Early 20th Century body shapes – which decade are you?

I have previously written about the three basic body types – straight, semi-shaped, and shaped. This describes the actual position of the body structure and is nothing to do with how fat or slim you are.

In my opinion it is easier to explain about the shapes that flatter your figure type best if we refer to vintage dress making patterns. These normally show clearly how the optical illusion is achieved.

The basic idea with dressing for your shape which is the most important aspect of looking your best is to choose shapes which emphasise the best aspects of your body (legs, waist or bust for example) and disguise the less attractive parts. By choosing an era to suit you will be able to find contemporary patterns or outfits that have some of the features, but feel free to use vintage patterns. If you use modern fabrics, and get the length right for you will not look like you are in a play!

Let’s have a look at the typical body shape of the key decades of the 20th century. Because there are so many pictures I will do this post in two parts. More tomorrow!


Here is the typical 1920s silhouette. The focal point in all these dresses is the dropped waist/high hip, with the actual waist and bust de-emphasised. The long, column like silhouette was finished at both ends with neat hair and shoes, making the wearer appear as tall and thin as possible. It is easy to see which body shape works best with this style, isn’t it? The straight body where the hips and bust are relatively slim, with strong shoulders and not much waist. When this shape came in it was a real departure from nearly all previous styles in Western dress, where femininity and curves were emphasised, even if you didn’t have them, through the use of corsets and highly shaped skirts and jackets. If you have a straight, athletic body then variations on this look are great for you. The open or V neck keeps it fairly simple around the face with buttons, asymmetric detailing, showy belts, or long necklaces bringing the eye down to the hip.


In the 1930s there was a move away from this very distinctive shape, in that the waist was now emphasised again. But the shoulders are generally emphasised with gathered sleeves, shoulder pads or lots of detail above the waist. The lower parts of the dress are very slim and often cut on the bias to really cling to hips, thighs and legs. A great look if you have a slim hips, broad shoulders and nice long legs. Generally this style suits the straight body shape as well, although if you have a semi-straight body with a good waist it will also work well. If you have a round bottom and hips it just looks wrong.



By the 1940s the curved figured women eventually get a break. The shoulder emphasis remained (I think all of these dresses would have a shoulder pad) but more to balance out fuller hips.The clear emphasis on the waist, and the fullness of the skirt provides a perfect disguise for the shaped figure with full bust and hips. If you are an hour-glass or a pear go for the 1940s. I personally love these shapes are have always been attracted to them, buying and wearing original 1940s and war-time frocks in the 1970s. If you have a nice slim waist these styles are very flattering.

Tomorrow I will cover the 1950s to the 1980s.

Do you have a decade you prefer?

8 Responses

  1. Sew Ruthie

    I know Vintage styles are very popular with lots of sewers, though I have a lot of trouble wearing them not because of the shapes but because those styles epitomise a particular era, and for me the treatment/position of women in society during that time. I have a hard time just looking at the garments stand alone.
    Being the owner of curvy hips the 1940s styles are going to be the most flattering for me. I have a couple of vintage reproduction patterns but have never made them up. I wonder what era they are from.

  2. Bunny

    Hourglass here! The forties styling so appeals to me that I think I could have been born in a different era. How does this transfer to the real world of a sixties plus woman? While for me wearing vintage looks like I may have forgotten to clean out my closet it does bring back wonderful memories of my Mom and her “look”. The women my age or close who have gone vintage seem to look a bit cartoonish and eccentric, IMO. Their choice is fine but it is not for me. I would love to hear more on translating these details and looking contemporary.

    • fabrickated

      Absolutely dear Bunny.

      I wasn’t suggesting that we should make vintage patterns up according to our body shape. I just meant to draw attention to the fact that different body shapes are in fashion in different eras. I just used patterns of the era to make the point. I guess I could have used photographs or drawings instead – its just I have some of these patterns and I love looking at them.

      So for inspiration the hourglass lady (whatever her age) should perhaps copy some of the lines of the 40s and 70s (waisted, fuller skirts, neater torso, etc).

  3. Stephanie

    Such good comments, above. I prefer “inspiration” from vintage styles, or mixing them up, rather than the whole hog, as like Bunny I find that that that can border on too costume-y for my taste. My favourites are the 20s and the 60s-70s, and I think subconsciously it’s partly for reasons Ruthie notes – the changing position of women during those periods. That said, those are styles that suit me reasonably well, although I am inclined to add a belt to straight shapes. I also really like the embellishment of the 1920s styles, though surprisingly can never find the motivation to apply any to my garments. Great series, K. Just looking at these patterns is a delight. To the extent that I have worked with them, my favourite thing about vintage patterns is the interesting construction details and methods used in them. I feel as though I’m going to discover something new each time I open one up, and of course they put a little bit of history in our hands.

    • fabrickated

      Yes I completely agree with you S. I was planning a post on 60s style and I will write about how this decade continues to inspire me. And yes too, to your point about learning from vintage clothes making. I have picked up so much just from following the instructions from the days when it was assumed you knew quite a lot, and didn’t mind spending time on getting something right. Today’s patterns are more about simplicity and speed, I think.

  4. rosemary

    1920s for me.. I was pretty much a rectangle and enjoyed a dropped waist. Now my waist and bust are fighting for prominence. The first skirt I made in school was a gathered skirt, I hated it.

  5. Karen K

    Really enjoyed this post. Although I’m not keen on vintage, good design will always be good design and just love the 1940’s silhouettes. Thanks for sharing.

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