Note: This post is composed of excerpts from a term paper I wrote for Costume History IV: The Body in the 20th C. class, Spring 2007, in the
Master of Arts in Visual Culture: Costume Studies program at New York University.
Dress sizing began with the advent of mass-produced clothing. Menswear was the first to be mass-produced and the first to have sizes. Women’s wear, with its greater variety of style and multiple fitting points, was not typically available in ready-to-wear until the end of the nineteenth century. Women’s styles changed, however, and by the 1920s they were perfectly suited to being mass-produced. Women’s clothing was never based on industry-wide size standards, which has presented problems to consumers since manufacturers began vanity-sizing in the 1930s.
“Vanity-sizing” is a popularly used term that refers to the ubiquitous practice of American clothing manufacturers of lowering dress size numbers to appeal to consumers’ vanity. My survey revealed that vanity sizing began in the 1930s. My data primarily consist of dress sizes in advertisements in Vogue magazine. I looked at one issue, usually March, from each year between 1922 and 1999.
Initially, all women’s clothing was sized according to the bust measurement. One of the first sizing innovations was to develop the misses size range, which morphed in the 1920s from a range intended for teens to a range intended for young to middle aged women. Many companies compromised by offering garments in both ranges, with 14 to 44 being the most common. Misses was originally size with a smaller bust-waist-hip ratio, and was numbered according to age (e.g. Size 14 years)
A few stores offered specialty size ranges. “Juniors” had even smaller bust-waist-hip ratios than misses, and were named by odd years (e.g. “size 15 years”). Other stores didn’t use a different size range, but did advertise to a specific size of customer. From at least the early 1920s Lane Bryant advertised clothing for “stout” women: “sizes: 39 to 56 Bust.” Bromley-Shepard Co. considered any bust size over 42 to be an “out” size, and charged $5.00 more accordingly. Another store, WeeWomen Inc., advertised “Coats and Suits for little ladies…Flattering fashion and fit for the short woman and miss.” Important to note here is that the line for short women, what we now call “petite,” was available in both misses and ladies ranges. Wil Wite Swimming Suits included a size chart in their advertisement from the April 15, 1922 issue of Vogue that called size 32 and 34 “flapper,” probably a cute substitute for Misses.
There were no apparent changes in dress sizing during the 1930s. Women’s clothing continued to be divided in Misses or Ladies. There was a slight increase in the proportion of Misses to Ladies sizes advertised in Vogue. Approximately 43% of the dresses listed were in Misses sizes only, 40% were in Ladies only, 16% were offered in both, and 1% were offered in Juniors sizes. There was also a decrease in the use of “years” to designate a Misses size. Instead, the dress was simply called, for example, a “size 14.” Both of these trends could indicate the beginning of the modern size system based on arbitrary numbers.
By the 1940s, manufacturers had decreased the percent of garments offered in women’s sizes. Sixty-three percent of the garments advertised in Vogue were in misses’ sizes only. Ten percent were available in both misses and women’s, and juniors increased from one percent in the 1930s to ten percent in the 1940s. Garments available only in women’s sizes fell from forty-one percent in the 1930s to thirteen percent in the 1940s. Moreover, women’s sizes were primarily limited to blouses, slips, nightwear, and low-end advertisers.
Clearly, manufacturers and advertisers were responding to the public. Most women would rather buy a garment that is labeled “size 14” than “size 32,” even if the sizes are based on the same measurements. The elimination of women’s sizes from commonly available clothing presents a problem. In theory, the women’s size range had a larger bust-waist-hip ratio than misses. Surely women as a group did not become less curvy from 1930 to 1949. Therefore, we must guess that manufacturers quietly changed the proportions of misses’ clothing to fit the most common figure type.
With women’s sizes gone, two more size ranges rose to take its place. Clothes available in the juniors range rose from one percent of the total in the 1930s to ten percent in the 1940s. Juniors were sized for older girls in their teens. They were often advertised specifically for college girls. Possibly, junior’s sizes took the place, in terms of proportions, of misses.
Half-sizes grew from less than one percent in the 1930s to four percent in the forties. Half sizes were represented by misses’ sizes plus ½; For example, 24 1/2. All of these available size ranges meant that a woman of average height and proportion could have a very good chance of finding a garment with perfect or near-perfect fit.
Although it cannot be proved without actual original garment specs, there are signs that vanity sizing was quickly becoming commonplace. In the 1920s, the most typical misses’ size range was 14-20. In the 1930s, thirty-nine percent were 12-20, and a few in 12-18. By the 1940s the most common sizes advertised were still 12-20, at thirty-three percent, but 10-20 followed in close behind at twenty-nine percent. The most logical conclusion is not that women were getting dramatically slimmer, but that manufacturers found it profitable to appeal to a woman’s vanity by calling a real size 14 a size 12, and making her feel that much slimmer.
The 1950s and 1960s
Misses’ sizes continued their downward trend. The smallest size range advertised was 6 to 14, the largest 12 to 22, and the most common was 10 to 20. Juniors’ were also sized down to appeal to women’s vanity. 7 to 15 was the most commonly available range, but 5 to 15 was not unusual. Oddly enough, half-sizes remained around the same level they had been at since their invention in the 1940s, at 12.5 to 24.5.
Clothing For Moderns, published in 1957, elaborated on the vanity-sizing problem. “Formerly we expected a size 14 in the bargain basement to be comparable to size 12 in the more expensive lines. It will be wonderful when size 14 is not tagged a 10 in coats, 34 in blouses, 36 in sweaters, 5 in panties…” Mail order catalogues, according to the book, based their measurements on data from the Women’s Army Corps. Garments were available in misses’, women’s, juniors’, and half-sizes, and were further divided up into tall, average, or short, and average hips, slender hips, or full+ hips. Different manufacturers offered different size combinations.
The measurements for a given size could vary widely. The Revised Measurement Chart approved by the Measurement Standard Committee of the Pattern Industry in 1956 lists a size 12 bust as 32”. Sears’ size 12 in 1957 was made for women with a 34” bust. A 1955 size 12 sewing pattern from McCall’s was for a woman with a 30” bust. The push of vanity sizing resulted in a wide disparity in measurements.
The 1960s and beyond
Unlike sizing, figure type definitions did not change significantly over the decades. The Vogue Sewing Book, published in 1972, gave the following definitions for the most common size ranges:
“Misses: A well-proportioned and developed figure that is 5’5”-5’6” without shoes.
Miss Petite: A well-proportioned, developed figure that is 5’2”-5’3” without shoes.
Women’s: A larger, longer, and more fully developed figure than Misses; well-proportioned; 5’5”-5’6” without shoes.
Half-Size: A fully developed figure with short back waist; 5’2”-5’3” without shoes.”
Another publication defined a “junior’s” figure as “a young figure with a high and smaller bust, slimmer through the hips, shorter waisted and not as tall as the standard adult sizes.” The publication describes half-sizes as the industry answer to the “juniors” getting older and wider, but not tall enough to fit into standard women’s sizes.
The first size 2 was advertised by Calvin Klein in 1981, but did not show up much elsewhere. Vanity sizing slowed as the millennium drew to a close. Perhaps manufacturers were hesitant about making the plunge to size “0.” The smallest size advertised as of 1999 remained size 2, and the most common size range 4-14. Dress sizes in advertising had, by the early 1990s, all but faded from magazine pages. Only one or two clothing advertisements showed available sizes, compared to an average of twenty-five per issue in the 1940s and ten per issue in the 1970s. For that reason, it is difficult to make any grand conclusions about dress sizing based on what is advertised.