History of women’s sizing pt.1

Considering the question of the evolution of women’s sizes, it’s very difficult to get a baseline of where we started in order to compare it to today. The first of several reasons is that -as far as I’ve been able to tell- an official survey of women’s bodies was never done until the forties. The only body of work from which to derive information, is that which is gleaned from the sizing charts printed in vintage pattern drafting books. As a point of comparison, below is a chart showing the most typical range of women’s sizes today. The pink box reflects the “average” woman.

While the same could be said of men’s sizes, the historical record is more detailed -of men- because men were more likely to be paying for suit and coat making by tailors; the latter established enterprises that kept formal records, receipts of payments and client measures. Furthermore, the leading tailors of the day were the ones who wrote most of the pattern drafting books. Accordingly, there’s more empirical data available for men’s sizes than women’s. Women were more likely to have clothing made by seamstresses; the latter having been less inclined to have established enterprises as compared to tailors of the day. This is why the Sheldon study of the 1940’s -albeit rife with error considering the sampling selection- was so pivotal.

The historical data on women’s sizes that we do have is a poor model of comparison for other reasons. First is styling. We’ve gotten so caught up in the sizing controversies of today that we forget that sizing controversies have raged over the past 100 years. As a point of comparison, below appears a sketch of two women. The woman on the right wore a corset, the other did not. It is highly inappropriate to use the measures of women who wore corsets as a point of comparison, to the measures of women today.

A second reason is demography. As I mentioned above, the documentation of women’s sizes was limited to those women who had the disposable income to have clothing made by (mostly) tailors rather than seamstresses. Still, there is some information on women’s sizes -compiled by women, for women- which I’ll show you tomorrow. Today, I’m showing one sample of the problems with the documentation of women’s sizes as gleaned from a tailor named Morris who wrote a book called Ladies’ Garment Cutting and Making. As you’ll see, his sizing charts reflect the dimensions of women who wore corsets. I should also mention that Morris published the 3rd edition (the one I’m referencing) in the early forties but personally, I have many doubts that he updated his sizing charts in the early forties. There are too many other sources of measurements that contradict his charts. Below is the sizing chart as it appears in his book. You can also find this online.

Below is a comparison of today’s measurements and Morris’

Tomorrow I’ll be comparing Morris with other sources of the same time period. For the time being, note the size breaks that occur in both the smallest and largest of sizes. If you think about it, the sizing controversies of today follow the same pattern. The greatest disagreements and disparities occur in the smallest and the largest of sizes.

Please refer to the other articles in this series which offer substantive supporting material. Add to the discussion rather than backtracking to topics discussed elsewhere. It is likely that the exceptions you’ve thought of have been dissected in depth. For your convenience, links open in a new window or tab.

The Myth of Vanity Sizing
Fit and Sizing Entropy
Push manufacturing; subverting the fit feedback loop
Sizing evolution
Shrinkage and fit
Alternatives in Women’s sizing
Tyranny of tiny sizes?
The history of women’s sizing pt 1
The history of women’s sizing pt 2
The history of women’s sizing pt 3
Sizing is a variety problem
The birth of size 10?
Vanity sizing shoes
Tyranny of tiny sizes pt.2
Vanity sizing: generational edition
Vanity sizing: generational edition pt.2
Vanity sizing: the consumer spending edition

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