Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Fit Over Sizing

Our poor newbie is in tears today. She has always worn a size 12... always!! and she found the most lovely dress... but the horrible store clerk at the sutlers handed her a size 16 to try on... and OH HORRORS!!! it FIT! GASP!

Has Newbie gained weight? Are re-enactment garments sized differently than regular ones? Was the dress made in the wrong size? Are they trying to tell her she's fat (cheeky jerks!)?

No, Dearest Newbie... it's the long and scary history of standardized sizing of womens-wear to blame.


The first women's garment to be offered via a standard size system was corsets. They were based on the waist measurement of the corset. The measure didn't account for spring, just literally the measurement of the garment (more on corset myths in future postings). Cloaks, Mantles, etc. available ready- made were generally offered in one size.

As undergarments and eventually dresses became available via catalog mail order, a system of sizing was needed. Bottoms continued to be sized by the waist measurement of the garment. Dresses, Nightgowns, Dressing Gowns, Chemises, etc. started to be sized by the bust measure. Childrens-wear was sized by the age of the child the manufacturer thought it would fit.

Thus, for a dress in the 1890 National Cloak Co. Catolog, if it was meant to fit a child, the sizing would be... 6months, 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, 4 years, 5 years, 6-7 years, 8 years, 10 years, 12 years, 14 years, 16 years. Were it meant to fit a young, unmarried lady (termed Misses at the time) it would be offered in 28 bust, 30 bust, 32 bust. Were it meant to fit an adult woman it would be offered in 30 bust, 32 bust, 34 bust. At this time, 1890s, that would be about it for ready-made. The purchaser would be expected to finish the side seams, arm seams, sleeve hems, skirt hems, and closures for herself, too.

By the 1920s Sears Catalog, for childrens-wear, size system depended on the garment. Girls' dresses and Children's casual clothing was sized by "age" and tailored boys' suits were offered in chest measures of 31"-35". Women could purchase dresses (again, partially unfinished) by bust measures, 32"-44" with a proportional waist difference (IE: they expected a dress with a bust measure of 40" to have a waist measure of 34", 44"- 38").

By the 1940s Sears catalog, dresses came finished. Sizing was still much the same. For home sewing patterns, dresses were given a number size. 32" bust= 6, 34"=8, 36"=10... etc. on up to 44"=18, then "Stout" sizes by bust measure, 46 & 48. (48 is the largest I've seen or seen referenced.)

On dresses in department stores, they went by the system they felt would sell the most garments. Most probably created a number system similar to the ones for patterns. Vanity sizing was prevalent.

During WWII, because of the need for clothes and fabric rationing, and because of the number of women needing to be provided with uniforms, clothing manufacturers finally had a large enough sample of the female population to survey statistically what sizes women actually wore.

After WWII, Lane Bryant Co. began transferring their company from producing maternity wear to producing clothing for larger women, then made a move to exclusively clothing for larger women. Many department stores and catalog companies began offering token large size departments about this time. They were geared toward the "Graceful Lady", the gracious society dame who presided over charitable functions and church socials.

At this time, also, the "teen" market was becoming big-news. Called Juniors, and sized accordingly smaller, clothing manufacturers started marketing clothing specifically to young women. (garments were sized in odd numbers, 3, 5, 7, & 9, occasionally an 11).

To distinguish themselves from the Junior dept. womens-wear for adults was labeled Misses, and sizes were listed in even numbers, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, & 18. They measure mostly close to the commercial pattern sizes, 32" bust=4, 44" bust=18, etc.

The first time the sizes of womens-wear were actually evaluated for industry-wide standardizing was in the early 1980s. Industry-wide for a time, every store's and manufacturer's sizes were to the same measurements.

When buying ready-made clothing for costumes in the early to mid 2000s, I noticed the manufacturers were increasing the vanity sizing again through standard sizing. XS & XXS were being offered more often among the Juniors, and there was an emergence of sizes 00, 0, & 1. The Junior Plus departments were also introduced, offering sizes 13 & 15, and XXL was occasionally offered there. This allowed manufacturers to capture the prevalent fashion movements of the day effectively. It was at this time that "standard sizes" began getting more snug and smaller overall.

Currently, women's clothing in a department store is separated into 4 sections, Juniors/Junior Plus, Misses, Petites and Women's (aka: Plus). In Juniors you will usually find sizes 0-13 & XS-XL, in Misses one will usually find sizes, 2-18 & S-XL, in Women’s/Plus one will usually find sizes 18-26 (sometimes 28-32) & XL- 3XL. Specialty Plus Shops will generally have sizes 14-16 through 26-28, and XL through 3XL. Specialty Catalogs will often offer sizes 28, 30, 32, and 4XL. Depending on the store, Petites may mean sizes 0-5 scaled down for a person of an overall smaller stature, or it may mean sizes 2-18 scaled for shorter persons. Many Junior Plus departments have now extended the size range to include 13-27.

Petite (as a euphemism for short) and Tall sizes came in the early 1980s in jeans. In Misses sizes, petite sizes began to be offered in skirts, trousers, blouses, suits, jackets, etc. at this time too. Specialty plus catalogues often offered tall sizes. It has been only about 5 years that petite plus and tall plus trousers (not jeans) have been offered in specialty plus stores. In today's sizing Petite= 5'4" and under, 5'4"-5'9"= Average, and 5'9" + = Tall.

Although among the first items offered to women ready-made, undergarments also went through changes in standard sizing and how they could be bought.

The pieces that are worn in 1857 include:

chemise- often cut out and made at home, possibly with the help of a seamstress... the pattern, and therefore size would be taken from existing chemises. When bought ready-made, it would be whatever size the cutter felt like cutting that day.

drawers- often cut out and made at home, possibly with the help of a seamstress... there were patterns given in lady's magazines, which would have been taken to a dress-maker or talented seamstress for scaling up. When bought ready-made, size would be at the cutter's discretion.

petticoats- often made at home, trimmings could be bought from a dry goods or fancy goods store. Waist measure at the discretion of the cutter, when ready-made.

cage crinoline- bought from a dressmaker, dry goods, or fancy goods store. The bottom widths were available in many sizes... waistline often comes adjustable; though how much was included before the customer cut off the excess... that’s a research project for someone else. :-p

corset- bought by the waist measure of the corset... how much spring a woman left herself varied.. there were corsetieres in most large cities like NYC, D.C., Philly, etc... The "best" corsets were imported from Paris. For those affluent enough to take a Grand Tour through Europe, a stop at an English or French corsetiere was a must. The corset, whether imported from a large city or across the ocean, would need tweaking to the individual’s figure by a dress-maker or corsetiere. Many improvements in construction, design elements, and components were patented.

stockings- one size fits most (of my big toe)

These items, except corsets, were available at shops called a "Linen Warehouse"... for a trousseau, it was called "marriage and outfitting orders." (orders is sometimes used as a euphemism for a collection of undergarments)

By the 1890s, petticoats and skirt foundations were sold by waist measure, other garments were sold by bust measure; though there were a limited number of waist and bust measures available.

by the 1920s Sears catalog, drawers and bloomers (both terms used to denote different garments) were sold in small, medium, and large. Tops and Combos in bust measures 34" to 44" Corsets were sold by "size", sizes 19-26 were available. (They didn't reproduce page 279, so I can't read how their sizing worked :-p )

by the 1960s Sears catalog, bottoms were still sold by waist "size" or by S,M,L. Bras had developed distinct cup sizes. The sizes A & B had the most variety of styles. C had a few less choices. D had only one choice. Larger sizes weren't available in that catalog. (I suspect that larger sizes might have been available at specialty lingerie shops.)

Let me explain how cup size is determined... measure around the bust, at the fullest part... measure around the chest, under the bust... subtract the difference... a difference of 1"-2"=A cup, 3"-4"= B cup, 4"-5"= C cup, 5"-6"= D cup, 6"+ = DD cup.. Sizes do go up to EE, FF, G, H, &J through specialty mail order catalogs.


Sewing Patterns never did go through the Standard Sizing Revolution. They are still sized to the measurements of the 1940s, 6=32”, 18=44”... and plus sizes 46, 48, etc. are, unlike 1940s sizing, switched over to size 22, 24, 26... The measurements for a size 12 sewing pattern will fit a commercial Misses’ ready-to-wear size 4. Statistics show that the average woman in America today wears a size 22. That will fit a commercial sewing pattern size 32 (the largest available.)

Many of the garments offered ready-made for re-enacting are based on sewing patterns available from pattern companies using the standard *sewing pattern* sizes... these are different than standard *ready-to wear clothing* sizes.

So if the size difference bothers Poor Newbie that much, perhaps she would care to try custom-made clothing. We deal in measurements, not sizes. :-p


The Newbie in this case was a question posted on a forum. My response prompted an author friend of mine to ask me to elaborate... from that this article was born.

Much of my information is from:

Every Day Fashions of 1909-1920, as pictured in Sears Catalogs

Every Day Fashions of the 1920s, as pictured in Sears Catalogs

Every Day Fashions of the 1930s, as pictured in Sears Catalogs

Every Day Fashions of the 1940s, as pictured in Sears Catalogs

Every Day Fashions of the 1950s, as pictured in Sears Catalogs

Every Day Fashions of the 1960s, as pictured in Sears Catalogs

1890 Edition of the National Cloak and Suit Co. Catalog

US Current Standard Sizes for Ready-To Wear Clothing

Information on Size Zero

Simplicity Size Charts-Modern

A Variety of Vintage Sewing Patterns: the best way to get an idea of vintage sizing is to look at the measurement comparisons of many patterns

Monday, March 14, 2011

Series: Do I Know You? part 3

We’ve been discussing creating a Biography for an Impression. As I said in the previous postings, in creating a character biography, it is easiest to start with some basic information and let that lead you to delve deeper. Imagine yourself in the center of a series of concentric circles. Start with information about yourself in the center of the circle. The next ring is information about your immediate family and daily life. Next is your extended family. Next your communities and your public life. Finally your world view and how far-removed events affect your impression. I will take a common Character Development Worksheet and cover each of the questions. I will give you some suggestions for why the question is relevant and in most cases, an idea of some sources to help you decide on your answers. The questionnaire in most packets leave room for as much detail as you care to include, so you may want to start with a little and add more details as you decide on them.

We’ve discussed how your family might influence your impression. In this posting, we’ll explore how your impression interacts with various parts of the community.

Occupation may be one of the simple questions on the Biography Sheet, but it is one of the most important questions to consider about your impression. Each occupation has a reputation, which will color how you as a practitioner of that occupation would be viewed. When choosing an occupation, make sure you can research enough of the details of that occupation to give a convincing portrayal of it. Also, if you are portraying that occupation for modern-day visitors, one will run into the incidence of speaking about that occupation with someone who practices that occupation today. Being able to relate a period occupation to a modern equivalent will allow the visitor to connect with you and the history you are trying to share. The census is a great place to learn about what occupations were common in the area. City Directories were published for many of the larger cities. Some occupations require licensing and those will be with the county and state records in most cases. Your local library can usually point you to which archive keeps those records.

Education is often asked with the occupation. Formal schooling was often viewed very differently in the past. The educational opportunities your impression had will color how they view education, those with more and with fewer opportunities for education than themselves, and certain occupations. They may feel their education gave them a boost in career or they may be trying to act more educated than they actually are. Education can include trade skills, home-schooling, common sense, independent learning, non-traditional learning…. Not just the time spent in a formalized classroom. To delve deeper, explore how your impression came to know the things they do. Why do they find those important to remember?

Hobbies and Interests can tell your neighbors much about what is important to you. Most of us need not only an occupation that provides what we need but an outlet for creative expression and fulfillment of the off hours too. Hobbies we share with others can open a conversation, which makes any event more enjoyable. Music, Literature, Science, Nature, Art, Mechanics, Needlework, Cooking and Construction are just the tip of the ice-berg. Many cities had interest groups for persons who shared interests. A City Directory can suggest a few to you.

A few of the interests are key to how you interact with your community and express your world view. In most questionnaires, this is where they will ask leading questions related to the event and begin to discover how you might interact with other members of their particular community. These questions may be the hardest of all to answer because they are the ones that require both research and thought.

Asking about travel opportunities allows your neighbors to peg your world view. Is the focus of your impression on our local community or will the larger state, country, and world affect your choices? With a focus-era of 18th and 19th cent. America, we are in the travel revolution. The many new inventions related to travel are bringing the world closer together and taking the local community to the larger world. To delve deeper, how does this make your impression feel? At the fore-front of exciting possibility or overwhelmed by the fast moving choices? Ready to prove to the world we are every bit as good if not better? Very small and without the power to affect much on a large scale? Newspaper Advertisements, Travel Brochures, Travel Guides, and City Directories can all help to give an idea of travel in the past. Journaling was very popular on long trips and many of those survive to give us a glimpse of how a person of the past found a community they were encountering. Many have been digitized by Google Books and the Gutenberg Project.

Politics were one of the key topics in past communities. How the governance of the communities will affect the daily life was felt much more immediate to people of past communities. Often the drama of politics will make up the bulk of an immersion event. For much of the past, the right to affect politics with the vote was held by only a few persons. Those without the vote needed to find other ways to affect politics and make their political needs known. Most political decisions were published in newspapers and broadsides were hung in a prominent place in the community. Issues for consideration were advertised in broadsides and debated in the editorial sections of newspapers.

As anyone who has been very sick or gravely injured will tell you, health is an important consideration that affects our lives. It will color how we view the medical profession, medicines, illness, and mental health. It will say much about how we view mortality and possibly religion. It will affect the types of physical activities we engage in. It will affect the precautions we take and the attire we choose. Many of the conditions that affect our impressions have been alleviated by modern medicine and modern sanitation, but they were a very real and quite serious threat to persons of the past. Many of the sanitation rituals and health edicts of today were enacted comparatively recently. While we comply with the edicts and rituals as historic preservationists, to view the world as it was in the past we need to remember in our minds that the pollution was there at the time we are re-creating. Reading the bombast for patent remedies will give an idea of some of the concerns that were commonly thought to need remedy. To delve deeper in the 18th cent. consider the books by Dr. Benjamin Martin, for the 19th cent. consider Dr. John C. Gunn, both are available via Google Books.

Lastly, your religious preferences should be known to the community. Spirituality and religion were very important to our past communities. Wars and political struggles were instigated because of differences in religious or spiritual beliefs. Consider not only the well publicized ones we all know of today, but the many smaller community level ones also. In many cases, religion will govern not only how one lives, but reading matter, attire choices, ritual, friend and spouse suitability choices, and views on charity. It may affect employment opportunities, group membership, marriage opportunities, voting rights, immigration and emigration, educational opportunities, and community socialization. Many religious congregations sponsored publications, schools, charities, social justice organizations, and social activities for it’s members. Many documents can be found in the archives of the respective congregations and advertisements can be found in newspapers and city directories.

With thoughtful consideration of these questions, you should be able to begin filling out a Character Biography for your impression for immersion events ...and probably found a few interesting tangents along your journey. Let those tangents lead your further research. Which questions you provide the most detail on will also comment on your interests... and may open up a conversation or gain you a research partner. The questionnaire doesn't need to be daunting, it can be a lot of creative fun.

Some resources:

City Directories: Choose "Browse the Collection" on the Right-Hand side
City Directories:
Google Books: Travel Guides: Grand European Tour: 1749
Google Books: Travel Guides:1856
Google Books: Travel Guides: 1767
Female Employment: 1863
Politics: 1840-1860
Google Books: Benjamin Martin
Google Books: John C. Gunn

For Newspaper Archives enter "newspaper and community name" into the main search engine.
For Religious Organizations and Document Archives enter the denomination and the community name in a search engine.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Series: Do I Know You? part 2

As I said in the last posting, in creating a character biography, it is easiest to start with some basic information and let that lead you to delve deeper. Imagine yourself in the center of a series of concentric circles. Start with information about yourself in the center of the circle. The next ring is information about your immediate family and daily life. Next is your extended family. Next your communities and your public life. Finally your world view and how far-removed events affect your impression. I will take a common Character Development Worksheet and cover each of the questions. I will give you some suggestions for why the question is relevant and in most cases, an idea of some sources to help you decide on your answers. The questionnaire in most packets leave room for as much detail as you care to include, so you may want to start with a little and add more details as you decide on them.


Center and First Ring: Yourself and Early Influences

Upon a basic introduction, the first information shared is your name. Sometimes a name will be provided for you from the census of the area. Sometimes you will like to consult the census of the area yourself for an actual person of the area. Sometimes you will use your own name. And sometimes you will choose a different name for yourself. I find it is useful to consistently use a few names/impressions where possible, so I remember which name to answer to. :-p Consulting the area census, which is usually available through your local library or through, is often a much appreciated touch for interpreting at an historical park or historical site as it makes the interpretation more immediate to them and tells the story of some forgotten heroes and heroines who founded our communities.

Your birthday is often the next question. Time and Date. com can help with the computations. Your age tells the community what you've seen, what experiences you probably had, and how that might affect how you view the world. We all remember where we were when we heard about famous events and the people of the past were no different. Remember that calender time may have been viewed differently by your impression... maybe the season was a more important counting tool than the month. Perhaps your impression's mother marked family time as between your arrival and Grandpa's exit, or you were born the fall the burning of the tobacco beds got out of hand and burned half the county, or the year Himself was elected president.

A place of birth or home-town is often asked, and rightly so. This is your first community. This is your first introduction to societal and cultural norms. This is where you learn what it means to be part of or apart from a community. Have your people been here for generations, a solid part of the community fabric? Are your people just come to the area, thus you are weaving into the community fabric? Or are your people passing through, a lively accent to the community fabric? Each geographic region was settled by a different make-up of people with specific tribal traditions in language, dress, behavioral norms, and communal attitudes that mark this community as “different” than others. Your first community, or the first community you identify with, is where these traits are instilled in you.

A timeline of major events affecting your impression will usually be included. This can seem very daunting and I often fill this out as I create the rest of the biography. I use this as a “cheat sheet” to make sure my dates and ages add up logically. Sometimes some world events can put personal events into perspective, and I include those here. Also, some events that I consider affecting my impression’s life that are not covered in other categories.

Often information about your parents and siblings is asked about. If you have found your name from the census, a previous census will help with filling out the family tree. If you are choosing your own, viewing a number of families in the census can help you get an idea of the types of family make-up that were common to your area. Your parents are the ones who taught you "the rules" that you are now deciding to accept, tweak, disregard, or openly oppose. They are the ones who introduced you to much of what the world had to offer and taught you how to explore and interpret what you were experiencing. Giving careful consideration to the parents of your impression is important to exploring what your impression might have been taught and how that influences how they act and react today. For much of the past, extended family also helped with these lessons, so don't neglect to include the influences of your Grandparents, Uncles & Aunts, Cousins, Great-Uncles & Great-Aunts. How your parents interact with their siblings will show you how to interact with yours, and how to interact with the community at large.

Your spouse and children are the last part of exploring your period family. If your spouse is attending the event with you as your impression’s spouse, it is important that you consult each other when composing your biographies to keep the information consistent. In the societal norms of the past, women took their communal standing from their spouse or lack thereof. Thus, the information about your spouse, his occupation, and his societal standing are important questions about your standing in the community. At the basic level, one can simply answer “yes, I’m married and we’re normal trade-class folks.” To delve deeper gives an opportunity to comment on marriage in general, your marriage in particular, and how your marriage affects your daily life. Are you doing well? Are you struggling? Are you arguing because he drinks away the rent money? Are you glad he spends all his time at the office because he micro-manages your sphere when he is home?

In the next part of the series, we’ll continue the biographies with answering questions about our Community and wrap up in future postings with World View. Remember to break your information into manageable bits and it won’t seem so daunting.


One can browse the census by years by clicking the dates to the right-hand side, or search by birth year and location. You don't need a name.

Time and