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Standardization of Women's Clothing

drawing shows a Union soldier wearing a standard-size Army uniform.

The drawing above shows a
Union soldier wearing a
standard-size Army uniform.


page from a fictitious mail order catalog shows various women's fashions from the 1920s.

A page from a fictitious mail order catalog
shows various women's fashions from
the 1920s.

Short History of Ready-Made Clothing

Before the American Civil War, ready-made (also called ready-to-wear) apparel existed but its variety was limited. Mainly coats and jackets (known as outerwear) and undergarments were purchased using predetermined sizes. Most clothing was made by tailors or by individuals or their family members at home.

The Civil War was a pivotal event in the historical development of men's ready-made clothing. At the outset of the Civil War, most uniforms were custom-made in workers' homes under government contract. As the war continued, however, manufacturers started to build factories that could quickly and efficiently meet the growing demands of the military. Mass production of uniforms necessitated the development of standard sizes. Measurements taken of the soldiers revealed that certain sets of measurements tended to recur with predictable regularity. After the war, these military measurements were used to create the first commercial sizing scales for men.

The mass production of women's clothing developed more slowly. Women's outfits generally continued to be custom-made well into the 1920s. In that decade, factors such as the development of industrial production techniques, the rise of the advertising industry, the growth of an urban professional class, and the development of national markets accessed through chain stores and mail order catalogs, contributed to the success of the women's ready-made apparel industry. Ready-made articles of clothing were portrayed as modern and fashionable during a time when the new consumer industries were rapidly redefining the way Americans viewed mass-manufactured goods. Instead of seeing the purchase of mass-produced clothing as entailing a loss of individuality, American women began to accept the pieces of ready-made merchandise as convenient, affordable, and up-to-date fashion items that could be replaced easily as styles changed.

Chart that compares costs of homemade clothing, clothing made by dressmaker, and ready-made clothing.

Mary Schenck Woolman, Clothing: Choice, Care, Cost (Philadelphia,
London, etc.: J.B. Lippincott, 1920).

However, the new ready-made clothing often fit poorly. Each manufacturer created its own unique and sometimes arbitrary sizing system based on inaccurate body data or no body data at all. Garments of widely different dimensions were frequently labeled the same size by different manufacturers. This situation resulted in additional costs for alterations and large volumes of returned merchandise. This, in turn, increased costs for the consumer of ready-to-wear clothing.

In 1937, the U.S. Department of Agriculture prepared to conduct a study of women's body measurements for the purpose of creating a sizing system which the entire industry could follow.
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