Fitting Everyone

Proportional systems based on bust or chest measurements combined with height for adults or age (girls and boys) are the foundation for sizing patterns. Developed by tailors, the systems assume that all human bodies are shaped according to common geometric or proportional rules. Thus the patterns are made for an idealized figure. Early pattern diagrams and full-size patterns such as Mme Demorest and Harper's Bazar in the 1850s and 1860s, and Vogue as late as 1905, were not available in a range of sizes. Women's patterns were usually made for an idealized figure of 5' 5" with a 36" bust. Fitting was done by pinning the pattern on the body or form to adjust it to the individual's proportions. Alternatively, the customer could send in detailed measurements to special order a pattern made-to-measure from the pattern company. (Butterick still offers this service.)

Current fashions and undergarments influence proportional systems. As explained in Butterick's The Metropolitan in 1871, a lady with a bust measure of 32" usually has a waist of 24", or 8" less than the bust; but a girl of 10 years usually has a bust measure of 27", with the waist usually 24". By 1905 when the flat-front corset was in vogue, the proportion for the 32" bust changed to a 22" waist.

Each company uses its own proportional system; they are similar but not standardized. By the 1920s, sizes for misses generally dropped the age reference and kept the sizes. Data compiled from the Commercial Pattern Archive digital database (CoPA) illustrate the shifts in typical sizing for size 14 and 18 from the 1920s through 2000 (see Table 1).

Each company continues to offer a wide range of sizes including misses, women's, half-size, petite, junior petite, maternity, toddler, girl/boy, child, men, and infant. Teenage fashions were introduced by Simplicity in the 1940s. In the 1980s Butterick instituted letter-coded sizes called Today,s Fit, which are designed for the changing proportions of today's figure of about 5'5" with slightly larger waist and hips than misses' sizes. A full range of current size charts can be found in the catalogs and the Web sites of the pattern companies.

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