Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Of sewing, sizing and "what size am I, anyway?"

I know what my measurements were in high school, because they were announced for the whole Home Ec class to hear. This moment is fixed in my memory.

Freshman home economics always taught sewing in the spring semester. We were going to make a simple A-line shift dress. It was the mid 60's, and that was what girls wore. The most daring thing about our attire was how high you could get the hemline before you earned the baleful glare of the principal as you walked through the front door of the high school. Heck, we couldn't even wear pants to school.

On the first day back after Christmas vacation, the Home Ec teacher announced that today we would measure each other and determine what size pattern we needed. Oh, boy, here it came. Back in my teen years, I wore a misses' size 14, or very occasionally a 12 if we bought anything from Cox's Department Store. The first year in college, I bought a dress at Gidding Jenny, a rather tony place for me to shop except during sales, and it was a size 10. I was giddy, but realized it was the case of a fancy store using "vanity sizing" (the more expensive the clothes, the smaller the size) and I shouldn't take it seriously. Even back then, at a size 14, I was officially a "pudgy girl". Remember "Size 5-7-9 Shop" at your local mall? "The small size specialist", as their jingle proclaimed. If you were fashionable and thin, you shopped there, like all the majorettes and cheerleaders (with the exception of Jane, God bless her) who were mere wisps, with the requisite long blond hair, Pappagallo flats, monogrammed sweaters and Etienne Aigner purses. That was not me. Mom and I made 95% of my clothes and the trendiest thing in my closet was a pair of Bass Weeguns, which were the second shoe of choice.

The Home Ec teacher paired us up and passed out tape measures. I briefly thought of telling her I already knew what size I was, for heaven's sake, because I had made the dress I was standing in at that moment. I even remember it. A gold paisley short sleeved shift with a v-shaped front yoke and covered buttons. I sewed it myself, and I had been making my own clothes for several years before I ended up in compulsory Home Economics class. I could already cook, so fall semester had been pretty boring, but this semester promised to be excruciating.

The girl who was my partner passed the tape measure around me and wrote down the numbers. 36-27-37 1/2. Butterick patterns size 14. Duh. I could have told her that. But then, the teacher called over to us and asked for the measurements so she could fill in the order form for the pattern. Before I could just tell her the size, the other girl piped up and rattled off the numbers.

I could have died.

Now, here's the thing. I just looked up the Butterick patterns size chart, as well as the one from JCPenney, which is pretty representative of mass merchandising. 36-27-37 1/2 translates to between a size 12 and 14 pattern still, but a size 8 at Penney's. When I was those dimensions, I couldn't have fit half of me into a size 8. Methinks there's something going on here.

Just about the time I was in high school, the major pattern companies reworked their sizing to be more in line with mass marketed clothing, and there was pretty much agreement in sizing. You bought the pattern size you bought in the department store, and there weren't any surprises. Some time in the last 40 years, a major shift has occurred in clothes sizing, and it's interesting. Back then, samples were made in a size 6, and that was the size most models were. Remember Twiggy? She caused such a stir partly because she was even smaller than that. Size 6 was an x-small, itty bitty. It still is in patterns, which haven't changed. Look it up.

But now we even have size 0. (And in some specialty stores, size 00, like we're at a roulette table or something. As in "I'm so thin I'm nothing, I'm less than nothing." Today's size 0 is even bigger than size 6 back then. Talk about "vanity sizing".

It's true that people in general are larger than they were 40 years ago. And what would be more depressing for the clothes shopper than to have to steadily march up the size chart as time goes on. But now, you're still a size 14, but a size 14 is more like a size 18 when you were a teen. You could do a lot of lying to yourself with this system.

I got to thinking about sizes while reading an article in this month's Harper's Bazaar entitled "From A Size 14 To A Size 4", detailing the weight loss program of some socialite who was, gasp, not a size 0. Unheard-of. What caught my eye was that at 5'-8 1/2", she said she weighed 190 and wore a 14 before her diet. Pudgy, I'll give her, but huge? No. But to hear her say it, she was beyond the pale. Her picture in the society pages humiliated her. So she starved and exercised herself to be able to fit into all those designer duds.

Nowadays, anything above a size 8's a "fat girl". In her social circles being that large was truly painful for her. Today's size 8 is the equivalent of my measurements in high school, so I guess things don't change much. You know, I can relate to her "before" picture, and honestly, she didn't look that bad (I would have picked a different dress, though - really, nobody looks good in a shiny strapless number. Would you have hated yourself less in an elegant little black dress?). I've lost some weight in the past few months, and I'm still losing. If I got back to the size I was in high school, I would lie on the floor and cry with relief. But above all, I am a realist. Ain't gonna happen. I've been a big girl all my adult life, and even though I'm smaller now, I will never be small. But I'll take a size 14, today's version. Even if she doesn't want it.


Suzan Oxenreider said...

I was a size 12 through most of high school. I had a 25" waist. Here is a link to vintage clothing sizes compared to today's clothing sizes. http://www.vintageswank.com/sizing.html
(You will have to cut and paste.)
Women are not smaller - they have just changed the sizes. When you read that Marilyn Monroe was a size 12 women today think that is such a large size. Yes, today it is not considered fashionable to be a 12. However, if you look at the conversion, you will see that size 12 back in the day was pretty small.

catsinger said...

...the first 2 paragraphs could have been from from MY H.S. experience in the 60's[graduated in 1966]...
I was forced to take Home Ec. as a 9th grader[the requirement was dropped the following year]even though
by then I had taken 5 years of 4H foods projects...
We also had to make an "A line" dress...[mine was also size 14] & of an obnoxious striped canvas my Mom chose... I knew I didn't want to sew but since I stitched & ripped so many times that the fabric looked "holey" from the needle marks...[& Mom finally helped me finish it...] I got an "A"
on it... I refused to wear it so Mom altered it and wore it for years... I think you may have inspired a post or 2 with these awakening memories...
BTW I got a "B" in Foods, because the old Bat, uh "teacher" said she couldn't "teach me anything" there...

Saska said...

I also remember teaching the teacher how to sew! My mom was a trained-tailor and the teacher wouldn't let me sew but made me help everybody else.
Have you noticed that they make purses and small quilts in home-ec now instead of clothes? I've seen a few PJ bottoms made, but nothing elaborate like we use to do.

The Calico Cat said...

So much of this sounds familiar - except that I did not have any compulsory home ec. classes. (Thankfully!)

Bass Weeguns - they were a staple in my closet too!

Deanna said...

I can sympathize--I still remember the PE teacher pinching the fat on my arm and publically announcing I was obease. I was 5'5", 165 pounds and wore a size 10 (this is the 80's). I have a very muscular build and carry a lot of weight for my height, but obease??? I'm still not sure. I weight 185 now, at 41, and would love to weight 165 again. I'm working on it.

Tanya said...

I've noticed the size differences too. I KNOW I wore bigger sizes back when and I KNOW I'm bigger now so why am I wearing smaller sizes. I don't know whether to smile or cry.