Vintage Clothing Style Guide: Silhouettes By Decade

Shopping for vintage clothing can be like stepping into a Pandora's box of fashion. There are literally decades of style to browse, which means decades of drastically different silhouettes.  A silhouette is basically the outline (or "line") of a garment.  Of the many silhouettes seen in vintage clothing, which will look best on you?

That's a great question to ask, because it will help you focus on a particular decade to collect, or at least what to favor when you are shopping. If you know a certain silhouette works for your body type, you can find something you know you'll wear and enjoy.

So what are the silhouettes for the 20th century? And what do they reveal or conceal?

The following list by decade of wearable clothes details what each era intended to emphasize (+) and minimize (-). This list (in its original form) was included in Christa Weil's fantastic book, Secondhand Chic. Since then it has been expanded and illustrated.

1900s: full, rounded bust (+)/ very small waist (-)/ flat stomach (-) with full back-side (+)/ no legs (-)

1910s: high, smaller bust (+)/ small but emphasized waist (-)/ flattish stomach (-)with full hips (+)/ no legs (-)

Most items of this era focus on a fitted waist and shoulder, with a roomy bloused bust & full-skirted hip. This hourglass effect will make your waist appear small in proportion. Ideal if you have small/narrow shoulders and like modest coverage & long dresses. Many Victorian-like clothes were made in the early part of the 20th century but are more available than actual Victorian era clothing.

1920s: no outline of bust, waist, or hips (-)/ thin breadth (-)/ legs to knee (+)

1920s clothing hangs from a fitted shoulder and boyish bustline. A dress of this era will skim over the waist and hip like a sheath, creating an arrow-straight line from bust to hem. Ideal for small-busted women with slim, lithe figures. This was the era of the flapper, and slim-straight knee-length dresses were very popular.

1930s: high, small to medium bust (+)/ trim waist (-)/ little hips (-)/ calves (+)

This was the first decade of the 20th century that emphasized a natural figure, albeit very slim through the hip. A dress of this era will be figure-hugging, except for some A-line and pleated skirts that are more forgiving through the hip. These flared skirt silhouettes are seen more often toward the late 30s. This silhouette's best for a naturally fit figure with somewhat broad shoulders and usually slim-straight hips (which were achieved in the 1930s with daily use of girdles). 1930s hemlines were longer than we see today, always below the knee except in swim & sport clothes.

1940s: large, broad shoulders (+)/ soft, medium to large bust (+)/ severe, trim waist (-)/ moderate/broad hips (+ or -)/ legs to knee (+)

Dresses of the 1940s are somewhat fitted to the bust and moreso to waist. The popular cap sleeves and shoulder pads of the era create the look of a broad shoulder, allowing the waist to appear relatively small. Hips were narrow at the beginning of the 1940s, broadening into full skirts in 1947 & later. This is a popular silhouette for its hourglass effect, from the padded shoulder to the wasp waist. Also the first decade most women perceive to be really modern, widely wearable clothes as we know them.

1950s A: bare neck or framed face (+)/ voluptuous, medium to large bust (+)/ small, cinched waist (-)/ full hips (+)/ flounced skirt (+)/ legs to knee (+)

The full-skirted, wasp-waisted 1947 silhouette becomes the standard look through the 1950s. The broad shoulder/bust continues to make waists appear smaller, additionally with the use of raglan/dolman sleeves that create a contrast in breadth above the relatively narrow waist.

1950s B: small to medium bust (slightly +)/ trim waist (-)/ rounded hips (+)/ legs (+)

This secondary silhouette of the 1950s requires a fit figure but allows generous room through the hip. Models & sketches of the era emphasize the appearance of a small waist contrasted with a relatively broad, round hip.

1960s: small shoulders and bust (-)/ A-line from bust or hip (-)/ lots of leg (+)

Many 1960s clothes hang from the shoulder/bust area, and skim past the waist & hip. Belted versions can create a more moderate, classic silhouette often with an Empire (raised-waist) line. The mini dress and lean models of the time focused on legginess, so this decade sometimes means you'll be baring thigh-high skin.

1970s: a generally natural silhouette exaggerated by wide lapels and bellbottom pants (+)

The naturalistic figure becomes fashionable again in this decade, not seen since the 1930s. Its silhouette is modified by the large pointed lapels and broad bellbottoms seen mid-decade, which generally make the torso appear smaller.  Clothes from this decade are quite similar in cut and finishing to modern-day clothes, so they're a great choice for someone new to vintage clothing.

Looking at all these options, isn't it strange that whenever some piece of clothing is the latest fashion, everyone wants to wear it no matter how odd or uncomplementary it looks on them? You can avoid following the crowd. Because vintage clothing encompasses practically any style you can think of, there is always a silhouette to flatter your figure.