Sunday, February 16, 2014

Fractionally excited

My friend Clem is doing an intriguing project called TwentySeventy in which she is spending a year 'living in the '70s' – wearing, eating, reading, viewing, making and buying the products of that decade.

Inspired, today I bought some vintage polyester summer shirtwaist dresses. I already own quite a few '70s polyester dresses, but they're all winter.

Sorry, I didn't photograph them very well – I was concentrating on the labels. One of my new acquisitions is a jaunty navy and white number by Norman Hartnell! I wonder if Norm Himself designed this (he died in 1979). It has an A-line skirt, white vinyl belt and cute little cap sleeves with the same contrast print as the collar. They peel back in wings like mini collars, and button with two little white buttons per sleeve.

My other dress is by a label called "Antoinette Fractional Fittings" that crops up quite often on eBay and Etsy. Interestingly, almost all the examples that I've found being sold online are in the same style as mine: fit-and-flare silhouette, with either a pussy-bow or a shirtwaist bodice, and a self-belt.

Mine has a shirtwaist style with hot-pink buttons. I felt the sleeves were frumpily long (I think of that boxy, above-the-elbow style as 'old lady sleeves') but I took the cuff up so they now look more like women's T-shirt sleeve length. Note that I am holding my Antoinette label open in the pic because it has been folded shut so crisply that I suspect the past owner of ironing it that way to prevent the shameful SIZE REVEAL.

I asked Nicole Jenkins about these labels and she said: "Yes, the Antoinette is roughly a modern size 17: between a 16 and an 18 hence the "fractional" fitting. Re: the Hartnell, yes it looks like a mid '70s that has had its enormous collar remodelled, probably in the '80s, so it's likely that he was involved in the design but without the whopping collar its value has probably been diminished. Being polyester, all the rest that were made are probably still out there as they're indestructible."

Even before I heard back from Nicole, my interest was piqued by the term 'fractional fitting'. I knew about half-sizes but I wondered what 'fractional' meant. It makes sense that it's the 'in-between' sizes. But most of the archival material I dug up on Trove referred to 'fractional fittings' in the context of shoes, where you can still sometimes find in A, B, C widths (and so on).

On 3 March 1953, the Brisbane Courier-Mail reported excitedly on the advent of fractional fittings: "Women may soon be able to order their clothes by number." The Adelaide Advertiser followed suit on 10 April: "For years the woman whose figure measurements do not conform to the stock sizes of ready-made garments has yearned for the fractional fittings which have long been available to American women."

In the '50s, Australian women's clothing sizes followed the British system of SSW (slim small woman), SW (small woman), W (woman), OS (outsize) and XOS or EOS (extra outsize). The Advertiser article explains that the new fractional system was set to offer four different fits for each of these sizes, and be sold exclusively through a different department store in each major city.

It's interesting that fractional fittings were hailed as a solution for a 'broken' system of clothing sizes. "At present there is often so much difference in frocks that two distinct sizes in various makes will often fit the one person," opined Courier-Mail writer 'Annette'. "For the 'non-stock,' hard-to-fit sizes, 'fractional' fittings will be the perfect solution."

In hindsight, the bunfight over sizing was just beginning. Australia's national sizing standard, AS1344-1997, was introduced in 1959. It was a cobbled-together affair, combining Berlei’s data from 1927 with a United States government survey of 10,042 women across eight US states between 1939-40.

The US researchers, Ruth O’Brien and William C Shelton, had proposed a new sizing system featuring nine different potential height and body shape combinations for each numbered size. Nobody wanted to make sizing that fiddly – not the clothing industry, and certainly not the US government, which quietly shelved O’Brien and Shelton’s report.

When the US finally introduced its national sizing standard in 1958, they just plugged O'Brien and Shelton's data into a bog-standard graded sizing system based on an hourglass figure. But it's interesting to see that some enterprising firms had picked up this idea to cater to a niche market that was underserved by standard sizes.

The Australian manufacturer mentioned in the articles was Millerson, a Sydney family business headed by Mrs Belle Miller. "[Introducing fractional fittings] had been my dream for many years," she told The Advertiser on 14 April 1953. "I tried over and over again to interest the buyers from our retail clients all over Australia. But they wouldn't have any of it. They argued, among other things, that it would involve holding tremendous stocks. And I couldn't persuade them otherwise.

"Eventually I decided to make a stand myself and do something about it. I was confident of success. I knew that at least 50 per cent of the women who wanted to buy ready-to-wear garments had figures that did not conform to the standard sizes, or had to submit to being labelled OS or XOS. No woman should be tagged outsize no matter what her measurements may be. She is not outsize anything. She is just a 'size.'"

Amen, Belle. However much as today's fashion media are still struggling to get their heads around 'plus-size', it seems the 1950s fashion press (including Australian Women's Weekly) couched Millersons (and fractional fittings more generally) as being for the older, stouter consumer, even though the department store ads argued that they could also be for taller, thinner, shorter, bustier women, and so on.

However I can't find any info on the Antoinette brand, nor on what became of Millerson.