I think all beginners to sewing, draping and flat patternmaking feel somewhat distanced when faced with a dressform that does not reflect their own proportions, or the proportions of the woman they want to design for.
In design courses the usual fitting model is a Misses Size 8. The dress form is collapsible meaning you can squeeze the armplates on each side causing the form to contract. It is something like the way an accordion contracts. This facilitates easier dressing and undressing of the form. After the garment is slipped over the top of the form, the arm plates are squeezed again and in an amazing fashion the upper torso of the form is once more smooth and shapely. Size 8 is a good size to work with for beginners since it is neither too small nor too large. The proportions are very attractive and stimulate creative thoughts for designs ranging from the simple and classic to the complex and intriguing. Smaller and larger sized dress forms require special design considerations that are best approached after learning the basics on a size that is in the mid-way range. There is so much to learn about darts, seams, and style lines that a good foundation in these basics is necessary before moving on to the challenges of special fitting needs of petites or plus sizes, for example.
Of course if you are embarking on a program of self-study, then a dress form made to your own measurements is ideal. But if that’s not possible, then one of the adjustable forms will serve the purpose of getting you started as far as fitting and alterations are concerned. These adjustable forms, though, do not work as well as the professional quality dress forms once you want to start draping since they lack the solid and firm structure to hold and support repeated pinning into the dress form.
Personally, I have always related to dressforms in Misses Size 4 or 6, or a Junior size 5 or 7 much better than a Misses Size 8 or 10. It has a lot to do with my sources of inspiration which are usually from the teen years through the late 20s. Also, being small boned and a small size myself I know what works best in these size ranges for the woman who comes from a similar background and lifestyle as my own. For these reasons I use a Misses 4 as a starting point.
Pattern grading is a very valuable skill for a dressmaker to know. With this knowledge you can take a pattern made in any size and use it as a basis to size it up or size it down. The results will be a range of sizes for the style using your original pattern as the source.
My next few postings will focus on dress forms and the figure types of different eras. While this is not directly related to sewing a retro inspired outfit I think it will bring an awareness of the need to adapt retro styles to the modern shape, lifestyle and attitudes of the modern day. A dress form from 1940 is much different in shape from one made in 2013. Undergarments and the way they shape (or do not shape) the body also play a part in how a garment will fit. The lingerie of today is nothing like that from the 1950s so consideration should be given to that as well when designing a retro inspired outfit.
Whatever size you work with take inspiration from the way the fabric flows over the form and let the shape and effect “talk” to you. Spend time draping scarves and lengths of fabric over the form. Tie, twist, pin or arrange in different ways to get a feeling for how form and fabric work together. This might seem like nonsense at first but gradually you will develop a sensibility and recall that will come to mind when you sketch, select a pattern or fabric for a project.