Saturday, February 06, 2010

The hunt begins

Today I was on Chapel Street in Prahran, battling the breeze that was lifting my skirt in an agonisingly embarrassing Marilyn Monroe way, and I couldn't resist ducking into the Chapel St Bazaar.

For those not familiar with this Aladdin's cave of retro ephemera, there are 70 stalls covering everything from clothing and jewellery to furniture, homewares and knick-knacks. It's bewildering and you can spend hours in there. I managed to make my way to a dead end where there was a small vintage fashion boutique. I think the name on all the labels was "Anna's", but Googling just now hasn't yielded anything much.

Anyway, I found myself looking at a certain rack where all the sizes seemed to be quite large: 44, 46 and so on. Some of these dresses were actually quite nice and I got quite excited imagining that I might actually fit into them. My only familiarity with European sizing is in lingerie, where I know that a 32 is a 10, a 34 is a 12, a 36 is a 14 and then I've never seen any European bras larger than that.

So I got into conversation with the staffer, who told me these are indeed European sizes, but that in general, sizes in the '60s, '70s and even '80s were smaller compared to their contemporary equivalents. She reckoned that a 40 would be equivalent to today's size 10-12, a 42 to a size 12-14 and a 44 to a 14-16.

I have tried to do some research online and have got a lot of contradictory information:
  • European sizes are pretty much adding 30 to a US size. Factoring in that US sizes are generally a size down from UK/Australian sizes, an Australian would add 28 to her regular size. eg 10=38.
  • Vintage sizes are five sizes smaller than today's.
  • Italian sizes are larger than French sizes, which are larger than English sizes.
  • Fifty years ago in the UK, if a garment was made for a 36-inch bust it was called a "36", and in the mid-'60s a garment sizing review led to "British Standard Sizing" – the 10, 12, 14 system.
Pauline Weston Thomas of has more interesting stuff to say about sizing:

"Women were much slimmer in the 1950s or in earlier periods than now. You would never have seen a larger woman exposing her flesh 50 years ago in the way that an overweight teen girl might show her belly button stud in hipsters today with fat plunging over it. If you were fatter than the ideal you covered the fat up in alternative styles of a tent like or straight down shift like sack dress.

"One reason for trying to keep the weight down was quite simply that it was very difficult to buy any fashionable garment over a size UK 14 in the main fashion shops and even then they were cut very skimpily. Some ranges did go up to a UK 16, but only very occasionally up to an 18. If they went up to a UK 18 they probably had lost the fashion edge.

"An important factor with sizing is the physique. No one really pumped iron in the UK until late 70s. Going to the gym to workout was not usual. It was harder to put on weight from snack food then as Pizza was available in about one place in central London as I recall. The main snack bar of the era nationwide was Wimpy. A curry or steak on a Saturday night was the norm rather than deep fried snack food and the portion size even of a wimpy was much smaller. Also central heating was getting better, but still not everywhere, so people burned off more fat and walked more after an evening out. Taxis were only just taking off in the UK provinces for a night out."

And then this:

"Sizes were cut smaller then too and so a vintage 12 is not the same as a UK or USA or European Community 12 of 2003. Today buyers list sizes as plus sizes or queen size if they measure larger. If 50s they probably have labels like extra extra outsize inside them. For the same reason of lack of fashion variety women in the plus range either made their own clothes or had them hand crafted or custom made. Corsetry was popular for this reason alone and no women went without a girdle."
I have had a shameful thought, too: my favourite aunt, my mother's sister, has worn plus-size clothing her entire life – there are heartbreaking family photos of her standing sullenly in her '60s shift and pillbox hat at her brother's wedding while my much slimmer mother poses like a model. I wonder if she would agree to be interviewed by me.

It's a shameful thought because I haven't seen or spoken to her for a few years (she lives in Brisbane), and so it is kind of insulting that my opening salvo is, "Hey, can I interview you about being fat in the '60s?"


Glove Slap said...

It's interesting, when you asked a while ago why you only ever seemed to find small sizes in thrift stores, I assumed it was because larger clothes were worn until they wore out, but smaller clothes were grown out of, because people gained too much weight to fit them.

I also thought that if larger clothes were donated to thrift shops, they were quickly snapped up because they are more likely to fit people.

I am in a modern mind-set of expecting people to just be bigger.

BTW, I live in NY and there are lots of size 14-20 women's clothes in the thrift shops in Brooklyn. Nice stuff, too-- designer business suits, cashmere coats... but they are from no earlier than the 80's.

al oof said...

i'm skeptical that women were 'much slimmer' in the 50's. for one thing, the popular women were shapelier than the popular women now. (celebrities i mean). and you generally don't see peoples ribs in those nudie movies from that era, unlike now. i honestly think (without having done any research and just being kind of bullheaded about such things) that it's probable that ready to wear clothes came in smaller sizes because the fashion industry didn't care about clothing fat women. i mean, there have always been fat women. maybe there were fewer fat women, statistically, in the past, but i doubt it. look at old photographs and there are lots of round women.

sizing drives me insane becuase it has no meaning. basically, all you know is a 9 is smaller than a 12. other than that those numbers have no meaning. they might as well say small medium and large. why can't they just use measurements?

alimum said...

The popular women in the 50s were not that much slimmer than those today. Marilyn Monroe's measurements (according to the dressmaker) were 35-22-35 and she was 5'5". Sophia Loren was 5'8" with measurements of 38-24-38. Audrey Hepburn's measurements were 34-20-34 at 5'7".

What is notable is the waist to hip ratio.

By way of contrast, Angelina Jolie is 5'7" and here measurements are 36-27-36. Halle Berry's measurements 36-23-37 at 5'7". Gwyneth Paltrow is 33-25-35 at 5'10".

At least, according to the internet.

One of the things to consider is that many women made their own clothes, ready made clothes being expensive. Why aren't more of these home-made clothes available in vintage and thrift stores? Only a limited number of clothes from the past have managed to survive to the present/end up in stores and it seems as if the majority of those clothes are the ready made clothes. Perhaps some of the hand made clothes didn't last while others were thrown away when they no longer served their purpose.

I have a few larger vintage dresses, but by "larger" I mean a US 12-14. Definitely not plus sized. Also, made for women with a lower waist to hip ratio than women tend to have today (or, I should say, than the clothes manufactured today would have you believe).