It’s a Numbers Game – 10 Tips for Savvy Clothes Shopping Online

Your package arrives in the mail and opening it feels like a holiday. Then you try it on and sadly, it doesn’t fit. Here are some tips to better online shopping and avoiding disappointment.

Size charts can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and store to store. In the case of vintage clothing, modern sizes can vary greatly from vintage sizes (which tend to run smaller). Check size charts when they are available, and check individual measurements when they are listed. But first, find YOUR numbers.  Knowing your measurements is the first step to a great fit and a happy purchase.

tape measure#1: Invest in a cloth tape measure

Cloth tape measures have been used for decades. They provide the most accurate measurements since they are flexible to go over and around your body.

Check your measurements periodically too (at least annually) especially for weight loss or gain, holiday times, pregnancy, etc.

#2: Know your main measurements 

For tops, blouses, and sweaters, know the fullest part of your bust, your waist, your hips, and your shoulder to shoulder measurement. Shoulders are crucial for fitting jackets and blazers properly. For coats, you’ll want to take into account wearing a layer or two underneath. On longer tops and sweaters, the hip measurement will be important too.

Dresses and skirts, depending on the fit, body skimming or fuller styles, you’ll want to know the overall length as well. In very full skirts, sometimes a “sweep” is noted. This is the circumference of the bottom hem of the garment.

For jeans, slacks, pants and shorts, your waist and hips will be important. Your inseam (measured in bare feet from your crotch to your ankle) will give you an appropriate length.

Sleeve lengths, whether long, short, or 3/4 length can be gauged with your underarm to cuff measurement. Start at your armpit and measure to where your wrist bends. Size Chart

#3 Keep your numbers handy

When you’re ready for an online shop-a-thon, jot your measurements down next to your computer. You can store them in your phone notes or tablet, etc. I’ve even kept my measurements on a scrap of paper in my wallet so it’s handy. You can also commit them to memory, use whatever method works for you.

#4 Judge how a garment will fit you

One of the easiest ways to determine if your online garment will fit is to measure a piece of clothing you already own. Select a similar item (like a dress) with a similar style, that fits you properly and is easy to wear. Measure that one and compare.

from left to right: A-line Shirt Dress, Silk Wrap Dress, Body Conscious Maxi Dress
from left to right: A-line Shirt Dress, Silk Wrap Dress, Body Conscious Maxi Dress

#5 Ask

Many online and independent retailers list their sizes in size charts, or on individual catalog listings. If you can’t find size measurements, simply ask. If you need a critical measurement that isn’t listed, ask. For example, I have large upper arms and will request the circumference measurement on a tight-fitting long sleeve top or dress. I have yet to have a retailer who is not happy to provide specific information.

In vintage clothing, I’ve had many customers ask about all types of things like fabric details, color, seams, hems, request additional photos, etc. A trusted retailer is always happy to work with you.

#6 Know the fabric content

Cottons and most polyesters do not have built in stretch. Fabrics with combined content, like a 96% polyester 4% spandex blend will have a more stretch so a closely fitted garment will give you a bit of breathing room.  Personally, I love buttery soft, non-wrinkle fabrics that skim the body. Check the fabric content labels of some of your favorite clothes you already own.

fabric types

#7 Order two sizes

I’ve included this tip but some things to keep in mind before you try it. First, be sure you are well aware of the return shipping policy since you will only be keeping one item.

bathing suit sizesAnd second, be certain you know how long a refund takes to process on your form of payment. Take into account the store has to receive your returned item back into their inventory, and process your refund.

Ordering two sizes can be beneficial with certain types of garments, like swimsuits, lingerie (check the return policy) and form-fitting or body-conscious dresses.

#8 What if the measurements don’t exactly match yours?

When you find that to-die-for something you simply can’t live without, but it doesn’t exactly measure up, error on the side of practicality. You’ll have to think like a seamstress. For example, let’s say the bust is too large but the hips will work, you can have the garment altered to fit. It is easier to take seams in than to let them out.


#9 Conversion charts

Know where your garment is coming from. European, Asian, UK and North American markets use different average size guides. Below is a standard chart, but be sure to check against your own sizes. Sometimes you may have measurements in metric sizes and may need a converter. Here is a handy metric converter from

Conversion Chart

#10 Items without size tags

Many times online vintage garments do not have size tags – so measurements become essential. Don’t be afraid to ask the retailer about seam sizes (width). A lot of times a vintage garment will have wider seams or may have been altered. This is especially true with handmade items.

You can take advantage of the additional hidden fabric, increasing a critical inch or two to the finished piece. For example, hems and cuff can be lengthened or shortened. Front, side, and back seams may have enough room to let out if needed. An experienced seamstress can help.



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