Vintage Prom Dresses: Choose A Style That Fits You

Learn helpful hints for finding a vintage prom dress that fits, as well as which styles suit your body type.

Buying vintage for the prom has never been hotter! A 50s sweetheart dress with crinolines is classic for the prom, but with the right vintage dress and accessories, you can also transform yourself into a feisty flapper, a Hollywood starlet, or an 80s girl right out of a brat pack flick. With a vintage prom dress, you're guaranteed to have something one-of-a-kind.

However, as anyone who has ever tried on a vintage dress knows, dresses were sized differently in previous eras. Typically, vintage dresses are 4-6 sizes smaller than modern dresses. For example, if the label on a 50s cocktail dress says "12", it's probably a size 6-8 by today's sizing, but it could be even smaller. It's useless to look at the size tags in vintage gowns, and many may not even have tags. Also, in many earlier eras, women used foundation garments like corsets and girdles to cinch waists and create the shape required by the fashion of the day. Even if you adjust for sizing differences, it can be tricky to find a proper fit.

Before you hit the shops, measure your natural waistline. Then, bring the tape measure with you and actually measure the waistline of the dress. This will rule out dresses that definitely won't fit; if it passes the waistline test, though, you'll still need to try it on to make sure it fits everywhere else.

Like shopping for modern clothes, it's helpful to consider your individual body type when choosing a style. As fashions changed from decade to decade, so did the ideal body type. If you take into account the fit, cut, fabrics, and undergarments of the fashion of each decade, you'll walk into the vintage and thrift shops prepared to make smart selections and find a dress that suits your style AND your size.

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, women's dresses were long, fitted, and required heavy-duty shaping with corsets. Then, everything changed in the Roarin' 20s---hemlines came way up, waistlines dropped, and corsets flew out the window.A dress from the 20s, whether it be a flapper dress or a more formal cocktail or evening dress, is sure to be fun and flirty. Because corsets and girdles weren't popular in this period, it can be easier to find a good fit in a 20s dress than in clothes from later vintage periods. Many dresses are cut loosely, especially the baggy, beaded flapper dresses.

By the end of the 1920s, a more fitted look had come back in style, and moving into the 30s, sophisticated evening gowns replaced the fun flapper look. Hollywood glamour hit in a big way, and slinky, silky, floor-length dresses became popular---as did corsets, once again, to create the shape necessary for the body-skimming dresses. Long and lean was considered the ideal type at the time, and dresses were fitted through the hips and thighs.

40s and 50s dresses, on the other hand, usually are only fitted in the bodice, with full skirts. A woman whose hips are larger than her bust will have an easier time finding a 40s or 50s dress that fits than a 30s dress. In the 40s and 50s, the hourglass figure was in vogue: curvy and shapely, with a small "wasp" waist cinched by a tight girdle. In the 50s, "bullet" bras were used to enhance and shape the bust, so a dress that fits just fine in the waist might be a bit too large in the bust for a modern girl. A padded bra can help to fill out the shape of the bodice. Also keep in mind that these dresses are also usually made of heavy fabric and don't have any stretch (again, because foundation garments were used to create and hold the proper shape). If you want an authentic 40s or 50s dress, you might want to consider finding a girdle, as well---wear it on your shopping trip, and you'll have better luck finding a good fit.

The closer we get to our current era, the easier it might be to find a good fit because sizing and cuts begin to match up with our modern standards. Also, the girdle fell out of everyday use in the second half of the 20th century, so fits became more generous. 60s mod dresses are short and often made with stretchier fabrics than dresses from the 30s, 40s, or 50s; fitted dresses were still worn in this period for proms and parties, although with less rigid structure in the bodice than in the 50s. If you want the 50s look, with a tight bodice and swishy skirt, you might have better luck with a 60s party dress than with the stiff 50s formals.

For a 70s or 80s dress, you might not even have to look further than your mother's closet! Sizes of 1980s dresses are very similar to present-day sizes, and clothes were made for a range of body types. It's a rule of vintage shopping that the further back you want to go, the harder it's going to be to find something. Since the 70s and 80s weren't all that long ago, thrift stores are full of dresses from these decades, and a wider selection means a better chance of finding a great dress that fits.

If, after scouring thrift stores, vintage shops, and your relatives' attics, you still can't find a dress that fits like a dream, you might want to consider the following options:

-Search the Internet. You'll expand your options, especially if you live in a town without many vintage stores. The downside is that you're not able to try on the dress before buying it, so knowing your exact measurements is necessary.

-Recreate a vintage dress. Vintage patterns aren't hard to find, and experienced dressmakers can often recreate dresses even without the pattern. Find a local dressmaker, or ask around in your family---your grandmother might have made her own dresses in the 50s and could help you make your own. You can even look around for some vintage fabric for a truly authentic look.

-Alter an existing dress. If you've found the perfect dress but it doesn't quite fit, alterations might be possible. Generally, a dress can be taken in, but a dress that's too small can't be made bigger unless you're willing to add more fabric (and you probably won't be able to find the exact same fabric). Again, consult a dressmaker, tailor, or a family member who's handy with a sewing machine.

Finally, because vintage is so very now, many designers are creating vintage reproductions and vintage-inspired looks. The timeless glamour of the slinky 1930s dress is evident in many current evening gowns, and 40s, 60s, and 80s looks are especially popular. These vintage-inspired and reproduction dresses are cut and sized for modern girls and women. Whichever route you decide to go, whether buying authentic vintage, recreating a vintage dress, or finding a modern reproduction, with a vintage look, you're guaranteed to have a prom dress that is both trendy and timeless.

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