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HomeIndex of ArticlesExtrasLetters, Q&ALetters, Questions, Advice: May '10

Letters, Questions, Advice: May '10

Madame Victoire of France, 1788

This month we have two questions:

Joyce inquires about plus size articles and what style of dress she would look best in (and gets some wonderful responses);

Elizabeth writes and wonders how to adjust a 1770's waistcoat pattern for a man with a large stomach (and learns that it probably won't be that much trouble.)




Dear contributors to YWU,
Many thanks for your very interesting articles each month, I enjoy reading them. I have two questions for you:

1. Will there be any more articles on plus size costuming in the future?

2. I like 18th century clothing very much and I really want to make myself a gown from this century, but I'm a bit hesitant. I am plus size and I'm on the short side (5'3"). Do you have any tips which styles from this century would be flattering for me?

Thanks you so much,
Kind regards,

Note from the Editor: If you would like to write an article on plus size costuming, I'd love to hear from you!



Suzi Clarke replied:
As a short plus size myself, I find it difficult to find any 18th century style especially flattering. The most succesful, for me, is a robe battante/contouche/Watteau style gown from the 1730's. I wear it over stays and pads or pocket hoops and all the other underwear. Having said that, I have seen other plus size ladies in more fitted gowns, which have looked fine. The important thing seems to be to have some "space" between the body and the arms. If you are plus size but shapely, I think you could probably try most styles. Try making up some shapes in calico/muslin, and taking a long hard look in a long mirror - see what you think. Do not underestimate the importance of properly fitted stays and skirt supports - they make all the difference.



Carolyn Dowdell replied:
Essentially, there is no one style that works best for any particular figure. There was one overall, homogeneous silhouette throughout the 18th century until the mid-1790s, and women of all shapes and sizes conformed to it. This was the 'conical' shaping of the torso via stays with full skirts. So really, you can do whatever style from the period you like.

If you're going for greater accuracy, you want to ask yourself what time period, what social level and what occasion (ie formal or informal) instead, and then choose what you like from within your parameters using colours that flatter you.

Thus far in my research I have not encountered anything about particular styles being better for any particular body type (presumably because they all wore stays and thus had the same general shape, just in different sizes). Rather, elite/fashionable women have been more concerned with wearing what is appropriate for their age, station, the occasion, time of year, and fashionability.

There is no need to feel restricted because of how you perceive your figure, with one caveat: I would probably stay away from the 'robe volante' of the 1720s, which is just like a big tent, almost as if it was the 'muu-muu' of the time. I don't think the robe volante was flattering to anyone (from a 21st century perspective). Hope that helps!



Kendra van Cleave replied:
Hi Joyce: I'm a fellow plus size costumer, although I'm tall so am not the best to speak to the issue of height! It's hard for me to know exactly what to recommend without knowing your particular figure shape (apple? pear? other shapes?)  I think what I would suggest is to think about what you feel works well on your body in modern clothes, and in other costume eras that you have made, and apply them to the various 18th century shapes.

If I were doing a "What Not to Wear" analysis, I think I might suggest the following: avoid early robe volantes, as they are very shapeless and tent-like; the robe a la francaise I think can be flattering on any body shape, particularly if you make sure to get a nice V shape in the bodice front of the robe and the stomacher (look at the very vertical trimming styles of the 1770s as well, versus the earlier curvilinear shapes); later robes a l'anglaise and similar fitted styles are nice because they are more minimalist. I would suggest looking at the 1780s for the more fitted, tailored styles and avoid too much frou frou.

All that being said... I'm a big proponent of "One does not need to dress slimmingly (is that a word?) to be fabulous." Remember that plus size women existed in all eras and so wore all styles of clothes, and so can you. If there's a style or era that calls to you, go for it!
- Kendra



Sunny Buchler replied:

Hi Joyce,
Suggesting styles within a period is even more difficult for plus sizes then for small sizes. The root cause of this is the same reason that modern clothing manufacturers have trouble scaling their fashions up: the locations where fat is stored is extremely individual. That means there are many more variations in figure shape for each size within the set of "plus-sizes" then there are for the small sizes. Instead of jumping to particular style suggestions, I suggest you think about what you like to emphasize about your figure.

Here are my thoughts about different possibilities:

  • The entire 18th century has corseted fashions; for women who are amply endowed, corsets are a huge boon - the figure adjustment is much more dramatic then for the size-6 crowd.
  • If you like emphasizing your waist, I'd recommend the Revolutionary period (1770-1789).
  • If you prefer high-waisted dresses, I'd recommend the very end of the 18th century c1790-1799.
  • If you want to create (or emphasize) a dramatic difference between your hips and your waist, I'd look at the "grand pannier" styles from roughly 1750-75.


Another thing to keep in mind - if an outfit contains elements that you would hate wearing normally, you probably won't be happy wearing it in a costume, even if it is historically accurate. Good luck!



I'm planning to do a 1770's waistcoat for a gentleman who carries a lot of weight in his stomach area. I'm not used to sewing for someone with a very large abdomen (my other half is fairly slender), so I thought I'd ask for any tips for adapting a pattern for this figure type would be appreciated.





Ellie, my small experience with eighteenth century menswear was to use the original patterns from Norah Waugh's The Cut of Men's Clothes to recreate clothing for a pair of tall, slender gentlemen. I found that it was quite confusing to try to adapt the curved shapes of the centre fronts (especially waistcoats) to their svelte figures, realising that the Adonis of the age was, indeed, of rather generous proportions!

In other words, you may find that adapting pattterns for this man, especially if you use original sources, isn't as much of a stretch as you think! Here's my mid-1990s attempt at pseudo-18th century costume as contrasted  with a more well-fed portrait of the 18th century.
Best wishes,
Cathy Hay


Cathy's mid-1990s attempt at 18th c men's waistcoat C W Peale, Portrait of John and Elizabeth Lloyd Caldwater
Cathy's mid-1990s attempt at 18th c men's waistcoat C W Peale, Portrait of John and Elizabeth Lloyd Caldwater


Letters, Questions & Advice: May 2010   Re: Waistcoat for larger gentlemen.

I've found it most important to choose or make your pattern according to the should/neck/upper chest fit, as it's actually much easier to change the fit in the waist. After that, remember that the waist girth for a large stomach will be increased mostly in the front, and that the front length measurement will change also. The front edges of these garments tend to have a pronounced curve, which helps to fit the stomach area.
Letters, Questions & Advice: May 2010   Ellie, With this period waistcoats they almost always had a slit down the back with ties so that they could adjust. You would go with the chest measurement and not the waist measurement, I list it on my patten but it is the measurement if the ties are tied closed and my guess is that one could get another 5-6 inches maybe more depending on how long waisted the man is. I have pictures of a mock up of the Waistcoat at
When we where taking the pictures we stuck a pillow in the front and adjusted the ties it looked great. You could have lacings in place of the ties. Lynn
Letters, Questions & Advice: May 2010   I've used the now sold out FEDERALIST AND REGENCY COSTUME: 1790-1819, edited by R.L. Shep for information on adjusting men's outfits, or as they say, to "make a coat for a big belly". When I made a regency coatee for a gentleman using this book, I found it pretty easy until I had to sew on decoration - at that stage I had to put it on the wearer to get everything level and even.
I have two antique waistcoats in my collection, one from 1780 that has a full back, and one from 1810-20 that has a slit back with ties. Ties are a perfect solution, as long as the wearer remembers that men of that day did not generally take their coats off, so the ties remained out of sight.

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