Were People Really So Much Smaller in the Victorian Era?

Wow. Once again, I must apologize for not posting. I have a good excuse this time. I spent some time in the hospital, lost a bit of weight, and now I have to rebuild my energy. To tie this into vintage clothing – I can wear my vintage dresses again! But I don’t recommend disease for weight loss. Although health, nutrition, and lifestyles are among the many reasons antique and vintage clothing is considered so tiny today.

“People were so much smaller back then!” One thing about working in a retail setting, I heard that statement AT LEAST once a day.

I used to display antique dresses for sale in my antiques shop. Waaay back when I first opened my shop, I thought that people really wanted to learn about these beauties so whenever someone would utter those words I tried to use the opportunity to talk about their history. Who can resist talking about them?

From the Way Back Machine:  Antique Dresses displayed in my shop back in 2004

From the Way Back Machine: Antique Dresses displayed in my shop back in 2004

Nine times out of ten the exchange would go like this:

Visitor: Oh my! Have you seen the size of that waist?
Me: Um … (thinking to myself – yes, I dressed the dress form … how do I answer this one?) Yes. It’s a lovely dress isn’t it?

Visitor: People were so much smaller back then. How horrible it would be to wear a corset!
Me: Actually, a properly fit corset is not uncomfortable at all and females wore corsets from such a young age that their bodies and minds were used to them.

Visitor: They were shorter back then, too.
Me: Not necessarily. I’m 5’ 1” and all these dresses are too long for me. The shoulders on the dress forms are all set higher than my shoulders are – in heels!

Visitor: (blank stare) (silence) Well, ALL these dresses are so tiny!
Me: There can be many reasons for that. Think of your own closet. Have you saved a dress or two from the past? What dresses were they?

Visitor: Only my wedding dress.
Me: That’s pretty typical. We tend to save a dress worn at a special occasion or time of our life. USUALLY that’s when we’re young and … well, at our smallest adult size.

In the 19th century it wasn’t uncommon for a young lady to be married in a new “best dress” instead of a special, white wedding dress. The newly married lady would then probably continue to wear this “best dress” for special occasions and to church on Sunday. It probably wasn’t long before the bride became pregnant with her first child and .. before long she couldn’t wear it and put it away to wear after the baby came. For many reasons, that dress might not come out of storage and these are the wonderful, near perfect dresses we love so much today.

As time passed, new dresses that were at least somewhat larger (you know, the “huge” ones with the 28” waist LOL) were made and remade into more current styles. Lots of bodices still exist without matching skirts because the skirts had larger spans of fabric that could be used to make other clothing – probably for children – when they became worn or stained. And sadly, a greater number of women died at a younger age then and it’s likely that their clothing was put away and left for sentimental reasons.

There are many other factors that contribute to our larger sizes such as better nutrition, portion sizes, and our sedentary lifestyles. Plus, the shape of a corseted body is much different than the natural shape our bodies take today.

Visitor: ZZZzzzzZZZZzzzzZZZZzzz……

After having this exchange with few variations over a period of years, the exchange has become much more concise.

Visitor: Oh my! Have you seen the size of that waist? People were so much smaller back then.
Me: (Smile) Well, they never met a Big Mac.
Visitor: (Smile) That’s true!

Visitor: I wouldn’t wear a corset. That would be so painful!
Me: (Smile)

I’ll share the death by corset article next time ….