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Standardization of Women's Clothing

page from a fictitious mail-order catalog shows various women's fashions from the 1940s.

A page from a fictitious mail-order
catalog shows various women's fashions
from the 1940s.

 

 Published in USDA Miscellaneous Publication 454, Women's Measurements for Garment and Pattern Construction, 1941.

Published in USDA Miscell-
aneous Publication 454,
Women's Measurements for
Garment and Pattern
Construction, 1941.

NIST's Role

During 1939 and 1940, about 15,000 American women participated in a national survey conducted by the National Bureau of Home Economics of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was the first large-scale scientific study of women's body measurements ever recorded. A technician took 59 measurements of each volunteer, who was dressed only in underwear. Volunteers were paid a small fee for participating. The results of the study were published in 1941 in USDA Miscellaneous Publication 454, Women's Measurements for Garment and Pattern Construction. The purpose of the survey was to discover key measurements of the female body - that is the important measurements from which other measurements could best be predicted - and then to propose a sizing system based on this discovery.

In the mid-1940s, the Mail-Order Association of America, a trade group representing catalog businesses such as Sears Roebuck and Spiegel, asked the Commodity Standards Division of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS, now NIST )to conduct research to provide a reliable basis for industry sizing standards. NBS agreed, and punch cards holding the USDA survey results were transferred to NBS at its request for reanalysis. (While the women's apparel sizing standard is the focus of this exhibit, NBS also reanalyzed USDA data for teenage girls and children, resulting in other standards.) The USDA data was augmented by data received from the Research and Development Branch of the Army Quartermasters Corps during World War II when measurements were taken of 6,510 WAC personnel.

From January 1949 until April 1952, the NBS Statistical Engineering Division made analyses for the Commodity Standards Division. NBS statistical engineers conducted frequency and correlation analyses with the body measurement data so that they could devise the shortest possible, useful size notations for garments, which would accommodate the greatest number of female consumers without alterations. The resulting commercial standard was distributed by NBS to the industry for comment in 1953, formally accepted by the industry in 1957, and published as Commercial Standard (CS)215-58 in 1958.

The sizing designations recommended in the published standard combined a bust size number (in even sizes from 8 to 38) with one of three letters - tall (T), regular (R), or short (S) - indicating height, and with a symbol to indicate hip girth: either slender (-), average (no symbol), or full (+). For example, a tall woman with a size 14 bust who was slender in the hips would be considered size 14T-. This combination of signifiers would place the consumer into one of four trade classifications: either misses', women's, half-sizes (shorter women), or juniors'.

Adjustment in the size scales were made to compensate for the effect of what were referred to in the standard as "foundation garments," meaning support bras and girdles.
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