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


vesta44 said...

I have patterns that range from the 1940/1950's to 2006, and the sizing hasn't changed much in all those years (not like it has in ready-to-wear, anyway). Any pattern I buy, though, has to be altered because patterns aren't made for women who have a 60" bust and 62" hips. The only time I was able to buy a pattern that didn't have to be altered was back when I weighed 175 lbs. I wish I could find that pants pattern in my size now. It was awesome. They were supposed to be hip-hugger bellbottoms, but they hit me right at my waist, and had a seam running down the back of the pants leg (made it easy to adjust the waist without having to add or subtract darts). No waistband, just a facing, and a front zipper. Those were the most comfortable pants I ever made and I wore them until they fell apart. I no longer have the pattern, don't have a clue what happened to it (I made them when I was in home ec my senior year in high school, so that's been 36 years ago, now). Sewing used to be one of my passions, but that fell by the wayside when my jobs started requiring overtime. Now that I don't have to work, I may just get back into sewing again, if I can ever find fabric that suits me (I'm picky about that).

Anonymous said...

Wow--this is really interesting information. Kind of like how people's weights are not really ballooning as much as we're led to believe. I hope your friend does confront some of the folks who think clothing sizes have OMG gotten so much larger, and reports back to you on what they say (and that you then report back to us, natch. :)

Lindley said...

Despite knowing that there have been fat people since the dawn of time, it's so reassuring to realize that the popular conception of fat being a completely modern phenomenon (and thus we fatties are to blame for our highly industrialized lifestyle, or whatever) is just that, a conception. By people who want us to guilt so we'll buy things.

Miranda said...

Oh cripes, I don't fit correctly into any of the categories! I'm five foot three, making my stature extra small, and I measure 39-30-40. So I guess I would have to somehow shorten a size D and maybe take in the waist just slightly. However, the shoulder measurement could still be wrong and baggy because, as a shorter person, I have narrower shoulders than the five-five person likely would.

AAAHHHHHH. This is why sewing has become such a nightmare for me.