Sunday, 16 August 2020

All change

In dress patterns, a 36-inch bust has been a size 14 in all the time that I have been making clothes (40 years and counting), so it's easy to assume that this correlation is set in stone. However as these three patterns show, a size 14 has changed bust measurement twice over the last 70 years.

Simplicity patterns from 1952, 1963 and 1970, with 32, 34 and 36-inch busts

For Vogue patterns at least, the first change took place in August 1956. The announcement in the August-September Vogue Pattern Book states that "some of the pattern companies, including Vogue" are now using the 'revised' standard measurements. I had always thought that sizing was standarized across all of the pattern companies, but this suggests otherwise (click on the image for an enlarged version).

All about the new measurements

Although the announcement does not go into detail about the new measurements, it does mention that they have been made due to figure changes brought about by "modern foundation garments", and that these changes include a higher bustline (a blog post about this exact subject is on my 'to do' list). So clearly they were about more than just increasing making each size larger.

In the next Vogue Pattern Book, Mrs Scarsdale came to the rescue of anyone confused by the changes. The issue included a tear-out form on which the reader could enter their measurements, and then fold it up and send it to Vogue Patterns. It would be returned with their correct pattern size written in.

Front and back of the form

No such personal service appears to have existed for the next sizing change, in 1968. This time the announcement makes it clear that that changes are an industry standard, and apply to all the pattern companies. There is no suggestion of the reasoning behind the change, except that it ties in with ready-to-wear sizes.

More to the point than the previous announcement

A chart showing the previous and 'new' sizing is provided. I tend to think of underwear in 1968 as being less rigid than that of 1956, but despite that, waist measurements have been reduced in proportion to the bust and hips. Whereas a 36" bust in Misses' sizing previously had a 38" hip and a 28" waist, the 'new sizing' waist is now 27". Both Women's and Half-sizes have been extended to one extra size.

Adult female sizes, click on image to enlarge

I'm intrigued by the fact that standard pattern sizes were changed twice in 12 years, but have now remained unchanged for over 50 years. Clearly there have been changes to areas such as the amount of ease in patterns, and to the overall sloper design - larger armscyes for example - but no sizing revisions. I wonder, was this due to the falling popularity of dressmaking; did the industry decide that the market was no longer big enough to justify that sort of wholesale change?


  1. I'm not sure which book this information is in (I seem to think it is Blueprints of Fashion), but there is a rather extensive history of paper patterns in the early to mid 20th century, and specifically about how sizing worked. There was a (very very very flawed) survey of women done in the early 1940s that was used as a size guide for both ready to wear and patterns, and I believe the survey was repeated in the early 1960s (also very very very flawed) which led to the changes you detail. I think what has happened to the big Four patterns in the past 20 or so years is that while they haven't changed their size charts (and there is no "standard" size, either in patterns or RTW and never was), they have changed the amount of ease they factor in to those patterns drastically. The average big Four pattern has a whopping 10" of extra ease built in, whereas the same pattern in the 1970s would have been in the 2-4" range. It's how I made a McCall's knit pattern in a size 6 to fit properly instead of the size 16 or whatever I should have been by the measurement chart. I've never worn a size 6 anything at any point in my life.

    If memory serves, there is a lot of information about industry sizing in RTW in the book Overdressed: The High Price of Cheap Fashion. It helped me understand industrial slopers, and to extrapolate how the pattern companies work.

    As to why these changes are not tracking with the larger fashion industry, I really have no idea. The big Four pattern companies also seem to pick samples and fit models that would never catch anyone's eye, and you have to have a keen sense of line drawings for potential. It's overwhelming. I sometimes gravitate to vintage patterns just because I'm more sure of what I'm getting, plus the seam allowances are smaller (1/2" standard instead of 5/8") which saves on fabric too.

    1. Thanks for introducing me to the book - it sounds really interesting book, and I've ordered a copy.

      It does seem as though the big Four have lost their way, either that or they are only interested in the younger market. It's a long time since I last saw a newly released pattern which appealed - thank goodness for my store of 1970s ones!