V354: Antique and Vintage Proportion You Can Easily Achieve

I received a copy of Authentic Victorian Dressmaking Techniques recently, and found an interesting little blurb on standard pattern measurements (in this case Butterick), for 1905.  It showed a 10 inch difference between the high bust and the waist, for all sizes, and a 17 – 23.5 inch difference between the waist and the hip.


Here’s the 1898 Butterick size chart, from The Delineator, Volume 52, Issue 5:

These measures were NOT taken on the nude form, but over all the underpinnings ladies were wearing – corsets, bust improvers, hip pads, and whatever else ladies were oomphing themselves up with at the time.  You will see in the 1898 chart that a 34″ high bust corresponds to any waist measurement between 18″ and 24″ but no greater than that “10 inch rule.”

These charts are *very* interesting because they represents the ideal proportions for 1898, and 1905.  Let us compare to the modern, 2013 Butterick standard of measurements:

“Chest,” indicates the high bust measurement, or just “bust” used in the Victorian charts.

So… in about 100 years we’ve gone from a 10 inch difference between the waist and high bust, to a 6 inch difference; and about a 10 inch difference between the hip and waist, versus a 17-23.5 inch difference.


The answer is obvious to us costumers – a little squeeze here, a little fluff there, and you’ve achieved the ideal hourglass figure.  Don’t be deceived though – just as much fluff was added on as corseting was reducing the waist, as these items will show:

The Met, 1890 – overbust corset with extra puff added to the bust.
LACMA, 900 – this is a “bust improver.”
Whitaker Auctions, 1890 – another example of fake boobs to give a girl some oomph up top
The Met, early 20th c.  This is a hip pad.
The Met, 1950s – Hip Pad, yes, mid-20th century!

That last photo brings up another really good point – the 1950s.  This decade parallels the Victorian era in so many ways – big skirts supported by crinolines comes to mind, but it also goes back to that ideal figure, best illustrated by Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn’s dressmaker measurements were 35 bust, 22 waist, 35 hip.  Her studio measurements were 37 bust, 23 waist, 36 hip.  The difference comes from padding and waist control, using bullet bras, hip pads, and girdles, not so very different from bust improvers, hip pads, and corsets of the 1890s and 1900s.  Of course, everday women weren’t shaped this way, just like we aren’t today (unless you’re lucky), but if we can take away anything from this research, it’s this…

You too can easily achieve the ideal proportion of your time period through judicious use of the very same tools that women of the past employed.

Camille Clifford is *still* famous for her hourglass figure, but how much of this could be an illusion?

So in my own corset, I have a comfortable 27 inch waist, but my bust is only 34 inches, so I need to oomph it up  by 3 inches.  My natural hip is 37 inches, so if I want to achieve the correct 1905 silhouette, I’ll need to add a total of 7 inches (yikes!), through the use of bum pads and petticoats.

You *don’t* have to corset train or reduce your waist uncomfortably to achieve these results! Women have been adding to their tops and bottoms for centuries, to make their waists look small, and you can too. 🙂


  • Mary Kay Chicoine

    January 14, 2013 at 12:17 AM

    Thank you so much for this article. Perfect timing too!..I was just about to ask for some help for a Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge coming up. I made an Edwardian Corset and now to finish I will be doing the padding for it. How did they secure the hip and rear padding. If you just stuff it under the corset it may pop out when you get up of a chair! You could put a tape on each one, I guess. Interesting air holes in your photo.

    • Lauren Stowell

      January 14, 2013 at 9:59 PM

      Good question! In the Truly Victorian Edwardian corset pattern they have you put the bump pad under the corset. The Met examples look like they just tied on around the waist, then petticoats went over the top, but I really don't know for sure.

  • Jayne

    January 14, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    Clealy my rear is too small! I am 9 1/2in between the bust & waist but only 12 to the hip. When corseted this increases a little, but I would never consider training, I like all my internal bits where God intended them. I guess I'm pretty luck that I have the right shaped figure naturally. It makes buying & sewing vintage an absolute dream. Modern patterns need so much adjustment.

  • Kiyotea

    January 14, 2013 at 4:22 AM

    Okay, so I think I need to work on my figure some more.
    Being a guy, I've already got a pair of fake boobs, but now it's evident that I'm going to have to go further.
    But, I'm closer than I thought. I've done a bit of waist training, and I'm VERY content with my middle measurement(27 down to 23!), so all I need is to add to my bust and hips.

  • Open Eyes Open Heart

    January 14, 2013 at 4:24 AM

    I love this article! It's always fascinating looking back at the undergarments and tricks of beauty through the ages. I particularly loved that overbust corset with padding on the breasts. I wouldn't need the padding, more than likely, but I love the look of it. It looks like a cami. Also, it's nice to be reminded that augmenting ones curves with padding is nothing new.

  • Cassidy

    January 14, 2013 at 3:56 PM

    I'm not sure that overbust corset is about padding the bust – if I'm not mistaken, it's a corset waist, kind of a "sensible option" that wasn't meant to compress the body as much. The poofy bits are an attempt at unboned yet supportive cups.

    Bust improvers are just weird, but I think bust forms are the weirdest.

  • Anonymous

    January 14, 2013 at 6:18 PM

    Well, I'm a tube (comparatively speaking). 35-28-35 naturally, but even with a corset, I barely get the 10 inch bust-to-waist difference. I'm going to need about ten inches of padding around my booty to get where the 1890s say I need to be. Quilt batting, anyone? 😛

  • Rachel

    January 14, 2013 at 6:37 PM

    This is such an interesting topic to me. I am a pear shaped gal and complain profusely of my "un-proportionate shape." I do civil war reeancting and joke with my fellow civil war friends that I was made for the era – so much hidden under that skirt and the fellas would never know it until it was too late! lol. I am so self conscience of what is going on with my body and a pencil skirt is pure mortification for me! So I measured myself. 36 – 28 – 42. I feel so very womanly curvy in today's society, so I obviously should have lived awhile ago to be appreciated! lol. But I still need to add some baggage to the rear or take in that waist a bit more. That is just wild to me. Thanks, that was fabulous reading! I am going to go tell my husband how lucky he is now! lol

  • KittyKatt

    January 15, 2013 at 1:10 AM

    Who remembers Mr. Fredericks and his "sex-x-x-x-y" derriere padding girdle? The desire to add inches is not dead yet, not by a long shot! The interesting thing I have noticed is that a lot of the fashions in body type over the last 40 or so years have also been achieved with strength building and exercise. Not that I'm a huge fan…I grew up wearing my mother's girdles when the other girls were exercising, and that was good enough for me.

  • M'lady

    January 17, 2013 at 10:33 AM

    I'm 38/28/41 (before I lost weight I was 40/38/40) So my hips are clearly out of proportion. lol!
    Amused by the thought of padding out bust and waist to make my hips more in proportion.
    I like the 1890 overbust corset. Bet it would be comfy and more 'secure'.

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