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

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