Her Perfect Size Sixteen Figure

What is a size sixteenOnce again, a reader’s comment is the inspiration for a blog post:

Did you notice in one of Emilie’s books she describes a lady’s slender dress size as a 16? I asked my mom when I read that if dress sizes had changed since her younger years and she said no, as far as she knew dress sizes were always the same. I’m wondering if Emilie was accidentally referring to her own dress size because all art work from that time period portrays young women as quite slender.

I started to write her back and thought, no, I’ll write the answer to all of you!

No woman who has shopped for clothing is under the illusion that clothing sizes are easy. In hope, she reaches for her “usual” size, but wisely takes the next higher or lower (or both!) to the dressing room with her. We’ve all been there.

Clothing dimensions vary with time, the nature of the garment, and the intended market. The basic sizing numbers are bad enough, but then we have tall and petite, loose fit/regular fit/trim fit, and the sizing biases of different brands.

Sew it for yourself
Earlier generations did it all themselves.

Emilie’s characters enjoy the services of fine dress shops, but she grew up in a time when women (or their seamstresses) sewed much of their wardrobes at home.

I learned to sew in junior high, with every step painstakingly observed. We pinned paper pattern pieces onto fabric with straight pins spaced one inch apart. We used tracing paper and a tracing wheel to mark darts and gathering lines. We ironed each seam flat before proceeding to the next, exacting step.

From high school through college, I sewed most of my clothes–pants, skirts, shorts, dresses, formals. I sewed dolls, made a man’s three-piece suit with fifty-two pattern pieces, and reupholstered a Jeep. I know my way around a needle.

With confidence came the ability to adjust a pattern for better fit. Some patterns came with a trio of sizes marked on the tissue paper, “8-10-12,” so I could cut along whichever size better matched me at the bust, waist, hips, shoulders. It was useful to have a pattern that wasn’t too far off in size, and I learned to read the pattern envelope for both the finished “size” and the actual, garment dimensions.

Earlier generations did it all themselves. They used draped muslin to create general patterns, and they figured each garment out from there. Looking through Woman’s Home Companion recently, I found an ultra-simple pattern that intrigued me: only two pattern pieces to make a dress, and the adjustments to turn it into one collar style or another were left to the seamstress.

My dressmaker great-grandmother
Agnes, a dressmaker of Emilie Loring’s generation

Patterns were developed as a convenience; they weren’t necessary. My great-grandmother was a dressmaker in the late 1800s; she was from Emilie’s generation, the first to grow up with paper sewing patterns.

Have you heard of The Delineator magazine? It was created to sell Butterick patterns in the 1870s. Fashion, sewing patterns, and short stories proved a winning combination. One of Emilie Loring’s stories, “Glycerine Tears,” appeared there in the 1920s.

The first dress patterns came in one size only, but soon, pattern companies provided stair-step sizes from youth to adult. (Adult was still just one size.) This is where the first, numerical sizing came in. An “8” fit an eight-year-old. A “16” fit a sixteen-year-old.

Never mind that any group of sixteen-year-olds would all have different statures, sizes, and shapes. The home seamstress used the patterns as general guides and made needed changes from there. If a child was very much bigger or smaller for her age, they learned to buy the better size to fit.

Women’s sizes were based on their bust-lines, which made no sense at all, given the many shapes of women, but it made perfect sense when you consider the corsets and bustles used to alter the rest!

“Sakes alive, what you got on? So much excitement I hadn’t noticed them blue slacks and white shirt before. They hang on you like a size forty-five on a size thirty-eight scarecrow.” To Love and To Honor

Emilie’s waist appeared slim in her twenties and gradually widened in a tendency with which many of us can identify! Her heroines, ever in their twenties, remained slim:

She stood straight and slim in her green sports frock against a background of clear pale yellow in the flower border. Gay Courage (1928)

A slim girl in a stiff damask-like satin frock of pale yellow brushed past him, a girl with dark hair curling from under a new-leaf green hat.  It’s A Great World! (1935)

Rather amazingly, there was no common size-standard for nearly one hundred years. Eventually, thousands of women were measured, and a range of sizes was created for 1950s ready-to-wear fashion. But during the 1940s, a size sixteen still meant the size that a sixteen-year-old might wear.

“I detest fashions for the so-called older woman—they are so apt to be old-ladyish—size sixteen styles appeal to me.”  She laughed her rare laugh, her blue eyes twinkled. “But, I still have sufficient self-discipline not to buy them.”

Rainbow at Dusk (1942)

“I prefer to stand.  Helps preserve my size-sixteen figure.”

There Is Always Love (1940)

Emilie Loring was short and rather buxom in her elder years, but in her books, she–like we–could feel like Mary Samp in Lighted Windows:

“When I read ‘bout slim, slithery women in trailin’ silver dresses an’ ermine capes an’ emerald bracelets glitter-gleamin’ on their arms, I’m them.”

I'm them
“I’m them.”

7 thoughts on “Her Perfect Size Sixteen Figure

  1. I think the manner in which Emilie described the ‘frocks’ and wardrobes of her heroines adds so much to her stories. It becomes easy to visualize how pretty each one was as they ventured into the next scene! As Melanie mentions in her post, sizes were so much smaller than they are today. People were on average shorter (I’d have to go to NatGeo for a reference) but nutrition and the immigrant populations had to have been major contributing factors. If you’ve ever shopped in a Vintage clothing store or have any of your older relatives’ clothes still around, you’d noticed it quickly. Women did still wear a lot of tight under garments into the 60’s – I remember all my mother’s girdles! It was just normal under garments to them. But do think sizing started to change in the 70’s as we became heavier. A today’s size 16 to them would probably be a size 38! Thanks for including the photos, Emilie looks like she was a quick one to smile!

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  2. I studied Clothing and Textiles in college. Different sizing from what we know now. Generally, now people are larger. In my mom’s days, they were smaller. A lot of that was due to nutrition. People in NYC were shorter than people in Texas. That’s all changed.

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    1. Yes, they have changed many times since the 1950s. But Emilie Loring died in 1951, and we needed to know the history of sizing during her time, so we could figure out her “size sixteen” meaning. I’m grateful for the prompt, because I had been meaning to take this up for some time!

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  3. Hello Patti- My first response to the Collection- What an unusual topic—you are certainly a researcher— fascinating info about a universal condition, trying to buy clothes the right size. A constant battle!! Especially with on-line shopping!!!!

    Happy Post-Thanksgiving— we had a lovely visit from Kate, Liz and Marco-complete with turkey. Kate and I had an EBL party today, hope you got the email and photos. Such fun we had, truly spent a few hours in another era!!

    love and best regards

    Val

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