Measurements You Need To Know When Buying Vintage Lingerie

Ladies, you know just how troubling sizing in women’s clothing is, and when it comes to vintage pieces, well, even if the garment still has it’s tags on, the sizing may be just about irrelevant to you and your figure. When it comes to vintage, it’s imperative to know your measurements and your garments measurements.

You should take a piece of your best fitting lingerie and measure the garment itself, not only to confirm your measurements but to compare against those measurements listed by the vintage lingerie seller (or those you take yourself in a vintage clothing boutique, thrift shoppe, etc.). This is most easily done by what’s called the flat style of garment measurement: you lay the garment flat and measure it. (Unless otherwise noted, garments should be laid flat; most wrinkles whisked away, but not stretched.)  Do not hesitate to ask your vintage lingerie seller how they’ve taken their measurements or to take additional measurements for you. You’re not a pain; you are a customer!

Here I’ll give you the best ways to get accurate measurements of both your own figure and garments themselves. 

NOTE: Measurements are most accurate when you are nude or in bra and panties and when taken by another person. Humbling, perhaps. But invite a girlfriend over and measure one another. The momentary loss of pride with such measuring honesty will be more than made up for with lingerie that fits fabulously!

Basic Measurements:

Bust: Measure around your back and across your bustline, across the fullest part. (Yes, ladies, that usually means over the nipples!)

On a nightgown or other garment laid flat, measure across the fullest front bodice of the garment, from armpit to armpit — and double it.

Underbust: Measure under your bust, along the ribcage, and straight around your back for the full circumference. (This is also your bra band measurement.)

On bras, nightgowns, etc., laid flat, measure just beneath the garment’s cups or bustline (or, on true empire waisted gowns, along the empire waistline) — and double it.

Cup Size: Cup size is determined by a mathematical equation: Subtract your underbust measurement from your bust measurement, the resulting difference calculates your cup size as each inch represents a cup size. Here’s a handy chart, with US, UK and European sizes, from Bare Necessities (one of my favorite bra shops!) for you to use:

If you are worried more about coverage than just fit, you may also want to measure the actual bra cup itself for specific measurements. There’s an illustrated guide here.

Waist: Believe it or not, your waist is not where your jeans probably tell you it is. This is especially important to note for vintage items! Your real waist is your natural waist — the narrowest part of your torso, usually found above your belly button. Measure around your waist, from front to back, and make sure the tape is parallel with the floor and not squeezing into your skin.

For half-slips, measure across the very top, then double. For nightgowns etc., measure along the garment’s waistline and then double it. For loose free-lowing nightgowns and peignoirs, you can find the “waist” by measuring down about 6 to 8 inches from the armpit. Take that measurement across the flat garment and then double it.

Hips: Measure the widest part of your bottom line, ladies. (Yes, you can do it!)

On garments, you measure about 8-9 inches down from the waist, or about 14-16 inches below the armpit, then double that measurement.

Length: With lingerie like nightgowns and slips, length replaces the inseam measurement. Measure from your waist to where you ideally want the hemline of the garment to fall, be it at or above the knee, mid calf, the top of your foot, etc. If you are self-conscious or concerned about your tummy or behind, you may take this measurement centered in the front or back, accordingly.

Note: If you plan on wearing your nightgown with a specific boudoir slipper, wear those for your measurement taking!

Length of a garment is taken by measuring the flat garment from the center top of the waistline to the center of the bottom hemline. If you took the measurement in the front or back to address figural concerns, do so from the corresponding position on the garment. (See also below.)

Additional Areas:

These measurements may or may not be needed, depending not only on the type of garment, but on your own individual needs — i.e. problem areas. For example, if you are broad-shouldered, have a very long body, etc., these are some other measurements to know.

Shoulders & Sleeves: Shoulders and sleeves can be tricky in lingerie because peignoirs and nightgowns with long sleeves often do not have traditional tailored sleeves. Instead they have raglan sleeves, kimono sleeves or other “drop shoulders“. So whether your issue is fitting across the back properly or appropriate sleeve length, you’re best to take both sets of measurements.

Shoulders: Measure your shoulders by stretching the measuring tape across the back, from underarm to underarm.

Measure across the top of the garment from shoulder seam to shoulder seam.

Sleeves: Hold your arm slightly loose, as though you had your thumb hooked into your pant pocket, and starting at the mid-point of your upper back — where your neck meets your shoulders — guide the measuring tape down along your arm, along your elbow to wrist. Again, this sleeve measurement is best used for lingerie, so I had to properly label the starting point in the image. And you really need the help of another person to get this right.

Measurement of the garment is also taken from the mid-point of the back of the neckline down to the end of the sleeve.

Upper Torso Length: This is especially important if you feel your torso is long from the waist up and fear it will mess with the fit of bodices and even garment length. Measure yourself from the base the neck to the center of your waistline in the back. You can then add this to the length measurement above to get a full length measurement.

From the center back of the peignoir or other lingerie item, at the neckline, measure to the center back of the waistline. As above, you can then add this to the length measurement above to get a full length measurement; or measure from the center back of neck down to the hem, which is especially fitting for free-form flowing gowns and robes.

Thighs: If your thighs are thicker than your true hips (i.e. you have what you unlovingly call “saddlebags”), measure around this area.

Note how many inches below your waist you are taking that measurement and then measure that area on a flat garment; double that measurement.

Rise: You’re probably familiar with this terms from your jean purchases. Especially if you are hard to fit in this area. This is especially important for the fit of full-cut vintage panties. Traditionally, this measurement is taken from the center front of your waist to the center of your *ahem* being (crotch). Butt However, you may also want to take a “back rise” measurement, going from the center of the back of your wasitline to the center of your crotch.

The front measurement is taken from the center front of the waistline of the garment to the center of the crotch. From the back, just reverse it. *wink*

Torso Troubles: The bane of my lingerie existence is not really my more-than-ample bosom, but my long torso. Not only did this come at some perverse expense of loss of leg length *heavy sigh* but coupled with a generous bustline it makes teddies darn near impossible to fit — even if a teddy does have a somewhat adjustable length via adjustable shoulder straps and/or multiple designations to secure a crotch, I’m asking it to cover a lot more territory than most lingerie designers have thought possible. *wink*

Torso: True torso length is an odd measurement to take. You being with the measuring tape at the highest point (usually near your neck) on your highest shoulder. (Mine is the left shoulder from years of toting purses, diaper bags, groceries, etc.) From that high point of your shoulder, run the measuring tape on a diagonal to the highest point of the closest breast and then continue on through your legs, returning back to where you started. It’s near impossible to do on your own, really.

On a flat garment, perform the above measurements.

However, it’s near impossible to explain to a vintage lingerie seller — and even when you show them the image, they are uncertain about doing this on a flat garment. And you’re uncertain then how your measurement compares to their measurement… So when shopping online, I use a combination of the other torso, length, and rise measurements. And it’s the one time I may ask for the seller to send me measurements on the garment stretched too.

Final Thoughts:

Remember, some garments can be shortened or taken in relatively easily. But lengthening or letting out is very difficult, especially for vintage pieces. (And bias cut pieces are darn-near impossible to alter at all!) So be honest with yourself, with your needs, or you’ll be unhappy with what you have to wear. *pout*

Never ever hesitate to ask for measurements. This is especially important if you have taken measurements to address “problem areas” or areas you are concerned about.  Just ask them nicely what measurements you need, and, if needed, explain specifically where and how you need them taken for the most ease in comparison.

Related: For specifics on measurements for vintage stockings, go here.

Image Credits: Model measurement photos from 123RF Stock Photos;torso measurement illustration via Jellyfish Swimwear; leopard print teddy via Empress Jade.

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