Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Does Size Really Matter?

Last year I was contacted by Deirdre of Vintage Pattern Lending Library and asked if I would like to test a pattern reproduction for her.  Umm . . . YES!  But it gets better . . . one of the choices was a 1958 Ceil Chapman design!!  And I am somewhat partial to Ceil Chapman since I had such fun working on my Emerald Green Gown a couple of years ago. 


Now I have my very own copy of Spadea 1251 – and so can you!  How awesome it that?!  A glorious and rather complicated design has been made available for more than one lucky soul who grabs the original for crazy sums of cash on ebay. 


Sizing is a little bit different for Spadea designs than other vintage patterns – it assumes more extreme measurements than your standard patterns from the 1950s.  When I was working with my first Ceil Chapman pattern, I came across this site which has some great information about the brand. 

This pattern is copied from a vintage size 12/35” bust, so it would have been the master pattern from which the other sizes were graded.  The measurements are as follows:  35” bust, 25” waist, 36” hips.  There seems to be a misconception that this was standard for vintage patterns in the 40s and 50s.  And looking at images from the period, I can understand why!

This got me thinking about sizing charts in general, so I dug out a few of my 1950s patterns. 

The following sizing charts are from patterns in my possession that are from the 1950s, either by copyright, or by my best guess after looking at the style lines and envelope illustrations.  Here is what is listed as a Size 12.

McCall

Simplicity

Vogue

Hollywood

Advance

Butterick

Mail Order

Bust  30

Bust  30

Bust  30

Bust  30

Bust  30

Bust  30

Bust  30

Waist  25

Waist  25

Waist  25

Waist  25

Waist  25

Waist  25

(no measurement given)

Hip  33

Hip  33

Hip  33

Hip  33

Hip  33

Hip  33

Hip  33


They are all the same!  But more interesting than that, these are not exactly the va-va-voom measurements that one might expect.  Instead, they seem more appropriate for contemporary clothing and figures with less of an emphasis on a small waistline.

The only exception to this standard is Spadea.

Spadea, it turns out, used a ready-to-wear size chart for their patterns - which is more in line with the girdled and curvy figure ideal of the 1950s. 


For more of a comparison, I went to find what Gap Corp. thinks are appropriate measurements for a contemporary body (one which does not wear a girdle on a daily basis).  As expected, the size numbers are utterly ridiculous.  Our vintage size 12 with a 25” waist has now become a size 0/XS  (Bust32” - Waist25” - Hips35”).  This is not as extreme as the ready-to-wear size chart of the 1950s, but still caters to more curves than the 1950s pattern sizing, which I find strange.  Clothing that is produced today does not take these proportions into account, so what is the point of their size guides?

Ready-to-wear clothing in the year 2014 does not seem to follow its own prescribed measurements, just as contemporary patterns from the Big 4 tend to offer more ease than is necessary for their size chart.  The McCall Company’s contemporary size 10 is 32.5” -  25” - 34.5”.  That is more extreme than the standard pattern sizing chart used in the 50s – a decade that epitomized the wasp waist and celebrated the hourglass figure.  Go figure! 


When did sizing get so darn complicated?  And why is it that people are so hung up on the number found on a tag in the back of their pants – it is meaningless without some kind of context.  The rumors that Marilyn Monroe was a size 14 are, in fact, true – those numbers do not, however, have anything to do with contemporary American sizing, or take into account that she had a smaller than average waistline.  

So where did these arbitrary numbers come from?  Who decided that double digits mean a person is "fat"?  And what the heck does "00" mean?  Do we now long to occupy so little space that we disappear?  And in forty years will "00000" be the average size of a supermodel?  How many X's can you put in front of a size small before it becomes ridiculous?

Considering the variation that exists with the basic human body (a torso with four limbs attached including various squishy bits and fat deposits in different locations), it is a miracle that anyone looks halfway decent in clothing made to reflect an "average" build.  It certainly makes me grateful for the ability to make my own clothes!!

Yikes . . . that was not where I expected this post to go . . .

I am not sure what any of this has to do with a glorious Ceil Chapman design, but now that I have said it, I feel so much better and can get back to my happy sewing space!  

17 comments:

  1. Oh wow I am so glad you posted this pattern! It was only a few days ago that I saw it go on ebay for a ridiculous sum. Well whoever bought that should feel a bit of a chump! Unless its one of those collectors making it difficult for us sewists to make our dreams - they are probably happy to pay insane prices and hide away the treasure for none to sew from ever again :-(
    That said, I often hope that the people who buy those very expensive patterns are those that make reproductions from them - like EvaDress, Decades of Style or the VPLL.
    It is my dream also to be able to invest in such patterns and happily copy them for sewing friends across the globe.

    As for sizing - Well! A size as a number or bunch of letters has long given up its importance in my world. Its all about the measurements! And thats why I prefer vintage patterns, since they have much less ease. Its also easier to find things to fit me without many alterations since the sizes are look for are abundant :-D

    The Ceil Chapman sizing is curious. Would definitely need a corset for that one!
    Also - with Marilyns measurements, I'm entirely convinced her waist size is a result of waist training and possibly a corseted measurement since its very hard to acheive those proportions without help. Basically - if you want to lose fat around your waist, on a woman, it will often come off the hips and breasts too and thus you shrink proportionally.

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    1. I, too, hope that those one of a kind designs that show up every once in a while for auction will somehow end up in the hands of a generous person willing to share (like VPLL and Eva Dress, etc.) Working with originals is wonderful, but knowing that the design has been preserved for posterity is a great thing – not to mention you know exactly what you are buying, and whether or not pieces are torn or missing.

      And I absolutely agree that those Marilyn measurements refer to a corseted or girdled figure. There were probably plenty of days that her waist was not quite as tiny!

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  2. Oh, I saw that pattern on eBay too! I've been considering picking up a Spadea pattern but haven't really found anything I liked at the right price. And many of the styles are not my cup of tea. One of the things I like most about 30's and 40's patterns is that a 36" bust (a Size 18) corresponds to a 30" waist. I'm now sewing a Butterick from the early 60's, during that period when a 36" bust was a size 16. But the waist has become 28" -- 2" smaller! It's easier enough to widen a waist (esp. if the pattern has waistline darts) though.

    I always (well, almost always) avoid contemporary patterns because of issues with excessive ease. As you say, who cares what the size is -- you just want the thing to fit!

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  3. I've never seen a hip measurement just 5" below the waistline before!

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  4. The sad thing is that even Spadea's extra curvy sizing isn't curvy enough for me! This is one of the reasons I prefer to make my own clothing-I'm so not an off the rack size! And there are definitely some things you can't fix after the fabric is already cut.

    The modern solution to fit is to make everything out of knits and lycra so they stretch. Blah.

    I tend to avoid modern patterns due to the extra ease issue. Plus although I'm busty, I have narrow shoulders and a small rib cage so I need to start with a pretty tiny size to get the fit in the back/shoulders right. With all the extra ease in modern patterns, I'm off the bottom of the size chart a lot. Thank goodness there are loads of vintage patterns floating around in my size!

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    1. Same here! It's not curvy enough for me! But it's closer than any other at this point!

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  5. Very interesting post. I think I might just google some images of dresses that have been created from these patterns. They are quite pricey to buy. I wonder if they are tricky to work with instruction wise, you'll have to clue us in.

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  6. Rule #1 with modern patterns: always take a size slightly smaller than the one the chart claims will fit you. The only problem here is if you are tall, then the smaller size might be a bit short. But IMO it's simpler to only have to add length to the torso and hem than to have to take the whole thing in on all sides.
    In european sizing the problem is that the sizes used to be _a lot_ smaller than they are today, e.g. today's size S/36 is about the size of a 1960's M/38-40 or sometimes even L/42-44. So choosing your size is difficult anyway. I'm not entirely sure how the bust/waist/hip measurements have varied in these, though, but it is quite obvious that they were overall smaller than these days.

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  7. First of all: that Ceil Chapman design is utterly glorious! I have seen the picture before and I've loved it ever since. I'm really looking forward to seeing your version.

    About the sizing… I've also noticed that a most 1950's patterns are nowhere near as curvy and wasp waisted as one would expect. And that most modern pattern companies and RTW chains put up size charts which suggest their designs are for curvy and wasp waisted figures (not that any of that is true, I've never tried on a RTW piece which fit me a waist and hips…)
    But I have to disagree with the previous commenter, at least when it comes to sewing patterns (and I should add that 'Europe' should not be considered as single unit when it comes to sizing. Although they may use the same numbering, even today a Dutch or German 36 would be a 38 in France and a 40 in Italy, if not a 42. Who knows how big the differences were in the 1950's...). Here in the Netherlands, the gap in numbering of those isn't anywhere near as shocking. On average, a 1950's size 38 would be a 36 today (or even still a 38 on the Burda sizing chart) even though the waist-to-hip ratio might have changed a bit. And 38 was considered the smallest ladies' size.
    Based on my collection of vintage patterns, the average ladies' size in this country may not have changed that dramatically although no-one in the 1950's would define her size as 'the smallest size she could squeeze into (which is what most RTW dressers seem to think today)

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    1. The anonymous from aboveFebruary 1, 2014 at 5:01 AM

      I do agree that sizing varies across Europe a lot these days, and it certainly did before as well. The way the sizes are "constructed" varies a lot as well, for example, how tall is the average woman considered to be and how she is considered to be proportioned: how wide the hips, how long the legs etc.
      My personal experience is mostly from Scandinavia, and here the sizing has seriously gone up since the 70's (as I described above), and part of it is due to the fact that people quite frankly are bigger than they used to be (where I live, the average height of women alone has gone up about 5cm since the 70's). Therefore the relative sizing may have stayed the same. That is, if the measurements of a size 38 were the measurements of an average scandinavian woman in the 70's the measurements of a size 38 today might also reflect the measurements of the average scandinavian woman.
      36 is now the smallest "normal" size around here, i.e. a size that is not yet considered to be petite, but even back in the 60's and 70's and their already tinier measurements in sizing, sizes as small as a 32 were not uncommon in production. They look like children's clothing today!

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  8. I'm not sure I entirely agree with your point about sizing. I have quite a few 50s patterns in my collection, and I can tell you that a 30 bust marked on the pattern envelope is not a 30 bust on the finished garment! Rather, most of those are high bust measurements and the finished garment will come out a good bit larger... much closer to the 35 on your other pattern. (I once tried to make a muslin for a garment marked at a 35 bust, and I was swimming. Swimming!)

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    1. My point was more about the proportions offered by vintage patterns, not the finished garment sizes. Finished measurements take into account the amount of ease for a particular design. Even taking into account an upper bust measurement, the waist to hip ratio is a bit startling to me when considering the body ideal of the era.

      This particular design is a 35" bust, and the finished measurement are 35" for the bust and 25" for the waist - it has absolutely no ease built in.

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    2. Oh yes, I agree entirely about the lack of ease! I was just meaning that a pattern marked a 30 bust and 25 waist has a finished bust of 35ish and a finished waist of 25 in most of my experience. I think they're marked for the high bust measurement (measuring across the back and over the bust) because that makes it easier to find the correct size for the rest and then make a full bust or small bust adjustment if you aren't a Bish cup.
      The waist to hip though, I have trouble with that too! I do know that some were very literal about the "hip" being 6 or 8 inches below the waist rather than the fullest part of the rear, as we often use for sizing. I just make dresses for full skirts, and avoid that problem all together.

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  9. I learned to sew from my mother who sewed for herself from the 1930s to 1990s. She said that, before pattern sizing was standardized in the 1960s (I remember when that happened), women would select a pattern size about 4 inches smaller than their bust measurement. So, for her 36" bust, she'd buy a pattern marked 32" bust.
    From her, and other sewing instructors, I learned to select a pattern based on armscye and shoulder size. Bust, waist, etc. can be adjusted much more easily without distorting the design than making an armhole smaller or larger.

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    1. Great information, thanks for sharing it!

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  10. I too was taught by my mother to pick a pattern based on the upper bust measurement not by full bust. That way the pattern suits your frame rather than accommodating only your bust. I regularly cut a size 10 pattern and adjust to for my bust rather than choose the 14 and try to figure out how to make everything else fit!

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  11. I'm a huge fan of Spadea patterns as well, and I'm looking forward to seeing your version of that Skylark-style dress. Unlike the other commercial patterns of the 50s, Spadea's patterns were drafted directly from designer garments that were selling in stores. The patternmaker would take apart the garment, make a pattern from the pieces, and then grade it (size it up and down). The patterns were then hand-cut in their factory and sold by mail-order. That's why the patterns are expensive now; it's as close as you can come to recreating a retail designer garment from that era, and the sizing reflects that. They were the first to offer patterns for petites, tall, half-sizes, "mature" etc. I recently made a jacket from their officially-licensed Chanel pattern, and my next project is a Spadea Claire McCardell "Popover" dress. They are fabulous patterns.

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