Antique Measurements: That waist is how big?!

June 14, 2012

What are your numbers?

Just in case you’re curious: these are my measurements. This set of measurements is 100% natural, sans support garments. Any corsets, bras, or girdles I don will alter these measurements and since I’m not covering any particular time period at the moment, a sans-support example seems the most….fitting!

As a woman, I am infinitely concerned with my size, no matter how much pro-self-image or “love yourself as you are” talk I hear (and often spout). My sister gets quite annoyed at times because I am apt to poke her taut, shapely waist and try to guess its circumference. It’s not that I am unhappy with my measurements, I’m just always curious about what size things actually are. It’s hard to tell from a movie or picture how large or small something really is. This problem is painfully obvious when it comes to movie stars. Unlike a stage play, an onscreen movie with its many angles and shots makes judging the size of actors impossible. I visited an exhibition of famous movie costumes a few years ago and was utterly dumbfounded at how miniscule Drew Barrymore’s Ever After fairy gown was! She’s 5′ 4″, and when she made that film her waist was barely 24 inches around!

Measurements and numbers are vital to fitting costumes. One of the biggest challenges is trying to find measurements on original pieces, especially if they are in a museum and I am unable to see, touch, or wind my tape measure around them as I would like. Most museum collections– especially those I access online– rarely provide such juicy info as the waist circumference of a dress or the width of those ridiculously fab panniers. Still, it seems that the waist measurement of a gown is what everyone is most interested in, for good reason.

The “feminine” quality of a shape is largely determined by the how much the divot in the middle curves inward and where. Every body shape has had its heyday at some point in history. Fashions fluctuate and devices and “enhancers” are employed to achieve many of these shapes. The most famous shaper, the corset, has been in use for almost 500 years! But just how much the size of a fashionable waistline has changed through the years is often difficult to discern.  What exactly are “historical sizes?”

They didn’t use a number system like we do–and even if they did, it would be very different from today’s– because everything was tailor-made until the late 19th century. Patterns and tailors all used an individual’s measurements as the basis for their designs. When you look at that impossibly proportioned Edwardian gown, don’t you wonder how tiny that waistband actually is? I know I do! Happily, I discovered that the Philadelphia Museum of Art graciously measures almost all the historical gowns in their collections.

Here are a few gowns through the ages from the PMA archives, listed with their measurements:

Robe à la Française, circa 1755-1760

Waist: 23 1/2 inches
Center Back Length: 63 inches


Robe à l’Anglaise, circa 1785-1793

Waist: 22 inches
Center back length: 61 inches


Dress, circa 1785-1795

Waist: 27.5 inches
Center Back Length: 60 inches


Belted Dress, circa 1823

Waist: 26.5 inches
Center Back Length: 48.5 inches


Day Dress, circa 1855

Waist: 22 inches
Center Back Length: 54 inches


Day Dress, circa 1885

Waist: 24 inches


Dressing or Tea Gown, circa 1906

Waist: 24 inches


French Gown, circa 1905

Waist: 21 inches
Center Front Length: 55  inches


M. A. Connelly Dress, circa 1905

Waist: 20.5 inches
Skirt Center Front Length: 39 3/8 inches


Dinner Dress, circa 1910

Waist: 26 inches
Center Front Length: 56 inches
Center Back Length: 57.5 inches


Overblouse and Dress, circa 1922

Dropped Waist (hips): 36 inches
Center Front Length: 38 inches

These gowns don’t necessarily portray the “average” size for their eras, but they are great existing examples of sizing from days gone by.

Now before you start worrying about how un-Victorian your shape is, remember those corsets! Everyone wore them. EVERYONE. Even children. Ladies since the 18th century have trained their bodies from an early age to match these measurements, reshaping their rib cages and re-arranging their internal organs to achieve the perfect body. If you are a casual costumer, no one expects you to start wearing a 22 inch corset to bed every night! Another factor in size is genetics and nutrition. The human body has changed over the ages as genetic traits become more varied and some genes, like those for height, are allowed to reach their full potential.
Another great thing about knowing measurements? It reveals just how crucial pattern, fit, and style are to creating shape. Two gowns can have identical measurements, yet the decoration and color choices radically alter the silhouette! An extra inch on a bustle or a slightly lower neckline may make the difference between looking stellar and looking frumpy! For instance, I know to avoid lots of frills and ruffles on my bodices because I’m a tad top heavy (Edwardian pouter pigeon bodices are either a curse or blessing, I haven’t quite decided yet). However, costuming for the 1830s is all about those crazy ruffles and poofs and generally being enormously wide on top, so my natural fullness would just blend right in!

Oh no, dear! My sleeves are 100% natural, I assure you!

6 Responses to “Antique Measurements: That waist is how big?!”

  1. Caroline Says:

    I too love knowing how big extant dresses are. I look at them and go, oo I could fit in that one! Or oh no, too big, it wouldn’t have been in my closet. Costume close up, baumgarten, also has the measurements for the pieces in it.

  2. I always wonder what the measurements are, too. Some of my books are the type that do tell you such things since proportion means so much. Many do not. Fitting and Proper by Sharon Ann Burnston from the collection of the Chester County Historical Society does the same kind of graphing that you see in the other really good books (Baumgarten, Arnold, and to a lesser extent, Waugh) Thank you for mentioning the museum at Philadelphia. Another place to visit, clearly!

  3. Dream Says:

    You may be interested to know that the 24 inch waist on the ‘Breathe’ gown wasn’t uncorseted. She was wearing a specially designed corset to support the weight of the wings.

    • Liz Says:

      It’s amazing how tiny corsets can make our waists. I have friends with 25 inch waists who can corset all the way down to 21. I break a sweat just wearing one that shaves off and inch and a half! (Note on sizes, since we do have a number system today, a 25 inch waist is usually about a misses’ size 2.)

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