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Geometry of Women’s Clothing during the CW Era


When a person walks towards us the first thing we notice are the proportions of the person’s shape.  How tall are they?  How wide is the skirt is relationship to the height?  We notice ratios and geometry of the figures shape.

If these ratios are period appropriate, then the figure will give the first impression of wearing accurate period clothing.  If the ratios are off, there will always be a jarring inconsistency in the appearance.


When I first started examining extant women’s dresses I noticed that the waists appear to be very high.  I am only 5’3”, so when I hold up a dress to me it is usually about the right length, but the waist always seemed to end up just below my bust.  I remembered from art class that the proportions of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man are still accurate for the modern body.  Hence, it is unlikely that women in the 1860’s simply had longer legs than we do.  So therefore it seemed more probable that the dresses were in fact high waisted. 

To test my hypothesis, I created a “Vitruvian Woman”, using rules of body proportion.  Then I isolated the drawing and superimposed it onto period photographs while making sure the heads were the same size.

On almost all pictures, the waist was situated on the bottom of the ribcage, on some almost directly below the bust.


It appears that young women and teens in particular favored really high waisted dresses. There seemed to be no difference with regards to socio-economic status, but when sorted by origin, American photographs showed 99% high waisted dresses, as did French.

German had fewer and the only ones with waists more often at a level we would call close to “natural” today were pictures from England.


It is very easy to raise the waist on the next dress to sew, and the result will be a more accurate period silhouette.

Warwick, RI









Southbend, IN









Reading, PA









Image on left:  Manchester, England

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