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What Size is This?
By: Ann Steiger  -  1/16/2017

Vintage dresses - oh the fabrics, the colors, the lace, the authenticity, the story.

When women enter our Vintage Clothing area, here at the Roxy Theatre Antiques, the same question is asked. “What size is this dress?” Pre-1960 dresses or suits will never have a size label.

A brief overview:

Pre-1900’s saw 2 or 3 pieces to make up the “hour glass” outfit using wool, velvet, linen, silk or more. Fasteners were hooks and eyes or buttons.

The 1920’s showcased the “tube shaped” flapper dress plus single color wool or cotton dresses.

After the war and up to the 1950’s, a shapely figure returned with single color dresses and the introduction of the suit for working women. Here comes the dress zipper.

With the 1960’s “Ready to Wear” arrived with defined sizes. Clothing manufacturers were able to produce multiple sizes of the same garment.

Today, we can walk into any store and find a dress label with a size.

How were dresses made before the introduction of Ready to Wear? In reviewing my fashion history books, there is no mention of how women’s clothing was produced. Home economics or home sewing guides mention using fabric purchased from mail order catalogs.


Pattern packages including Vogue or Butterick have the full range of sizes shown on the back. Your own measurements would be used as you cut the fabric using the various pattern pieces. Here is a 1950’s Butterick Pattern with the size chart. This dress would have been custom fit by the home seamstress or dress maker.

The other option was to work with a professional Dress Maker, either by mail order, or locally to produce women’s clothing. The economics meant it cost more to have a Dress Maker make a dress. It would cost less to make clothing yourself, as a housemaker. Having the time to sew and having the proper tools and expertise was also a part of the process. Each piece was basically handmade and precisely sized. Size labels didn’t appear until garment manufacturing began to expand and department stores were more available.

Those who love vintage clothing really need to stop and try the dress on. Feel the fabric. Enjoy the moment. This 1920’s sienna / brown dress made of velvet and silk was made for Miss Nisbitt. If it fits, it would be a lovely experience.

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