V2: Opinion: The Vintage Figure vs. Today

Why do “vintage bodies” differ so much from our modern bodies?

It seems like most sources (like this one) will have us believe that what we eat and how much is primarily to blame for the increased size (height, weight, measurements) in modern women, and while I agree, I think we’re missing something else.

Most women of the past didn’t just naturally have wasp waists, just like none of us normal, non-January-Jones-women do today.  A common idea is that the shape of clothing – large skirts, or broad shoulders, etc. – gave the illusion of a tiny waist, and while that is true, it doesn’t account for the undressed, tiny-waisted measurements of vintage women.

So what does?

All of you are familiar with the Victorian preoccupation with the tiny waist, and that some women practiced tight lacing for the purpose of narrowing their waists.  This displaced organs and deformed the ribcage to such an extent that it caused all kinds of health problems.  A recent article on The Pragmatic Costumer’s blog talks about the history of this practice, and points to a couple websites showing rather shocking images of women still practicing tight lacing today.  There is even a website offshoot about how to do it.  Yikes!

And so, due to all the obvious problems with tight lacing, the corset was cast off….right?


In the mid 20th century, the girdle became the essential underpinning, a garment that nips in the waist.  All kinds of girdles were available, from high-waisted briefs, to full body suits.  Once again the wasp waist became desirable, and women achieved it by wearing girdles.

The girdle of the 1950s, and the waist shape it meant to create

It’s more than that, though.  The constant use of a corset or a girdle will reshape your body.  Women were expected to wear these undergarments every day, from a fairly young age all the way through adulthood.  The girdle, while not as extreme as the steel corsets of the prior century, certainly had the same binding and deforming effect to a lesser degree.

Average measurements of a British woman, 1950

When the clothes came off, the tiny waist remained.  We see it in stars like Marilyn Monroe, with measurements of 35-22-35.  Could that really be just genetics?  (Read more about Marilyn’s body facts and myths in this great article.)

A girdled Christina Hendricks, as Joan Holloway on “Mad Men.”

This is not to say that many women today do not exhibit enviable hourglass figures, just that for those of us that are more boyish (like me), well … we shouldn’t compare ourselves and think we’re so much different from girls of the past.  I have to admit that I was intrigued by the articles on tight lacing Victorian corsets, but the idea of intentionally displacing my internal organs was repulsive.  What about the far less extreme, 20th century version?  Would wearing a girdle regularly shrink my waist and provide me with a more vintage figure?

Modcloth’s full body corselet, they call it.

I just bought a full body girdle from ModCloth, to hopefully wear with the few vintage items I have.  I don’t know if I can manage to wear it every day, or would want to, but I’m looking forward to seeing the effect it has initially on producing a more hourglass shape.  I’ll admit I’m tired of having to add two extra inches onto the waist seams of all my vintage dress patterns, but is that a viable reason for wanting to squeeze my body into submission, or is it better to let the past be the past, and our modern bodies be free and loose?

What do you think?


  • Alisa

    January 2, 2012 at 6:26 PM

    What blows me away is the average size of their FEET. That average woman is only 2" shorter than me, yet my feet are a size 8, one of my friends is shorter even than the average woman, and her feet are a size 10! The person I know with the smallest feet is only a size 5, and she finds it nearly impossible to find shoes that fit her. What has caused our feet to get so much larger? That can't be diet or girdles!

  • Paula

    January 2, 2012 at 6:34 PM

    One thing worth mentioning when talking about vintage bodies is exercise. In the past housewives really did housekeeping for most of the day, walking from one place to another was more common and people did in general not just sit and watch tv or browse the internet for half the day. And according to some publications exercise helps especially to reduce tummy fat and help to gain a leaner waist.
    And top that naturally slimmer waist with a girdle and there you have it 🙂

  • Robin's Egg Bleu

    January 2, 2012 at 6:43 PM

    Let's not forget about commercial sizing. Back then, a "12" dress wouldn't fit anyone now wearing more than a "6". The sizing has changed over the years to promote sales. We are more excited about fitting into a 6 than a 12 any day! I imagine the shoe sizing standards may also have changed over the decades.

    Also, women's feet do 'grow' over time. I wore a size 5 shoe all through high school. Once I got into college, it became a 5 1/2. Had my first baby, became a 6 1/2. Had my second, became a 7. Three decades later, I'm wearing a 7 1/5. Just depends on your age and whether or not you've had kids!

    I do think though, that simple evolution, plus diet with more vitamins, preservatives etc may have had an effect on our being slightly 'bigger' people.

    And working out! Women are more fit conscious and work out, likely developing more muscle mass in different places than those women of yesteryear. Particularly those of mid-century who had a new machine to do everything for them. Or who had hired (and non-hired) "help" to do the heavy dirty work.

    • sam b

      November 29, 2017 at 2:12 AM

      While shoe sizing may have changed over the decades, foot size has also changed. My great-grandmother left some shoes from when she was in her early 20's, that I used to play dress-up with…until sixth grade when I outgrew them. They were roughly equivalent to today's women's 4 1/2. The thing with shoes is, our grandmothers and earlier generations grew up wearing shoes almost all day, while we grew up wearing socks around the house and flip-flops all summer.

  • ColeV

    January 2, 2012 at 7:10 PM

    I wear a pair of stays for my part-time job, and I can actually tell a difference in my body shape depending on how much I work. And my stays are not tight at all. I can imagine easily how a snug girdle would encourage a body shape (especially since we couldn't develop that "muffin top" of fat above our low waist-lines).
    As for feet, it does have some to do with general weight gain, but more than that it's our shoe style. We wear flip-flops, tennis shoes, crocs and other "lazy" shoe styles that allow for foot expansion (especially in the joints which determine a wide shoe). If you stayed in a small pair of dainty shoes from the time you were little it would probably encourage a smaller foot. My feet actually shrunk about a size when I stopped wearing tennis shoes in middle school and started wearing fitted styles. All of my shoes from early college are even too big for me now.

  • A Baronets Daughter

    January 2, 2012 at 8:11 PM

    I think a lot of the GMO foods have a lot to do with it. what we call "organic" food our predecessors call Normal Food. I agree with a lot of the comment, less time online, more time doing actual work as well as eating food that not from mcdonalds or Montsanto will contribute to us being able to be more like vintage ladies. But genetics have a lot to do with it. I have a considerably smaller waist than my hips, and I'm a plus sized woman. It is just how I was born. I could lose 50lbs and I would still have an hourglass shape. my sisters are like that as are all my girl cousins. No shame in being the shape you are, you are least fit into modern clothing a lot easier. I can't wait to hear your assessment of the girdle.

  • Lauren R

    January 2, 2012 at 9:04 PM

    About feet – Nicole (ColeV) hit it on the head (or foot?). The binding of feet will result, just like waists, in smaller feet, even in adults. Shoes were MUCH tighter and MUCH narrower in the past – check out the width of Edwardian and early 20th century shoes next time you're in a museum or an antique store. For women, high heels were the norm, and were expected to be worn every day, just like girdles, any time a woman went out, went to the city, went to work, went on a date, etc. The constant wear of tight, narrow shoes will shrink your feet. My grandmother's feet were deformed because of this, with the small toes crushed in.

    These days, we were "casual" shoes. Tennis shoes, sandals, hiking books, even dressier flats, are all made on casual shoe lasts that are wide and made for comfort. Dress shoes are still more narrow, but they aren't anything like the everyday "dress" shoes of the past.

    Same rule applies, though – if you want smaller feet, start wearing smaller shoes. No kidding!

  • Unknown

    January 2, 2012 at 9:14 PM

    I would just like to add that over my 50 yrs I have experienced these changes:
    Portion sizes have changed dramatically. We did not snack, who could afford that and 1 fryer chicken fed a family of 4.
    When our clothes got tight we did not go out and buy new clothes.
    My mother had a tiny waist 18" which she attributes to always wearing those wide cinch belts of the 50's. She said you had to sit up and eat less with those belts on, and I can believe it.
    I would also add that there is a reason that you find so many small sizes in thrift stores…too few women could wear them so they were not handed down as much as the medium/large sizes.

    Lastly I say do what makes you feel good about yourself as long as it does not handicap you. I remember in the early 80's really long nails were popular and many women couldn't zip their own jeans…ridiculous that is intentionally handicapping yourself…don't get it, but doing it for a special event..go for it.

  • Rowenna

    January 2, 2012 at 9:41 PM

    This might sound crazy, but what about posture? Girdles would certainly help one stay more upright, but it seems that overall, people from earlier eras just plain stood up straighter. And sat up–no Laz-E-Boys for them. Which would a) increase the perception of a slim waist and hourglass figure but moreso b) encourage strong core muscles, which would in turn produce a thinner waistline. Might be a crazy notion, but I wonder if–in addition to smaller portions and more physical activity, plus consistently worn underpinnings–it could have assisted in producing that 50s ideal figure.

    And I wonder–we know that more people are overweight or obese now than there were in say, 1950. If you were to correct for that–that is, consider measurements of people in a determined "healthy" range only for both periods–would the waist measurements of the 50s really be so different? A 37-27 bust-waist ratio as the British stats showed doesn't seem particulary wasp-waisted to me.

  • MrsC (Maryanne)

    January 2, 2012 at 10:15 PM

    Hmm. Fascinating subject! My thoughts align with those stated, and also, we are overwhelmed with images of fashion drawings, models and movie stars from bygone eras, so maybe our perceptions are idealised? In the future when our postdecessors study fashion drawings, movie stars and models from the now, will they be speculating on the weird way in which women used to be so tall and thin?
    I wondered also about the cut of vintage patterns – the comment I see often is the bust placement is very/too high, but then with modern patterns we still fight with the 'one size fits practically noone' proportions of them.
    StephC at 3hourspast (http://3hourspast.com/2011/11/05/pattern-alterations-weightmuscle-distribution/) has been posting about the three contributing factors to a body's shape and it was a real revelation to me – so obvious in hindsight, that bone structure, muscle mass and body fat distribution each have quite distinct impacts on one's shape. It seems that women were smaller in skeleton structure and muscle distribution, and body fat was more tolerated, giving a softer but slighter ideal shape. That softness allows for making a waist definition with underwear, as there is more to displace.
    Add to this a much "pointier" bra shape and a penchant for hip pads and petticoats over dresses cut differently and with styles that emphasise and flatter the waist and there you have it, smoke mirrors and a whole bunch of misleading imagery. 🙂

  • Katie

    January 2, 2012 at 11:49 PM

    Somebody has probably already said this, but the statistics above are of the average British woman and in Britain a Size 3 shoe is the equivalent of a US size 5! Hope that helps! I know quite a bit of woman in Britain that still wear size UK 3 in modern day.

    This is a wonderful blog! Can't wait to read more! xx

  • Anonymous

    January 3, 2012 at 12:02 AM

    I have Marilyn's hourglass measurements… plus about ten inches. My question all these years has not been, how do they get that figure? but, how did they all stay so skinny? And that does have a lot more to do with diet, exercise and lifestyle habits (the aforementioned walking, etc.)

    But keep in mind, while you dream of the hourglass, that having it may cause you problems in the modern clothing department. It's no longer the fashionable silhouette, and it shows when I try to find clothes that fit, let alone flatter.


    PS this might be my first ever comment, but I love your blog! I saw you at costume college with a ton of shoe boxes and turned to my husband and said, "this place is full of celebrities, oh my god!" =)

  • ZipZip

    January 3, 2012 at 2:42 AM

    What an interesting post and set of comments.

    There has actually been a good deal of research about this question done within different academic disciplines. The basic answer: yep, we're bigger now than we used to be.

    Here's just a bare sample:
    "Americans Getting Taller, Bigger, Fatter, Says CDC" (2004, at http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/healthcare/a/tallbutfat.htm), from the 2004 CDC report at http://usgovinfo.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=usgovinfo&cdn=newsissues&tm=49&gps=339_9_1280_594&f=00&su=p284.12.336.ip_&tt=2&bt=0&bts=0&st=10&zu=http%3A//www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/ad/ad347.pdf. Also
    "From Average to Ideal: The Evolution of the Height and Weight Table in the United States, 1836-1943" (http://ssh.dukejournals.org/content/31/2/273.abstract) and "Criteria for definition of overweight in transition: background and
    recommendations for the United States", at http://www.ajcn.org/content/72/5/1074.full.pdf.

    Yes, we are getting bigger, and sedentary lives and too much high-quality food contribute to it. ColeV, I can't lay my hands on the citation right now, but prior to the Industrial Revolution, the British diet among those of limited means tended to be better than in the nineteenth century: factory work, very bad industrially produced food, and in the countryside, loss of access to rights to the "Common" made for food riots, malnutrition, growth stunting, you name it.

    Oh, and about shoes. I wore pretty high heels day-in, day-out for almost two decades straight. When I became pregnant, the heels had to go, and interestingly, the first few months after leaving them were painful, for the muscles/tendons in my legs had reshaped themselves.

    Very best,

  • Lauren R

    January 3, 2012 at 3:36 AM

    I love that this article is getting everyone talking. I agree with everything that is being said – it is surely a combination of things, to include diet, lifestyle, social expectation, fashion, etc.

  • Caroline

    January 3, 2012 at 4:22 AM

    That is so interesting about tight shoes making feet smaller. This makes so much sense. All through high school I wore an 8. When I started wearing more heels and less sneakers, I noticed I started buying 7 – 7 1/2s. I assumed store sizes were just changing…

    If you do wear a girdle every day I can absolutely see how your body would morph and mold a little. Two examples: One, have you ever noticed people's "muffin tops" above their jeans, right above the (usually too tight) waistband, where there's a roll of fat? Why is it always right above the band? I've always thought this was because the waistband is cutting in, day after day, in the same spot, and the body molds around it. Second, a friend told me she had this weird, horizontal dent across her upper thigh for the longest time. She moved house, it went away, and she finally figured out it was where she had leaned against her counter everyday when she did her makeup etc.

  • Cécile

    January 3, 2012 at 8:51 AM

    It's not only wearing a gridle that makes your waist smaller, only wearing pants that go up to the waist has an effect!

    Look at girls today (enclosing me) we wore hip-pants since the late 90's and so we lost our waists. I remember a very cool jeans I got from my mother, she bought it in 1971 (at the côte azur!) and it had really tiny waist, I wore it when I was about thirteen and I was sooo proud of it as this hippy-stuff was soooo cool.
    My mother never ever wore a gridle or something like that, but today rarely any girl would fit in this trousers because it is not normal anymore to have small waists.
    Clothing does shape your body even if it has no boning!

    I remember last year when I wore my stays for four days (which is not long) and I did measure my waist one day after the event and it was more than 2" smaller than usual, this might not surprise you, but for me it was a strange experience…

  • Lauren R

    January 3, 2012 at 9:12 AM

    Lylassandra , you make a really good point about modern clothing. I'm kindof boy-shaped, lucky me for the current trend, but I expect the natural waist and the hour glass will come back into fashion (does it ever go out of fashion, really?), and then I will have a hard time fitting clothes, and you will have it easy!

    Did I mention I'm super jealous of you?

    Also, I've actually never been to Costume College – this year will be my first, yay! – so it must have been someone else, but this coming year, don't be shy, if you see me come say hi 😀

  • M'lady

    January 3, 2012 at 9:19 AM

    I'm finding this interesting. Its something I've thought about before.
    @MrsC I agree with you there. If people looked at modern day fashion through same channels as we look at vintage/historical fashions they'd think we were all stick thin. I've seen some pictures of my ancestors…and they do not have as tiny waist as is proported to be the norm. Although the shortness runs in the family.
    I have a size 4 1/2 (UK) shoe size (always worn mary jane/trainers shoes). And am not far off the vintage measurements (Only 2" difference if I did a little exercise I'd be the right size) and I have to say its a nightmare finding modern off the peg clothes that fit. It got so bad recently that instead of buying lots of RTW clothes I'm saving up and getting 'timeless' stylish items made (As I'm not good enough with fitting to make stuff work myself when I make them). And by getting the *right* cut my waist looks smaller.
    Fitted shirts and tailored jackets with high waist A line skirts (I buy a size or 2 smaller than I am of the more hipster skirts then wear them high) interspersed with shirt dresses is like my uniform.

  • Isis

    January 3, 2012 at 11:47 AM

    I do think food is a contributing factor- even if we don't overeat, we can eat all we want when we want. Portion sizes have increased and so have snacking. But moving and shapewear are factors too. Walking around all day is the best way to maintain your figure. And as so many have already pointed out, if you wear shapewear every day, then your body will conform.

    Also, clothes then didn't have ease like modern clothes and fitted much more snugly. Nowadays you can get everything inknitted fabrics with elastic waistband and you don't notice changes in your body then as if you wear a snugly fitting skirt and a girdle. Vintage Vogue, for example, have had extra ease added to conform to a modern view on how clothes would fit- so if you wear period underwear you may find the clothes too large, even in your size!

    I do find that 40's and 50's pattern fit my hourglass bopdy much better than modern ones and if I go the extra mile and wear a girdle, well, the fit gets so much better!

    It's funny, because I have been writing a bit about the 1940's body ideal a bit:



    One thing that really strikes me is that the norm for movie stars were much closer to how a normal women looked. Basically the same standard as movie stars and models now are so thin that onloy a few women really look like that.

  • sonia

    January 3, 2012 at 1:57 PM

    A couple years ago I did an experiment where I acted like a 50s housewife for 100 days. During that time I basically cleaned non-stop and lost weight. Also, my waist did get very whittled which I think was due to all the vacuuming. I did buy a girdle and wore it often but not at home since it was very painful and didn't allow me to sit or eat. Also, the size M vintage girdle definitely did not feel like a M even though my waist was 26 inches naturally. For the first time my 115 pound self felt very big indeed. ; }

  • Steph

    January 3, 2012 at 7:16 PM

    Yes, we are bigger, taller, chubbier, and more athletic than our foremothers. But celebrity, movie star, and advertisement photos and illustrations of earlier decades were just as "aspirational" then as they are now. They showed figures that were idealized, both real and artistic. Also, clothing sizing has drastically changed. There were short, chubby people in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, as well as the tall, slim people who fit the beauty ideals of those times. They just didn't get any face-time on magazine covers or in advertisements. But look back at turn of the century (early 1900s) photographic advertisements for undergarments or shirtwaists. Most of those women were not as slim as the idealized artistic beauty and fashion illustrations of their time.

  • Ash

    January 3, 2012 at 8:02 PM

    I always question where they get info for these historical sizes from. Is it from the clothes we have surviving, or human remains from these periods?

    The thing about surviving clothing – whether they're twenty or two hundred years old – is that they survive precisely because they weren't worn to pieces. Big dresses can be taken in and up to fit the next daughter in the family, but little dresses can't be let out or easily made up into something else (Hence why there are so many surviving bodices without skirts). I think the same principle must also apply on vintage patterns, because the really pristine, unused ones always turn out to be tiny sizes – the larger ones have been used and most of them might have been thrown away when they got too tatty.

    (That said, I know at least two ladies who have horror stories – and scars! – from being cut out of their playtex girdles in the 50's. Being able to get INTO your girdle was the important thing, being able to get out again was another matter entirely)

  • Margravine Louisa

    January 5, 2012 at 3:58 AM

    Yes, totally agree with the anomaly in Western womens' clothing sizng: my daughter who is 5'5" and weighs 118 lbs wears a size "0" jeans. What is a size 0?
    I am more rubineseque, and fitting into a size 16-18 is…difficult. My shoe size has changed from a 6.5 in high school to a 7.5 35 yrs later.
    But the point that Mrs. C made and is so true, is our ancestors from 300 years ago lived outside a lot more than we did, and riding in carriages or horses(try it) took a lot of caloric energy. Walking to market or to the neighbouring estate was more than a walk for the nearest Starbucks Double Latte with Whipped Creme – need I say more?

  • Margravine Louisa

    January 5, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    Also: check out the website " How to be a Retronaut"> interesting pictures of Marilyn in early 1960, hiking in California. By today's standards, Marilyn was a big, wholesome gal: beautiful, sensual, but very very curvy – she would not fit into our 010 parameters of being toned, tight and fit- but she had "chutzpah" and it shows. Draw your own conclusions.

  • KittyMeow

    January 8, 2012 at 7:02 AM

    I find it really hard to believe Marilyn was an un-corseted 22" waist…that's really quite small and the difference in her bust & waist measurements would be much more visually obvious. Eg, I have a much smaller bust than her and when I put my girdle on that gets me down to 23" in the waist, you can really see the extremity in the difference.
    I'm not doubting your sources at all! It just strikes me as very unusual – and all the pics I did find of her that showed her waist, it really didn't look *that* tiny, even accounting for how tiny she is overall.
    There is no doubt though that she was quite small!

  • Anonymous

    August 10, 2020 at 1:41 AM

    Great discussion. Definitely a lot going on in this change in body sizing. Another interesting thing I found out now that I'm pregnant–women in the early to mid 20th century were told not to gain more than 10-15 lbs while pregnant! (That number is now 25-30 lbs to ensure the fetus has enough nutrition.) So some less than enlightened doctors may be another factor in understanding why we wore smaller sizes generally–fewer calories may mean a smaller blueprint you're built from.

    I agree girdling is part of it, but there are other things too — I have read that girls who play sports have bigger feet, so that may be one of the reasons for the change in shoe sizes.

    My grandmother (born in 1900 or so) was 4'10… My dad was tall and big for his era at 5'10. I'm 5'5 and my ribcage even when I'm super trim can't even get in so many vintage dresses!

    When I see a maternity dress with a 31" or 32" bust I just wonder how their hormone-swollen bust measurements could be the same as my early pregnancy *waist*. It's crazy. All sizes are beautiful, but definitely our bones have on average changed as well!

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