Thursday, October 30, 2008

Guest Post: Sizing in Stitchery

This piece is reproduced with permission of the author, who has been a good friend of mine for years. Please note that I know NOTHING about sewing, so I'm taking her word for all of this :)

Most of you know that I frequent estate sales fairly regularly. I do know that some people get depressed at the thought; I figure the things they're leaving behind were things that these people loved, and would have preferred to see them loved by another generation, rather than ending up in the local land-fill.

I don't collect Hummels. I don't collect depression glass, or milk glass, or cigarette lighters. (It's hard enough to walk past a smoke house, much less if I had a couple of hundred old lighters begging to be used...) I collect pre-1900 sewing machines, fountain pens, antique medicine tins, and free-range wads of cat fuzz. I have yet to find the latter at any estate sales, but my collections of the previous three are growing.

Inadvertently, I am gathering a fairly substantial collection of old sewing patterns.

Now I don't know what rock y'all have been hiding under, but in case you were unaware, over the last ten years at least there has been a great deal of complaint over the Sudden Expansion Of Waist Lines. "Sizes haven't changed! People are getting fatter! It's an epidemic! Pandemic! OMG!FATTEEZ are taking over!"

I do not have the Current-Accepted Build. I am finding that as I attempt to find period-correct costuming for the mid- to late Victorian period, or the range between 1850 and 1890. For that period, while I am considerably taller than the accepted norm, my proportionate sizing is not at all unusual. (Well, it wouldn't be if I hadn't gained about fifty pounds.)

In looking for a pattern for a Berlinischer woolwerk handbag, or specifically the instructions for assembling said handbag, I came across a bag of patterns I had picked up for a dime apiece at the same sale I got the parlour-cabinet White.

The White was in the possession of a very elderly woman who had gotten the 1924 machine as a present new and continued to use it until less than a week before her death, though she had a newer one. (Her grandchildren got it for her. She took it out when they were visiting, sewed a couple of buttonholes with it, then put it right back in the closet when they left.)

In addition to that machine, she had patterns that dated from the late 20s up to the 80s. All of them had been used to make a muslin; most of those were included in the individual envelopes.

And, for those of you who do not sew, on the backs of those envelopes were the approximate expected measurements of the wearer.

One of the most common things I see listed on current pattern sites is "I wear an 8! How come I wear a 12 in your pattern?" with the response Sewing patterns are sized smaller than off-the-rack clothing.

The rack-stores, anything from Sears up to Neiman Marcus, say The old sizes were too small for modern women, prompting a complete re-vamp of size numbers to today's current sizing. These are more natural to the size of the modern woman, and should serve her well.

Oh, yeah?

Head yourself out to one of those stores. Take a tape measure with you, and start grabbing Size 8s off the rack. Take down the waist measurement of each, noting the manufacture of each. There is consistency within the individual manufacturer, but not across the manufacturers themselves. The waist size can be anything from 24 inches to 28, keeping in mind that the so-called waist is actually three or four inches below where your natural waist actually is.

Don't believe me? Take a strip of 1/4 inch elastic, and tie it around your middle. Stand up, sit down, dance around the room. The elastic will end up not two inches above your hips, but right about where the short-ribs are. That, ladies and gentlemen (and d0nn13), is your natural waist. What the modern sizing is actually measuring is almost onto the hips.

Then go to your local fabric and crafts store. JoAnns, Hobby Lobby, Wal*Mart, or whatever your equivalent is, and start pulling out patterns. You should be able to get a hold of McCalls, Butterick, Simplicity, and perhaps Vogue or Burda. Note the New And Improved Waist Sizing here? Here is a pointer to Simplicity's version of Standard Sizes By Inches.

Note anything interesting? About, say, how a woman's 18 is virtually the same size as a Plump Girl's? And a size 8? Why, it's the same size as a girl's 14.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I wore a girl's 14 when I was in junior high school. No boobs, no waist, no hips; all the curvature of a yard of pump-water. When I was at Arizona State, I wore an 8 everywhere but the bust. I was a lot taller, and had defined curves.

Apparently, the New And Improved sizing means that once you have hit the age of ten, you are supposed to stay the same size as that ten year old.

This is "healthy"?

Now we drift back toward those patterns. Here, I know. We'll grab one. It's a business-suit type pattern, what would later become known as a Power Suit. The copyright date on it is 1967, and along the back envelope flap, we have the ubiquitous Range Of Sizes.

This pattern is a Misses 16. A larger-than-normal but not grossly obese size.

The measurements for a 16 are 44-1/2" bust, 39" waist, 46" hips.

Not a size twenty-six, but a size sixteen.

My God. If I add about ten inches to the bust, I could fit into a size sixteen!

Okay, let's slide that one back into the box, and pull out another one. This one's for a nice formal dress. It's dated from 1952, and it's a Vogue pattern. Now keeping in mind that Vogue ideally mirrored the haute couture of the day, the pattern in question is definitely fitted. The instructions, in fact, suggest that you try on your muslin wearing the appropriate foundation garments, meaning that it was designed to be worn with a corset. Oh, not one of those ungodly pigeon-breasted S-form jobbies from 1910, but something that would provide firm support from beneath.

Again, we are looking at a size sixteen.

And again, we have measurements of 44" bust, a 36" waist, and 46" hips. Vogue makes it a bit harder to find their sizing, but here, again, is a link.

Neat, huh? Admittedly the Today's Fit is a bit closer to their original, but their Vintage Vogue patterns are all sized with the New And Improved sizing.

Butterick? Same thing, if not a bit worse; their patterns used to run small in the original.

Well, thinks I, sliding that one back in, too. Interesting, hey?

The oldest pattern I have is from 1946. The sizes are still consistent. But never fear! There are sites on the 'web that have original patterns! And I went to look at them.

Sizes - such as we find above - are not widely used until the mid- to late 40s. Prior to that? Waist and/or bust sizes, depending on the garment. Skirt patterns from 1890 - yes, I found some, and no, I'm not buying 'em (at least not yet) - are grouped by size. The smallest I found in a woman's size was a 24 - that was the finished waist band size, which meant that the prudent woman would be corsetted in to a 20" - and went all the way up to a 52.


That's inches, lads, lasses, and d0nn13.

And no, not those are not Maternity Measurements. Maternity was a completely different department - the waist was not bound at all; you wore a Maternity Corset (which was sized according to your hips, and tied almost up by the shoulders, so the baby was held up by the thing) and your gowns were basically prettily printed sacks; the skirt hung from straps over the shoulder, and the blouse hung loosely over it. That was, of course, when you weren't simply in a "Maternity Wrapper", which had an interior lacing, so that even if you were overwrought by your condition, your modesty was still preserved.

Imagine that. They had fat women - and presumeably men, though their shirts were constructed very differently, buying fabric strictly by width and sewing selvage to selvage and gathering at the neckline - during the Civil War! And afterwards!

Okay, let's go back to the patterns. Now we'll start leafing forward. Here, we'll stop in the 1970s (oh my God, please tell me I never wore my hair like that).

Pattern sizes in 1972 are roughly the same as 1967.

My collection is not complete; there is not another pattern until 1979. Here, there is a drastic difference.

On the McCall's pouch, there isn't even a size that permits anybody to have a bust measurement bigger than 40 inches...and that is a dreadfully unfashionable Size twenty.

Waists are six inches smaller than bust, and the hip measurement is five inches larger than the waist. This, then, would be when the style officially dropped waists from the natural waistline down onto the hips. Anybody but me remember the Empire Drop-Waist? Here it is, gals, guys, and d0nn13!

1983 had a resurgance of the high-necked blouses of the 1880s, including the tight waist, modified Gigot sleeve, and ruffles to emphasize the gazongas. Probably the only point in current fashion that I could actually buy something off the rack, though mostly I filled the thing out the way they weren't supposed to be. (And I sure as hell did not need the ruffles.)

Still, though...a 22 inch waist was a four. And a forty-four inch bust was an embarrassment, only to be seen on porn stars.

In the mid-90s, Neiman Marcus had an Italian plus-sized model bring her line of clothes into the Newport store. "Real clothes," she said proudly, "for real women." The garments were beautiful. They were well-made, they were well-designed, and they took into account that not everybody can, or indeed wants to, spend four hours a day on a treadmill and eat a half a cup of vinegar-soaked raisins before every meal.

The complaints were overwhelming. "You're saying that all women are fat," was the most popular whinge. "Real women don't look like that! Real women are proud of how they look! Nobody wants to spend their money on clothes for fat people, we want to look beautiful!" Neiman Marcus stopped carrying her clothes after six months. The line was picked up by Saks, and may well still be there. Including some absolutely delectable wedding and black-tie formal attire.

Neiman Marcus, meanwhile, doesn't even carry anything larger than a 48, and that's for men. And you'd better believe they're slim-fit, too.

Because, after all, in order to have money, you must be anorexic, or damn' near to it.

To use a horribly over-played phrase, "Fascinating."

...the short short version...

The current, common scream seems to be naught but "People are getting fat now! Clothing sizes prove it! You're all too disgusting to be seen, and you can't even buy patterns big enough to cover you!"

Research and factual evidence seems to prove to the contrary.

I'm almost masochistic enough to try and find out how the protesters would change their stories were the physical evidence placed before them?

Copyright sDr 2008
Do not reproduce
without express
permission of
the author

Monday, October 6, 2008

Bootstrap B.S.

For all those who exhort the disadvantaged to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps", I ask that you take your damn bootstraps and shove them up your nose.

If you examine the origins of the phrase, they are rooted in variants of a tall tale (generally the Baron von Munchausen stories) where the protagonist finds himself in over his head, either in quicksand or a body of water, and he saves himself by bending down, taking hold of his bootstraps, and lifting himself up and out of his predicament. In other words, because this is a tall tale, he is doing something that is physically impossible--just like the actions of one Australian folk hero who cuts up mine shafts and sells them as post holes.

Telling someone who is in a disadvantaged state to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" is demeaning and dismissive. It assumes resources not in evidence, and places blame upon the person for their status. I see these assumptions made all the time, and it annoys the hell out of me. Let me share one small anecdote that illustrates why I feel this way:

Client T is a disabled woman in her fifties. Her monthly benefits are so low that she can only afford to live in an area that has high levels of crime. Because she is disabled, small-bodied, and female, she has been the target of robbery at least twice--and was beaten up both times, once very badly. When applying for a program that would help her pay for something she needed, she was asked to submit a photocopy of some paperwork.

It may be difficult to imagine that a photocopy would be a sticking point, but think about this:
- She is disabled, and cannot walk to the nearest place that has a photocopier--even if there were a place close by, which there isn't.

- She does not have a car, as they are expensive, and she is legally blind regardless.

- Take the bus?

- Okay, so how does she know the bus schedule?

- I've heard people say, "Oh she can go online". No, she can't. She's destitute. She doesn't have a computer nor could she afford internet even if she did.

- She can get them at the library, of course, but how does she get to the library? The bus? And thus we have a repeating loop. Yes, she can call the bus office and ask them; my personal experience with doing that was pretty frustrating, though. And she still has to come up with the money for the bus.

- Cabs are RIGHT out. She takes a cab, she doesn't eat that week.

- And, leaving the house can be problematic for her, because she is fearful of and at risk for being robbed and beaten again.

One solution, of course, is for the agency requiring the photocopy to acknowledge that it isn't a completely simple matter for everyone, and to help her in getting that photocopy, either by sending over a social worker with a portable copier (as my friend Nancy does when she helps people do their HEAP applications), or by simply requesting a fax or digital copy from the paperwork's originating agency.

Sometimes, folks, we need to lend a hand to people instead of kicking sand in their faces when they are down. We need to acknowledge that taking care of disadvantaged people is not a waste of resources; it is what makes us human. Survival of the fittest is NOT a human trait; it is beastly and cowardly. It is when we care for one another that we advance and evolve.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Book Review: Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers

I finished Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers today. Now that I'm done with it, I can honestly say that I really wish I'd just looked up the ending on Wikipedia and given up on the damn thing less than halfway through.

I don't like to read book reviews, because so many of them contain spoilers--including, perhaps even especially, the "Editorial Reviews" on (Publishers Weekly, I'm looking at you). However, had I read them in this instance, I would have found that those who praise this book highly are doing so primarily on the rich vocabulary used by the author. They also praise his "well turned phrases". I'm sorry, folks, but knowing big words and being able to design a clever sentence does NOT make a novel worthwhile. If I want to see a bunch of big words and clever sentences, Roget's Thesaurus makes for more interesting reading of the former, while Bartlett's Familiar Quotations provides a more enriching dose of the latter.

Galatea 2.2 could have been a sly, thoughtful take on the meaning of intelligence and awareness. Instead, it is a long-winded self-referential wank of the highest order.

The protagonist/narrator is a novelist by the name of Richard Powers. Yes, that's right, he doesn't have the decency to disguise that it's an autobiography; he really is so full of himself that he thinks that his dreadfully boring mid-life crisis should be inflicted upon the reading public. Woven through the moderately interesting plot of creating an artificial intelligence is Powers' uninteresting life story, complete with failed relationships--starting with disappointed daddy on his deathbed, then dragging us over the coals of his painfully stilted, cold relationship with "C.", and ending with the fact that he couldn't even keep his artificially intelligent machine interested enough not to commit suicide.

Another irritating habit of Powers' is his inability to come up with invented names (or just use the real ones) for many of the characters and places; he instead abbreviates them to A., C., B., and so on. Some drooling sycophants gushed about this, simpering over how clever Powers is for using the old Russian style in this regard. I personally believe that it is distracting and unnecessary. If he's referring to real live people and trying to spare them the notoreity, why not just come up with a different name?

Powers would have benefited from a heavy-handed, strong-willed editor, a firm but kindly psychologist, and a huge kick in the ass. The 50% of this book which details the relationship with C. reads like a therapy journal, and it should never have gone any further than that. Powers obviously had a deep-seated need to write it all out, but it was unseemly for him to take it to the public, let alone pass it off as a "novel".

Also, anyone writing science fiction should get some Theodore Sturgeon under his/her belt to see how it can be written without making the technology eye-rollingly dated five, ten, or more years down the line. Powers probably thought he was impressive with his technical descriptions, but computer science has changed exponentially since 1995. He didn't really allow for that, so the "science fiction" reads more like "been there, done that".

In short, I really wish I hadn't wasted my time with this; it made me feel as if I were a voyeur to Powers as he masturbated to his own image in the mirror. This is no Pygmalion; it is a self-loathing yet self-obsessed Narcissus, except the Echo(s) in this tale drop Powers like a hot potato once they realize he'll never love them more than he does himself.