Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The rad ladies of Berlei: part 2

It was Fred Burley's idea to undertake a sizing survey, in partnership with the University of Sydney Medical School, which dovetailed perfectly with Berlei's pre-existing principles of scientifically precise fit and public showmanship. Public tents were set up on Bondi Beach over the summer of 1926-27, as well as at factories, seaside resorts and Turkish baths around Australia. Berlei's surveyors measured 6000 female volunteers aged between 15 and 65.

The Berlei Figure Type Indicator, invented by Della Lytton Pratt

Della Lytton Pratt was one of two undergraduate USyd science students recruited as research assistants. The students were in charge of collecting, classifying and correlating data from 23 different body measurements per participant, using specially designed calipers and rulers.

The data revealed a strong relationship between hip and waist measurements. Working from this, in 1928 Pratt developed a diagram that became known as the Berlei Figure Type Indicator. This was a cardboard (and, later, plastic) chart designed for corseti√®res to help fit their customers. It featured a moveable disc printed with bust measurements, and a moveable pointer printed with waist measurements. The hip sizes were printed around the edge of the opening in the base.

So, for instance, if your bust was 35 inches, waist was 28 inches and hips 37 inches (this is the example given in the patent description – I wonder if these were actually Della Pratt's own vital statistics), you'd spin the disc until the '35' printed on it aligned with the '37' printed around the edge. Then you'd slide the pointer so that the little notch on the end aligned with the same spot. And you'd look through the little circular holes on the pointer (in later designs, the whole pointer was see-through) designating waist measurements, and whatever colour peeped through at '28' was the figure type Berlei reckoned you had.

Here are the five colour-coded figure types, as displayed on a 1930s-era Indicator. I think I am Type Ab (Abdomen). Note that these types are all framed as things that are 'wrong' with a woman's body, that the corset can then step in and 'fix'.

Della Lytton Pratt is listed as the owner of the patents for this device in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Great Britain, Canada and the US. Because Della was only 20 and so still a minor at the time, her dad, Major William Pratt of the Royal Australian Engineers, had to sign the deed of 'indenture' that transferred the rights to Della's invention to Berlei.

For her idea – from which Berlei went on to profit handsomely, and which figured prominently in the company's marketing – Della was paid five shillings. It's hard to figure out precisely how much that would be today. There are many ways of calculating historical value – the value of a commodity; of income or wealth; or the cost of a project. Many calculators work off the main currency unit at the time; the only specifically Australian historical value calculator I can find seems to work only in dollars.

This gets tricky if your sources mention shillings, half-crowns and guineas. There were 12 pence to a shilling and 12 shillings to a pound. When Australia switched over to decimal currency in 1966, the conversion was two dollars to a pound, and ten shillings to a dollar.

The Australian pound was introduced in 1910 and was roughly the same value as the UK pound sterling until 1931, so I used the UK values to figure out how much Della got paid. Anyway, Della's measly five shillings would have had the same purchasing power as about $18 today.

When I was researching this stuff earlier in the year I became obsessed with finding out what became of Della Pratt after this. For someone who invented something so clever, she seems to have just given it up and gone on to lead a completely ordinary, unexceptional life.

She graduated in 1928, and I tracked her through newspaper family notices as she married a Philip Oakley in 1930, and moved from Sydney to Gilmore, near Tumut in the NSW Riverina, and then – I think! – further west to Finley, near Deniliquin. Their first child, a daughter, was born in 1931. The Major died in 1932. :-( And from there, the trail goes cold and she vanishes into history.

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