a pattern and feeling bad about themselves because of it (me too, certainly). Sometimes I wonder though if dwelling on those feelings does a bit more harm then good? (I could be very wrong). One of your posts I really enjoyed was seeing how you adapted a vintage pattern for a more modern silhouette (lowering the bust point, etc.) I'd love to see more posts about how to adapt different patterns to different body types. While I know that there are some styles that will never work for me (you could not pay me to sew myself skinny jeans, for instance), I wonder if some of us shy away from certain styles because we don't know how to make them work for us. One thing I love about Carolyn's blog, for instance, is seeing how she makes a lot of great styles work for her. And one of the fun parts about sewing for me has been to find new shapes that work for me, even though I didn't think they would. Any patterns or tricks you have come across that make you feel *great* about yourself? Again, just my thoughts and I don't know how other women feel. Sorry for the eye-rolling comment. I really do appreciate your blog.

  38. No problem at all, spottedroo, I really do appreciate your feedback. And we are of one mind on skinny jeans! I'll have a lot to say on fitting of vintage patterns once I finish the background dress. Need to make a SECOND muslin first though!

  39. I have actually found that vintage patterns fit my body better than new ones. Apart from the waist issues raised by two children, I am petite and SHORT. I think many patterns of the past were geared towards short women with small bone structure and this is great for me! You are right though, I need some sort of waist nipper for the earlier dresses!

  40. Can I just tell you about my mum who was in her mid twenties in the late 1950s and sewed all her own clothes. She is slim and always has been, " never more than a (vintage)size 12" she has always told me. Well when I was in my early twenties and about the same size I borrowed one of her patterns from the early 60s to make a sheath style dress. It didn't fit! When I told her she said Oh I always used to add a little to the pattern! She was so concerned about keeping to her size that she wouldn't buy a pattern bigger than a 12. Perhaps that's why there are so many of the smaller patterns around, women like my mum refused to be any other size.

  41. I love that as a writer Gertie you can produce topics that evoke so much passion from us readers, and naturally body image is always going to be a controversial one.

    Personally I think Kerry has some really valid points, there are factors beyond our control such as hormone levels in foods etc,and certainly that food is so readily available now has to be a contributing factor but one other obvious one is our lifestyle.

    We are blessed enough to have so many tools that our grandmothers, and great grandmothers did not have that make our life easier, but also reduce out energy output.

    Think about our own hobby, Granny had to pedal to get her sewing machine to work, she burned calories as she sat there sewing. Us, we tilt our foot and voila!

    Granny had biceps of steel from manually washing clothes, wringing them out and walking them out to the clothes line, and she had 8 children to wash for. Us, we pop them in a machine, press a button and come back an hour later to move then 25inches to the dryer, we have 2.5 children to wash for.

    But, as we get further along in our progression of technology we are not doubt going to have options that require less and less effort from us, will OUR grandchildren look at today's patterns and be having the same discussions? Which I think is where we do need to be conscious of our growing sizes, and not be afraid to stand up and say this is not healthiest that you can be, how can we make you healthier. Now please note I am saying healthier NOT skinner, because I do not think the two are mutually exclusive, I have a friend who is teeny tiny in stature, but she could not run even once around the block, so therefore I do not consider her a healthy person.

    I also think that it is a little 'pot calling the kettle black' those of you who are saying Kerry could not understand as she is naturally skinny, would her points be more valid is she were morbidly obese due to thyroid issues? Both conditions are out of the persons control.

    I think the key is that we should be striving to be a healthy and happy, if that means you are a size 2 or 20 is somewhat irrelevant, so long as you are physically able to live your life as fully as you would like at the size you are at.

  42. Sorry I should just clarify, when I say the healthiest 'you' can be, I am not meaning you Gertie, I mean you, as in us the masses out there in the world.

  43. I have a slightly different perspective on this because I grew up in the late '50s-early '60s in a house full of larger women. My mother and older sisters all sewed, and we had a lot of those now-vintage patterns around. I can attest to the fact these patterns in large sizes (18-20) got used to death. No one in our family has a figure remotely like the nipped-in-waist illustrations. But I remember my mother especially making a lot of those styles, and she made them fit her figure and looked nice in them. (She was in her mid-30s during the 1950s and was in the midst of having five children, so my earliest memories of her were probably when she was pregnant!) She did wear girdles sometimes, but as I recall they were just to firm up her middle rather than to change her basic shape.

    I think that was a much less media-obsessed time. People weren't staring at pictures of starving fashion models and celebrities 24/7 on TV and the 'net. Sure, women felt like they were "too fat," and went on diets, but most people, like my mother, just altered the patterns to fit and got on with life.

  44. Anonymous,
    Yes, I'm a size 0, but I am also under 5' tall. I could put on 20 lbs and be clinically overweight and still be a size 4 -evidence that clothing size is not an indicator of health.

    I never stated that a certain size or weight is an ideal standard. I simply stated that from a health care/disease prevention perspective, we need to be wary of becoming overweight to a point where we increase our risk of disease.

    The Metropolitan Life Insurance height weight tables were not drawn from thin air - they were based on normative values from data sets that were collected during the 1940s and 50s, and the weights listed are based on mortality rates. The data sets have been updated several times since their inception and do reflect "modern" weights.

    The medical field does not really rely on those charts, nor do we rely solely on BMI as an indicator of being overweight. BMI is notoriously inaccurate in athletic populations because it fails to consider muscle mass. BMI is accurate in recreationally active or inactive populations. For the average person, BMI is a very effective tool and a quick and easy way to assess weight status as it relates to health.

    Regarding the sedentary lifestyle - yes, it is a factor, but 30 minutes a day of activity is barely scratching the surface of what is needed. Even at ACSM we are looking at revising the recommended daily activity levels because the current guidelines are not enough to make serious improvements in areas of health such as reducing risk factors.

    As for referring to me as a "health expert" - I am an exercise physiologist with a MS in the field of Exercise Science, and I can assure you that any recommendations we make regarding reducing disease risk are based on hard data from scientific studies. We keep current on the research and implement it in our practices. I won't go into it here but I can assure you that calories in DOES equal calories out in terms of weight gain and loss and we know how and why people gain and lose weight. It's not rocket science, it's basic mammalian metabolism. If you want to know more give me your address and I'll send you my lecture notes and text book from some of my classes. Also regarding Dr. Brownell - Dr. Brownell is a psychologist, not a physiologist. Considering his research group is focused on things like advertising and public health policy's impacts on obesity, I would say he has found a number of causes for obesity, and interestingly none of them are related to the so called 'mysteries of metabolism' of which you speak. I am sorry if you do not respect my profession, but the reality is Americans are getting increasingly unhealthy, and we're trying to help them.

  45. I read in a book about vintage knitting that the majority of waists got thicker (their words not mine) during WW2 war because rationing meant that the new diet incorporated a lot of potatoes. Interesting. Maybe this accounts for the push towards accentuating the waist with big skirts and such.

  46. I guess you just have to think of it like if you were buying a dress from a store, chances are you would require some alteration here and there, Its the same with patterns it's pretty unlikely that you will fit perfectly. I agree that the issue with larger size patterns probably due to fact women were much smaller back then, my nanna was 4"9 with size 4(Australian feet)and an australian size 6, I'm 5"7 size 8 feet and an australian 8! and i take after the small side of the family lol. The waist measurements on vintage patterns is always my bone on contention, i am roughly the same size through bust and hips but waist is always several inches bigger, then i remember they had to wear those dreadfully uncomfortable girdles back then and happily add a few inches to the waist and think myself lucky!! lol

  47. Yeah, I know what you mean! One recent project, this 50s "pannier-effect" skirt- thought it would be simple afternoon project, ha! Turned into a fiddly, frustrating come-back-to project over the last month, threw out all proportion & construction from the original except the tucks in front- it's like it was drafted for a different species entirely. Which is pretty much par for my trying to sew anything 50s, so I should know better by now! Hard not to feel disheartened (word I'm looking for may be "mutant"), but once the fit starts to come together, there's nothing quite like it in terms of making you feel like a total bombshell after all- maybe it's the memory of how it looked last several fittings, maybe knowing you figured it out, but hard to not absolutely glow [gloat?] and swagger once you finally get there.

    Over the last year I have learned to be a little more honest with myself in buying vintage patterns, covering the empty space alongside the hourglasses pictured, to better visualize, am I really truly going to love these proportions still if the silhouette is straight up & down? Since my body just doesn't nip in at the waist/out at the hips in a very visible way, sewing vintage without carefully choosing the pattern can really magnify those feelings of being "wrong", instead of just individual.

    Mostly I love to sew early 40s, but I've found myself recently more and more drawn to some 30s patterns, maybe partially influenced by the comparative lack of pronounced hourglass in the styles/illustrations (or partial hourglass effects created by all manner of wackadoo sleeves which I am totally into at the moment, LOL)- I feel like I can better visualize how the finished garment will look on me, makes me feel slightly more confident that the design's style lines will hold up on my body. The too-many-heads proportion still applies in the sketches, but at least they don't show massively begirdled midsections for me to try to think through-- styles aren't necessarily premised on an intricate architecture of shapewear to achieve the look. (If you didn't see the brilliant Susannah's "Hypoxia Blue" post last week: )

    Now, if I could only find some way to fall in love with a dropped waist, and could really get on board with 20s day-frock fashion, I would really be in business-- an aesthetic designed to flatter my actual proportions instead of camouflaging them-- how late I am to that party! Funny how we just went through that whole low-rise thing, but dresses didn't much come into it so much as separates. Admittedly, the low-rise era was truly magic for me in terms of getting off-the-rack [women's] jeans to fit for the first time ever, but I'm still happy to see the back of that trend. One of the greatest pleasures about sewing my own at the moment is getting high-waisted things that fit! Maybe I'll save the dropped-waist, bobbed-hair thing for my Mrs Exeter years.

  48. i have to be honest & say, i don't really feel any body negativity with vintage patterns. all the ones i have are my gramma's. they come complete with her alterations. at 5'3" she was a petite so they're all folded & the recommended lines. also, she had wide hips so she'd cut the next size up. everything was worn with a padded bra & girdle.
    that being said, every pic of her is fab. she didn't expect to naturally fit into the pattern. she never felt bad about it bc everyone she knew did the same thing.
    thus, when i make something from the past, i know i'll need my girdle & padded bra too. and i have to admit, i always feel very cute cute & saucy in them.
    numbers just help you make something that fits you perfectly. they're not good or bad!

  49. better late than never to the comment party on this one. But I would say that for me personally, I spend about equal amount of time mauling a modern size 14 pattern into my body shape as I do those 1940's size 20s. I lived in Japan for 4 years where most clothing came in size "female" which generally ranges depending on brand from about 32-36 inch bust and 25-28 waist which is similar to those vintage patterns so I kind of view that as the "norm" mentally.

    In regards to larger vintage patterns, the size 18s and 20s are out there you just have to search and gather from all the many vintage pattern sites on the internet (and I have at minimum 30 bookmarked) and be up on it weekly as they do come in frequently and then zoom right out as we scavengers snatch them up quick too ;)

  50. I got a bunch of old German sewing magazines (30s-40s) into my hands some time ago.
    What I discovered is the opposite of your problem - many of the lovely patterns are for approximately 100 cm bust! My bust is 90 cm (that's 36 inches, right?). There's, for example, a knitted blouse/sweater on the front page of one of them, and that one is 100 cm, and they proudly claim it on the frontpage... And the model looks very model-ly and everything.
    I wonder, was it a German thing, or does it have to do with the time, or does it have to do with the type of magazines? Either way, those patterns are too big for me!

  51. Hi Gerti,
    I think Susannah may be on the right way ... I find her argument compelling: those amounts of little sizes are left overs, while the general sizes are much more popular and therefor used.
    For example: I usually search for my vintage pattern in german old magazines and - like Hana said before - the average patterns are way to big for me (a bust 32"). I tend to look for young girls fashion and sometimes a pattern for 14-16 year old girls fits me in those magazines ... then I feel really tiny :)

  52. Hi Gertie, I like your body image posts, so keep 'em coming. The ensuing discussion is always fascinating, and no matter who we are and what we look like, body image always matters.
    That said, my vintage sewing is still very early stages, but I find that when I buy vintage pieces (especially home made pieces), that I am amazed at the fit. I am lucky to be pretty "hourglass"y (which a strong shoulder line, and a high hip line, which means my wide part is quite high), and I can fit into 24" waists (OK, with a little help) so vintage cuts can fit me, but they are sometimes a little ridiculous. Also, I think we are on average about 2-3 inches taller than prior generations, and that makes a difference as well.
    I wonder about availability. My mother-in-law sewed a lot of her own clothes, but she was never a junior miss, even when she was under 18. Maybe no one really fit into those existing standards and had to learn to make adjustments. That was probably as important as learning to cut and mark the fabric? I talk to her and my aunt-in-law who did costume design about this sometimes and they said that adjustments were really important, as was a great girdle. I am glad that we don't HAVE to wear restrictive foundation garments anymore, but looking at those illustrations are kind of crazy sometimes. Like who could stand on those legs?
    Great topic, as usual.

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  54. Im 5"1' and about 90 lbs. 31-25-31. i think im too fat and have breasts too small and in grade twelve home ec made my first vintage dress with a waist the circumference of my head, 22 inches. some ppl tell me i am so lucky to be thin. But body image is clearly all in the point of view, which ties nicely into what position your body is in, or how the illustration is drawn, everyone looks a lot thinner if they do that sidey-twisty thing. models are posed, real life is not. i felt like i had accomplished thinness in that dress. it was concrete. the dress was proof. we cannot all accept that bodies are fluid even second to second, we constantly search for a clear cut answer... like a dress size.

    it bothers me that i don't exercise because i'm still a zero.... that is my reason for allowing laziness. concern is placed much more on looks rather than health because looks are evolutionary and social "signifiers" to good health. we are trying to go form the outside in, rather than the inside out.


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