Many women who adore vintage garments are missing one very important accessory: a body that fits into them. Ask any plus-size consumer — or a certain writer who has rummaged through her own mother’s and grandmother’s retro wardrobes, for that matter — and she’ll probably have a story about struggling to squeeze into a cinched waist or button up a silk blouse. Or the disappointment of finding the perfect Chanel LBD but not being able to get it past her hips.
The truth is, size charts prior to about 1980 were different from what they are today. “Vintage clothing sizes run four to six sizes smaller than clothing sizes today,” according to plus-size blog Pretty Plus Prep. Some companies are beginning to offer vintage-inspired styles in sizes that fit today’s average American woman.
But another plus-size advocate — Shelley Johnson of New Vintage Lady — is bringing her mission to another level: She has created a line of sewing patterns so larger women can actually create their own vintage reproductions. Johnson has been offering retro-inspired wardrobe patterns since 2007, but in order for her newest line to reach the masses, she has launched a Kickstarter campaign.
On her fundraising page, she writes: “Plus-size people love fashion and fit just as much as anyone else. We also love classic styles, pretty dresses, mixing old with new, and wearing it however we feel. New Vintage Lady has been dedicated to larger size-period-correct vintage reproductions for nearly a decade. Now it’s time to take it to the next level, multi-size. Ranging in bust sizes of 40″ to 52″, [New Vintage Lady] hopes to fill that gap of patterns with the classic styles of yesteryear, completely re-drafted to fit a larger frame.”
Also on her Kickstarter page, Johnson offers previews of the patterns she’s created, which include a 1940s wrap dress she calls “the Shelly,” a multipanel World War II-era swing-dancer frock, a 1930s double-breasted suit dress, a 1940s pantsuit, and even a turn-of-the-century “Gibson Girl” ensemble. She writes that her line includes a 1930s cocktail dress that’s not shown, and when it launches, there will be “a couple of surprises.”
Johnson was inspired to start her business for personal reasons. “I began sewing and grading patterns, vintage in particular, because I could never find much real vintage in my size,” she says on her Kickstarter page. “I then began collecting larger-size vintage sewing patterns, and people would want copies. That’s how the pattern side of [New Vintage Lady] started. I want to fill that void in the pattern world for people who want great period-correct reproductions in their size.” Johnson claims on her Kickstarter page that all the patterns can be adjusted “if your size changes.”
If you want to donate to New Vintage Lady’s cause, there’s still time. At last count, the campaign has raised $9,866 — a little more than $1,000 shy of her $11,000 goal. Johnson is even offering incentives for donating specific sums. For instance, those who pledge between $25 and $80 will receive thank-you cards and free patterns, while $100 or more can earn you a namesake pattern.
Of course, to benefit from New Vintage Lady patterns, you have to be able to sew your own garment — or at least have access to a tailor who can create one for you. Or donate $200 and Johnson will custom-make you a dress from one of her patterns — but the fabric is not included.
The campaign ends Dec. 13 at 8 p.m. PT. Johnson writes that her goal is to start offering completed patterns by the beginning of 2017. She plans to have “at least one pattern completed and mailed out and a PDF made available each month. My goal is to have all 20 completed by early 2018,” she writes.
Johnson is so close to fulfilling her financial goal and bringing vintage to the people that she can hardly contain her enthusiasm. In a recent post on her website, she celebrated the fact that Kickstarter included her campaign in its newsletter. Her passion is palpable. Johnson — who claims on her website that she’s been sewing for 15 years and was inspired by her mother, a professional seamstress — isn’t just a pattern maker; she’s a devoted plus-size proponent. She calls her site a “bastion of early 1930s to mid-1940s sewing, fashion, and lifestyle focusing on the stout (plus-size) woman.” She adds, “I also like to chat about size in culture and race from time to time.”
For now, you can buy some of Johnson’s plus-size patterns from her Etsy store, where you can also score some of the designer’s original comic-book-inspired artwork.