Welcome back to Vintage Sewing 101! Thank you to everyone who stuck with me last week as we traipsed our way through the basics of learning to use a sewing machine. What a rollercoaster it was! I was forced to finally get acquainted with my sewing machine manual but, as a reward, got to get excited about sewing corners (my absolute favourite thing!). Fortunately, this week we’re out of the sewing basics and into the real nitty-gritty of vintage sewing. It’s the week that I have absolutely not been waiting for – time to appraise my body to work out what sort of clothes I should be sewing for myself. So buckle in for some serious old-school body assessments and a whole lot of up close and personal pictures of my figure (that only my husband enjoyed the process of taking).
*Disclaimer/Trigger Warning: I want to emphasise that this post is a pretty detailed appraisal of my body and its size. This is all done as part of following a vintage sewing manual that we must remember was written in the 1950s. Attitudes have certainly evolved since then (although not dramatically enough, in my view) and I am resolutely of the opinion that everyone should just wear whatever they want and whatever makes them feel good. If, however, you are triggered by photos or details about body size, this might be a post to save for another time. That said, please remember that this internet stranger thinks you’re perfect exactly as you are.*
Deep breath, everyone. Here we go…
Our Sew with Distinction manual does not disappoint by immediately proving its sensitivity towards women’s bodies. Although “there are limits to what padding, lifting or lacing can do towards achieving a perfect figure” (oh the possibilities that “lifting” provides for our insecurities!), wearing the right clothes promises us the opportunity to fix our flaws. In fact, Sears et al claim that wearing the correct clothing “can make almost any woman attractive in the accepted traditions.” I’m pretty sure the sound I made after reading this sentence was one that’s never left my mouth before – a mixture of total incredulity and astonishment. Besides which, I’m still trying to work out what “the accepted traditions” are. Nevertheless, it’s reassuring to know that however horribly disfigured we are – even if in the nature of some sort of troll – there is hope for us. And Sew with Distinction clearly intends to show us the light.
The manual goes on to describe how both line and colour are central to whether clothing will work for you (this is something that we’ll go into far more detail on in next week’s post – hurrah!). In order to decide what sorts of colours and lines will work best for my body, however, I must first make a thorough assessment of my body. Oh the joys of following a 1950s sewing manual. To spare your eyes and minds, I decided to avoid the suggestion that I conduct this figure analysis in “your foundation garments since these help to create the figure you will dress” (I’m not sure anyone needs to see my granny pants and sports bras here) and instead work with some form-fitting black clothes. This look is actually very close to my everyday wear – which I like to call “mime chic.” With that, let’s get going…
Someone or something upstairs must have anticipated this post because, thankfully, I’m taking these photos off of the back of two months of daily yoga activity. As uncomfortable as these photos make me feel (I mean, for a start I clearly have no idea what to do with my hands and arms), the full body shots aren’t that bad. That said, this is only the beginning. The first step in the figure appraisal comes with an assessment of height:
As the manual keenly perceives, “your height is one unchangeable part of your figure. Other dimensions can be modified by diet, exercise or foundation garments; but you are tall, medium, or short for life.” How dispiriting. Fortunately, we are about to be provided with all the information needed to make the most of this unchangeable asset. First, we have to note whether we are classed as tall (above 5’6″), medium (5’3″ to 5’6″) or short (below 5’3″). Since I’m 5’8″, I come very much within the ‘tall’ category. but this isn’t really a surprise to me. So what advice does Sears et al offer for someone of my stature?
Firstly, I am reassured by the fact that “fashion figures are drawn tall” which should apparently give me a clearer appreciation for how clothes will look on me. I would debate this point. Fashion figures are drawn thin and tall. It’s like suggesting that any woman over 5’8″ could look at a runway model and know how their clothes will look on her. Not to mention that an illustration isn’t always the most helpful. Fortunately, the sewing course doesn’t leave it there in the advice department. I’m told that I “may wear large collars, wide lapels, wide belts, and big bold designs without being overwhelmed by them.” I do appreciate the possibilities I’m being presented. As much as none of the above feature regularly (or at all) in my wardrobe, it’s really nice to know that I have options. Even better “you will find cartwheel hats, big ornaments and oversized handbags effective.”
Now, I must take issue with all of this. It seems to me that the suggestion is simply that tall women should wear everything oversized and large. Take these suggestions in their entirety and it sounds more like a clown’s wardrobe that one suitable for a “woman attractive in the accepted traditions.” Add to this that I’m told “I must avoid high waistlines” because “they add length below your waist and throw your figure out of proportion” and I’m becoming even less happy. Plus, no vertical stripes for me! Sears et al is already grinding my gears with these suggestions. And, now that I’m fully informed what my height permits me to wear, I get to move on to an appraisal of the specific parts of my body that might cause problems. I sense things are moving downhill very quickly.
At least this page is titled “usual figure problems.” There’s nothing better than resting in the knowledge of our communal body flaws. I will caution that I’m making these assessments of myself – I could certainly be too generous or too harsh, but I’ll do my best to be objective and work in accordance with what Sears et al are instructing.
So let’s start with my waist…
For the waist, the sewing course presents us only two possibilities – that a waist might be “thick” or “wide.” I’m genuinely not too sure that either of these apply to me. My waist is pretty narrow in comparison to my hips and shoulders (I’m pretty hour-glass shaped) so I don’t think I need to worry too much about either “avoid[ing] fullness in front or back” – as per the instructions for a “thick” waist – or avoiding “any fullness at the sides” – the advice for a “wide” waist. I’m really interested in the fact that the manual interchanges the word “wide” with “elliptical” here. I’ve never heard of an elliptical waist – apparently this is where your waist is “wide in front, but narrow when viewed from the side.” I’m still have a hard time picturing what exactly this would like in practice.
Anyway, it seems that Sears doesn’t have a whole lot of advice for me regarding my waist. I’m relieved that I can continue to have fullness on all sides of my body. However, the reprieve is, I fear, short-lived since we’re now moving onto the hips – and I KNOW there will be advice for me on this…
Excuse dirty dog paw prints on the bottom of my trousers. Apparently someone had some fun with these before I put them on.
I’m genuinely not very insecure when it comes to my body. It does what I need it to do and I’ve worked hard to respect that, ignoring all of the expectations that society tends to project onto women’s bodies. That said, I’ve had to work incredibly hard to overcome insecurities to do with my hips/bum/thighs. I have wide hips and a definite butt – although I actually super appreciate these features now, it’s taken a lot of time to get to that place (and a lot of yoga), and I was genuinely a bit concerned that I would see these photos and have a bit of an internal freak out. Fortunately, I feel pretty good and ready to offer Sears et al a figurative punch on the nose for the advice they’re apart to force upon me.
On hips, Sew with Distinction offers three kinds of common figure problems: hips that “bustle” (?!), hips that widen at the sides, or hips that don’t exist at all. I definitely don’t have the latter problem. Initially, I thought I might fall into the “hips that widen at the sides” category – but according to the description, this is associated with an “elliptical waist” (still no idea) and a flat bum – “if you can back flat against a wall,” as the manual describes. I absolutely don’t suffer from this. I have a good rear cushion. So that means that I’m of the “hips that bustle” variety. As soon as I read that description, my first thought was genuinely of Victorian ladies in their gowns. I think I’m actually not too far off. According to the sewing course, “If you protrude too much in back, you may want to minimize the bulge.” BULGE! Definitely a novel name for your butt. Accordingly, I must avoid “tight skirts that show the exact line.” I totally disagree with this. I think tight pencil skirts with a kick pleat at the bottom are one of the most flattering looks on those of us blessed with some booty and a sizable set of hips. So, sorry Sears but you definitely called it wrong on this one.
Next, it’s my shoulders that are up for judgement. Definitely an under-appreciated part of the human body. Let’s see what Sew for Distinction has to say on this.
Luckily, I pretty much avoid the critiques on this count. The sewing manual offers suggestions only where your shoulders are “too wide for your hips” – in which case, you apparently “have a masculine appearance” that necessitates extra volume in the skirt – or “too narrow for your hips” – which should be “disguised by shoulder pads.” My shape is such that my shoulders are pretty much equal to the size of my hips, so it’s all quite well balanced out. I win this time Sears.
Time for the bust, abdomen and neck…
My bust is well documented in the shoulder picture above. At 36″, I’ve always considered it pretty average in terms of size (although feel free to disagree with me on this, since I’m only guessing based on pattern/clothing size ranges). However, if I were forced to go one way or the other, I would probably view myself as being on the larger side of the spectrum. According to Sears et al, those of larger bust should “never wear a tight fitting waist,” which is a shame for Sears since that’s pretty much all I wear. We should also avoid any type of clothing addition with the word ‘breast’ in the name (not what they specifically suggest, but I’m guessing this is the real reason) such as “breast pockets” or “double-breasted effects” (because we already have two, so why double it?). Alternatively, if you’re small of bust, it is suggested that you opt for high waistlines. This begs the question – what on earth will you do if you are both tall and small busted? You must simultaneously avoid and only wear high waistlines. Wishing you all the luck in the world with this conundrum.
Onto my abdomen. Much yoga (because I can’t talk about it enough) has left me pretty flat in the belly. I’m not sure if it’s sufficiently flat to be classed as “flat” for Sears’ purposes but we’ll work with it and see what they advise. For those with flat tummies, ” a princess style” is recommended. After looking this up (because I honestly didn’t know what it was), I found out that a princess style dress is essentially one cut without a waist seam. So it’s constructed out of long panels, joined vertically, rather than having a horizontal join at the waist. Sew with Distinction also suggests that a flat belly can get away with a large buckle and V-waistline.
Our final stop on this tour of the female figure is – you guessed it – the neck! Because who can possibly think about sewing something without checking that it’s flattering to their neck first?
Sears suggests that there are four types of neck: short and thin; short and thick; long and thin; or, long and thick. I honestly have no idea whatsoever where my neck falls on this spectrum. I’ve never given it a whole lot of thought. I feel like it’s a pretty normal sized neck but maybe long and thick? In which case, I can “wear a square neckline, but it must be deep rather than broad, and the shoulder lines must come up as closely as possible to the neck.” This feels like a lot of requirements. Perhaps easiest to just not wear square necklines. Or maybe just wrap your neck up in a lot of scarves?
So, there we have it. I’ve worked my way up, down, and all around my body conducting a thorough analysis of its various features. In summary, I’ve learnt:
- High waistlines
- Vertical stripes
- Tight skirts
- Peplums (unless they end in a straight line and aren’t too closely fitted)
- Tight fitting waists
- Breast pockets
- Double-breasted effects
- Broad square necklines
- Wide V’s
- Boat necks
- Large collars
- Wide lapels
- Wide belts
- Oversized handbags
- Horizontal lines
- Slashed front
- Princess style dresses
- Large front buckles
- V waistlines
- Deep square necklines
- Narrow V-necks
All things considered, this is a whole lot of unnecessary shoulds and shouldn’ts. Historically speaking, it’s fascinating to consider the way that garments were designed and what they were intended to flatter or disguise. The wide variety of stylistic choices discussed in the sewing manual as things to avoid or embrace shows just how vast the fashion options really were and how much control home-sewing gave to women looking to style themselves. That said, I can’t help feeling that much of the advice offered is a lot of nonsense that just reinforces the idea that bodies should fit some sort of specific – and yet abstract – mould. All the shouldn’ts listed above are honestly just shoulds in disguise. My suggestion, in light of everything I’ve learnt from this section of Sew for Distinction? Wear what makes you feel amazing – whether traditionally ‘flattering’ or not. Life is way to short to worry about bustling hips or short, thick necks.
On that note, I leave you. The next Vintage Sewing 101 post will be taking what was learnt today and considering how lines can be used to create emphasis and shape when making garments. Another spoiler for you, apparently there is a such a thing as “youthful lines” versus “sophisticated lines.” Who knew?!