Fitting vintage dresses
September 12, 2007 5:00 PM   Subscribe

Two questions about wearing vintage dresses: 1) How the hell do I deal with the zipper by myself? and 2) What does a small-chested woman do in a dress cut for someone wearing a bullet bra?

On a whim I've bought a few vintage dresses, mostly from the 50s. Now that I have them, I need to make them wearable. The biggest problem, even for those that fit perfectly, is the zipper. Am I really supposed to always have someone around to help me get in and out of the dress? If not, is there some sort of contraption I can buy or create out of say, a paperclip that I can use to zip and unzip myself?
For the dresses that don't fit, the problem is always in the chest. I am small-chested, and even with my most outrageously cup-size-enhancing bra, I am not going to fill out a dress cut for someone wearing a bullet bra. Should I just give up and get them altered? Any other suggestions for making them wear better without alteration? Is this at least an easy alteration to have done? My current experience with alteration is basically limited to pant hems.
posted by ch1x0r to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (13 answers total)
Use a wire hanger to hook the zipper so you can pull it up yourself (assuming it is the type with a little hole at the bottom of the pull tab).
posted by gatorae at 5:04 PM on September 12, 2007

Why don't you get a bullet bra? Sure, you could alter them (could be very easy, could be very hard, it depends on the dress), but that's not the silhoutte they were cut for.
posted by crabintheocean at 5:20 PM on September 12, 2007

An improvement to gatorae's suggestion: partly unbend one loop of a paperclip and thread a long piece of string through the center. Double the string so you can hold both ends with the paperclip in the center. You now have a fish-hook on a fishing line. Put the hook through the little hole in the zipper pull and toss the string over your shoulder. Pull the string (hold both ends) and when the zipper gets to the top it's easy to unhook it without having to see what you're doing.
posted by Quietgal at 5:24 PM on September 12, 2007

Are you treating these dresses as just part of your wardrobe or as a way of strutting a retro persona?

If you're going retro, get a bullet bra (and even stuff it a little if you need to.)

If not, then get them altered and revel in the anachronism. After all, you're not going for full period makeup and hair, are you?
posted by maudlin at 5:25 PM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

a decent tailor ought to be able to do it. it depends on the dress, but they may suggest darts or just taking in the sides.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:31 PM on September 12, 2007

Response by poster: Are you treating these dresses as just part of your wardrobe or as a way of strutting a retro persona?

A little of a, a little of b. Some of them are too extreme to be anything but retro chic. Others could pass as normal clothes (in fact, I would like to wear them to work, where I go to the gym at lunch hence the zipper part of the question). Perhaps I'll try a bullet bra for the more extreme, alteration for the others.
posted by ch1x0r at 5:37 PM on September 12, 2007

Have you tried something like these?. I am small-breasted myself and use them for certain dresses that I could get altered but just look so much better if I fill them out a bit more.
posted by sutel at 5:39 PM on September 12, 2007

The time honored way to do up a zipper by yourself is 1) reach behind your back, pull/push the zipper closed as high as you can reach 2) then bend forward part way, curving your spine and allowing the dress to ride up a bit in back 3) reach over shoulder with one hand for the zipper, as you use the other hand to pull up on the top of the dress to facilitate zipper-pull grabbing.

A retro bra is key. It's cheaper than a tailor- in order to do the job properly, they're going to have to re-do the darts and re-set the sleeve in the armseye.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:55 PM on September 12, 2007

Best answer: I have quite a collection of dresses and suits from the 1940s forward and am small-busted as well. I'd suggest that you wear a modern padded, structured bra with the dresses. While they might have been meant to be worn with the more pointed bra styles of their time, doing so can look overly "costumey" and like you're trying too hard (fancy-dress parties excepted). (Bullet bras also draw a lot of attention, even under a dress; not necessarily ideal at work.)

As for alterations, I'd say approach them on a garment-by-garment basis. Most of the garments I have of the era you're talking about have very defined waists, and reducing the bust can make things go, quite literally, pear-shaped. The balance of the dress can be thrown off. If it's just a little loose - i.e., the fabric at the bustline can be pulled enough that I can see where the rest of the bust would go if I had it - I leave it alone. If it's so loose that it's wrinkling across the chest, in that case I'd have it altered.

As for the zipper, Quietgal has already provided a good tool solution and oneirodynia has the by-yourself technique well-described. If you want to buy a tool, you could get a bracelet helper.

One last thing - from years of getting away with wearing vintage clothing and jewelry to work, let me say this: generally, I wear only one obviously vintage piece per outfit - see "costumey," above. Even my 1940s suit jackets with the linebacker shoulders are surprisingly wearable when combined with a modern silk blouse, tailored pants and simple jewelry.
posted by jocelmeow at 8:16 PM on September 12, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you all very much for your suggestions!
posted by ch1x0r at 8:44 PM on September 12, 2007

Also, look for dresses that fit you better. From my experience as a longtime vintage shopper, there are many dresses available in excellent condition precisely because the bust lines are small and it's hard for 21st century women to fit in them. You especially want to beware the dress that's so large in the bust that the shoulders gape.
posted by Scram at 8:58 AM on September 14, 2007

Scram, you definitely have a point (NPI!), but the issue I seem to have with late 1950's dresses is always positioning: the bodice may be the right size, but the bras and foundation garments of that era seem engineered to direct everything straight up. The bust point in a number of dresses I own is about an inch higher than my natural bust point in a modern bra (I know it's not me, I'm too small chested to feel the effects of gravity.) Then again, these dresses tend to be cocktail dresses, which often had slightly more extreme styling than day dresses. A retro bra ensures that I fit into them perfectly.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:20 AM on September 14, 2007

I've always used needle nosed pliers to do up the zippers on my vintage dresses. They give you an extra 6 inches or so in reach and a firm grip on the zipper pull.
posted by rhinny at 1:14 AM on September 26, 2007

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