Thursday, June 14, 2012

History of Sewing - 1920s & 1930s Vintage Pattern Sizes and Body Types

1920s and 1930s Pattern Sizing

Do you find the differences in vintage pattern sizes just a tad confusing? I decided that de-mystifying the changes to pattern sizes over the decades would make a great project. So beginning with this post, you will see the results of my explorations. I'll start with the 1920s and 1930s, and then move forward in time in future posts. Let the journey begin!

In the 1920s and 1930s, pattern sizes and body types were defined simply by sex and age:  infants, children, boys, girls, men, juniors, misses (or ladies), and women.
Misses sizes in "years"
One of the first things I noticed and found interesting in pattern sizes for misses or ladies from the 20s and 30s were that sizes were often referred to simply as "years". This was a natural extension of sizes for children based on the average size by age. The upper limit of girls' sizes was 14 years (breast 32), while sizes for misses or ladies commonly began at 12 years (bust 30). Eventually the word "years" was dropped, and that is how we have come to use the numbers we use for sizing today (size 10, 12, 14, and so on).  The use of odd numbers started in the 1920s and at first were not necessarily associated with junior sizes.

An early 1930s ladies' mail order frock for size 20 Years

A youthful 1920s pattern for "12 Year Size"

1930s Butterick pattern with even and odd numbers for misses and women's sizes

 1930s  mail order pattern for junior sizes with odd numbers

 Women's sizes simply go for "bust"
Sizes for women with a "mature" or "matronly" figure were simply sized by bust measurements and ranged from bust 34 up to to bust 48. This method has persisted through the decades, although in the 1920s and 1930s the bust measurement IS the size.

A 1920s women's Elite Styles blouse pattern "Bust 34"

An early 1930s women's Excella frock pattern Size 36

What, no waist?
While 1920s fashions had little to no definition at the waist for ladies' clothing, 1930s fashions brought the waistline back. Nonetheless, for both decades, unless they were for skirts, patterns commonly (though not always) list just the bust and hips, omitting the waist size. Now why would they do that?

One aspect was that the selection of a dress pattern was based on the size of the bust or the hips, whichever was more appropriate for fit. Another aspect was that women were skilled in sewing and simply expected to alter the pattern to fit, which made listing the waistline rather moot. Sewing books of the era provide extensive guidelines on how to alter patterns to ensure a perfect fit, covering every conceivable type of fitting problem.  Butterick patterns in the 1920s and 1930s even had the special feature of "Let-Out Seams", an extra seam allowance at the hips to ease alterations.

Typical 1930s pattern with Misses' sizes listed as "years" and no waist measurement

 Women's Anne Adams pattern with no waist measurements

As a general rule, when a new design was created by a pattern manufacturer, it was first created for size 16. Other sizes were then graded up and down through the range of measurements from the master pattern. Measurements were fairly (though not always) consistent through the 1920s and 1930s. For example, most frequently size 16 meant Bust 34 inches, Waist 28 inches, Hips 37 inches. Watch this bust-to-waist-to-hips ratio, as it will change over time. In general, a larger waist and larger hips were defined for a given bust size in the 20s and 30s, than was defined in later decades.

1930s Simplicity pattern listing body measurements for "years"

In the end, it's all about fit

The importance of being measured before you buy a pattern was a maxim for the seamstress, then as now. "New corsets or a change of diet may have altered your bust, waist, or hip measure."  a sewing book from 1927 states in its comments on taking body measurements. That same sewing book states, "Put on your best corsets and a dress that fits nicely" before taking your measurements. Another sewing book from the early 1930s states that to measure your waistline, "tie a tape around the figure at a becoming waist line". :)

Whether you are sewing vintage patterns from the 1920s, 1930s, or later, always measure yourself (corset not required ;)) and always carefully compare those measurements with the stated measurements on the pattern. And then use your preferred method to determine any adjustments in length or proportion that are necessary. Careful attention to size and fit will ensure that your fashions from the 1920s and 1930s are, indeed, fabulous!

I hope you have enjoyed this exploration of vintage pattern sizing in the 1920s and 1930s, and found it informative. Be watching for my next installment in this series, the pattern sizing of the 1940s!


  1. I have found this fascinating. Thank you so much for your analysis. I'm trying to write about a family of dressmakers in the 1920s and plan to make some period dresses for myself as research. Your blog post in a great help.

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