How to Find the Right Vintage Silhouette for Your Shape

Trends come and go, but finding a silhouette that perfectly complements your body? Now that relationship is forever. And nobody knows this better than William Banks-Blaney, owner of WilliamVintage and Global Style Ambassador for American Express and Centurion. Dubbed “The Vintage King” by Vogue, Banks-Blaney has spent the last seven years helping women find their perfect silhouette(s) by way of his carefully curated collection of pieces. In light of his new book, 25 Dresses, Iconic Moments in Twentieth Century Fashion ($35), we chatted with Banks-Blaney about the defining looks of decades past and the body shapes that work best for each. Keep reading for our exclusive interview. 

“I think there is one preface to make, which is really important. The bottom line is that every shape fits every decade, because women have always been tall and short, and big busted and flat chested, and curvy and thin. So you can always think that this is something to guide you. If you are a size 16 and you love the look from the 1960s, that’s still something that is possible. It might take a little more patience to find the right thing, but there will still be that dress for you.” — William Banks-Blaney 

Photo:

Left: Doris Hill; Right: A Chanel ribbon dress in black silk georgette with black glass bugle beads, 1924 from WilliamVintage.

1920s
Defining Silhouette: Drop-waist dress
Best For: Boyish and athletic shapes

“What you’ll often find with a 1920s piece, whether it’s a flapper shape or a drop waist, is they tend to be sleeveless, by and large, and were cut to give as much of a column form as possible. It is perhaps the one shape that is quite particular to a certain body type, which is very athletic.”

Steer Clear: If you have a big bust. It can be very difficult to wear, as everything hangs in a straight vertical line. 

Photo:

Left: Jean Harlow (George Hurrell/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images?); Right: A Vionnet Haute Couture dress in black silk, 1934 from WilliamVintage

1930s
Defining Silhouette: Bias-cut dress
Best For: All body shapes

“The ’30s, to me, were entirely about the bias cut, which is synonymous with the art deco period. And this is one of the rare examples where it is much more about the woman’s personality than her body shape. [The ’30s] was a time about celebrating the female form and all its different shapes and sizes and guises, which you didn’t see again until about the 1970s. The bias-cut dress is designed to spiral around and caress all of the parts of the body that are most womanly. It’s incredibly sexy and quite assertive in its way, but it’s much more about a languorous, fluid, and quite louche kind of look. And the best ones are in a really great fine duchesse silk, something that is almost quite velvety but water-like at the same time.”

Steer Clear: If you tend to perspire a lot. The bias-cut dresses of this period are often made of pure silk. 

Photo:

Left: Jean Harlow (George Hurrell/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images); Right: A Balenciaga Haute Couture dress, 1940 from WilliamVintage

1940s
Defining Silhouette: Menswear-inspired tailored separates
Best For: All body shapes

“The Second World War had an enormous impact on ’40s fashion. It was a time when women were working in offices, they were running companies, and they were managing businesses just as much as they were managing the home. There weren’t fancy clothes being made, and I think what that produced was a very lean, very tailored, quite austere look. If you don’t have so much of a waistline, then you can look at a lot of the ’40s coats, which were much more about volume and had a great deal of swing to them. Where the peplum really worked in the ’40s was it tricked the eye of giving curves even if you didn’t have them naturally. The silhouettes are great if you want to be playful, but in an assertive way.” 

Photo:

Left: Audrey Hepburn (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images); Right: A Dior cocktail dress in black silk, 1954 from WilliamVintage.

1950s
Defining Silhouette: Dior’s New Look
Best For: Pear shapes or the very curvaceous

“The key thing with the ’50s shape is you have to understand what you expect it to deliver. The ’50s LBD is incredibly iconic and an extraordinary silhouette. It’s a very full skirt, so it is literally Keep your hands off me—look, but don’t touch. If you want to have that moment of channeling Gina Lollobrigida and a ’50s vamp, it is a great thing. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve got a large bust and whether or not you have a defined waist, because the nature of ’50s clothing in particular was about what went on underneath. It was all about the undergarments, like modern-day girdles and the push-up bra.”

Steer Clear: If you are attending a dinner or event that is expected to carry on into the early morning. The cinched waist can be uncomfortable for long periods of wear. 

Photo:

Left: Twiggy (Popperfoto/Getty Images); Right: A Courreges dress in green wool, 1965 from WilliamVintage.

1960s
Defining Silhouette: A-line shift dress
Best For: Long, lean, and athletic bodies

“If I had to pick a defining look of the ’60s, it would be the A-line shift dress. It was a dress you could work in and drive in and party in and bend over in. If you have a slightly larger bum, they are fantastic; if you don’t have a defined waist, they are brilliant, because the A-line pretty much hides all thinness. I really think the ’60s are fantastic for the working wardrobe more than any other period, because you’ve got beautiful tailoring that was still fresh and clean. It’s become the universal benchmark for tailoring.”

Steer Clear: If you have a bigger bust. 

Photo:

Left: Bianca Jagger (Ron Galella/WireImage); Right: A Halston trouser suit in silk organza and mid-night blue sequins, 1975 from WilliamVintage.

1970s
Defining Characteristic: Textured separates and unstructured glamour  
Best For: All body shapes

“The ’70s were a time of amazing change and a real time of breaking down the barriers, and that dictated the clothes, which again were very similar to the approach of the bias cut in the ’30s. A huge part of ’70s daywear wasn’t about silhouette, but about the layering of suede against leather, against wool silk, against natural silk, against a really fantastic textural accessory. And it was quite tonal. You would often have a cappuccino against a nude against copper against chocolate, which I think is super chic. If you are someone who is more tactile, that’s a lovely decade to look at. It was this kind of languid glamour. It was much more about how the garment felt rather than how it looked.”

Which decade is your favourite? Tell us below!