Tag Archives: 1930s dress sizes

Berth Robert Catalog for Summer, 1934

Berth Robert Catalog for April, May, June 1934. Front cover.

Berth Robert Catalog for April, May, June 1934. Front cover.

While searching for more information on the Berth Robert company, which sold “Semi-Made” dresses,  I found this polka-dotted 1934 catalog on Ebay. The ad I wrote about recently was also from 1934:

Berth Robert Semi-Made Dress Catalog, advertised in The Delineator, February 1934.

Berth Robert Semi-Made Dress Catalog, advertised in The Delineator, February 1934. “You simply sew up the seams. Complete accessories with each dress.”

The woman who responded to this magazine ad in February might well have received exactly that polka-dotted April-June catalog, especially if she remained on the mailing list. I was thrilled when it arrived, because it has 24 pages of lovely 1930’s fashions, often three or more per page, printed on good quality semi-glossy paper which has not yellowed at all. (But which my scanner sees as gray.)

Wearfast Sports Dresses, Berth Robert catalog, page 6. Spring 1934.

Wearfast Semi-Made Sports Dresses, Berth Robert catalog, page 6. Summer 1934.

Why Would You Buy a Semi-Made Dress?

The catalog answers some of my questions about how “semi-made” dresses worked, and raises others. Speaking as a person who has made a lot of dresses, “the Berth Robert Plan” of leaving the side and underarm seams open, and the other finishing undone,  didn’t seem to me to save enough labor to account for a large reduction in price. I wondered how Berth Robert’s prices compared to normal mail-order clothing. And what about the promise that Berth Robert’s tailors “cut your dresses, suits, coats to your exact measurements?” Did they? And would these semi-made dresses appeal especially to hard-to-fit women?

“All you do is sew a few simple seams, adjusting the dress to your figure perfectly as you sew. . . and as you sew you save.” — Berth Robert Ad, 1936

When I showed the ad to my husband, he suggested, “Open side seams would make them easy to alter,” but the ease of “adjusting the dress to fit your figure” was not stressed in my catalog. The width of the seam allowances was not given, so it would be possible to take them in, but not necessarily possible to let them out. Besides, the catalog says, “Berth Robert’s tailors cut your dresses, suits, coats to your exact measurements, so that they fit you perfectly.” [My italics. Why would you need to alter them?]

“Made to Your Exact Measurements?”

The order form which came with my catalog made a good impression, because, unlike Sears,  it asked for more than just size and basic “Bust-waist-hip” measurements.

berth robert order blank 500

In addition to bust, waist and hip, the Berth Robert order form asks for a nape to back waist measurement (D-H), a back waist to finished hem length (H-E) and an underarm sleeve measurement “from underarm seam to wrist ((F-G).” A nape to hem measurement (D-E) was also important, as it affected price (see below.)

The Berth Robert order form asks for many measurements, not just bust, waist and hip.

The Berth Robert order form asks for vertical measurements, not just bust, waist and hip. Height and weight are also asked for.

The cynic in me suspects that garments were not actually made to measure, but the optimist hopes that the semi-made parts were carefully selected to accommodate wide hips or a short figure.

Semi-Made Explained

The catalog shows a full-page illustration of a completed dress, plus the various parts as they would be sent to the purchaser:

Berth Robert catalog p. 3, for Summer 1934.

Berth Robert catalog p. 3, for Summer 1934. “Model 900.” Price: $5.95.

p 3 parts 500

“The sketches at the sides show you just how a Berth Robert semi-made dress comes to you. It is cut to your measure as you know, then see how all the pleating and tucking is entirely finished for you? The shoulders are joined, the embroidered organdy bow is finished, buttons, buckle included, and even matching thread is sent you!”

Notice the paper of snaps and “Directions” at lower right. In 1934, zippers were not routinely used in women’s dresses. One side seam would be left open for a few inches from bust to high hip and closed, when worn, with a series of snaps, plus, usually, a hook and bar at the waist. A buckle for the bow is pictured next to the snaps. This particular dress has a very low back, held at the top with a narrow strap, which must also snap into place on one side.

Model 900, 1934.

Model 900,  Berth Robert catalog, 1934.

Model 900 — A splendid example of what the smart young woman will wear this summer is this All Silk Washable Crepe frock, created for activity and sunshine. Cool, comfortable and practical, from its smart sunback to the low placed pleats on the skirt, this frock will prove a joy all summer.  Sizes 14 to 40.  Washable All Silk Crepe — White, Blue, Maize or Green . . . . . . $5.95. For dresses longer than 47 inches add 75 cents extra.

Frustratingly, like so many other catalogs and pattern magazines of the early 20th century, this catalog gives a range of sizes, but there is but no explanation of what those sizes mean in terms of the wearer’s measurements. (I wrote about this at length in “Size 16 Years.” What Does That Mean? Click here to read the post.)

Throughout the catalog, the range of sizes for each “model” are given as “Sizes 14 to 20,” “Sizes 14 to 40,” or, rarely, “Sizes 14 to 42.” Sometimes a dress is available in both “Sizes 14 to 40” and “Sizes 42 and 44” — at a higher price for the larger sizes.

It doesn’t seem likely that a very short woman who wore size 44 would find what she needed here. [In general, only Sizes 14 through 20 were for young or petite women; size 20 usually had a maximum 38 inch bust measurement. ]

Did Semi-Made Dresses Really Offer Higher Quality for Less Money?

The costume shop at San Francisco Opera used to hire a team of “finishers” to come in at the end of a build and do a huge amount of skilled hand sewing:  buttons, snaps, hooks and eyes, and buttonhole stitching to reinforce all the grommets. The expert “finishers,” who did nothing else, could perform these repetitive hand-sewing tasks much faster than stitchers who usually operated sewing machines.

Except for “simple” seams at the sides, Berth Robert passed all the hand stitching on to the buyer:  hems, buttons, snaps, etc. Again, my skeptical side says, “Surely a New York clothing factory had ‘finishers,’ too.”

Here is the explanation given for bargain prices — three ways semi-made dresses save the manufacturer money — from my Berth Robert catalog:

contents money saving 500

The third reason is a bit like the argument that buying online is cheaper because the company has no expenses for “brick and mortar” retail stores.

The second reason raises the question:  Don’t all manufacturers buy their cloth wholesale? Of course they get it for less per yard than it would cost in a retail fabric store.

“Berth Robert’s Semi-Made Plan . . . enables you to have several dresses for less than the material alone would ordinarily cost you!”

But one thing I do notice is this catalog’s emphasis on quality fabrics:  real silk, wool, angora, pure Irish linen, and Permanent Finish Organdy, etc.

Afternoon dresses from Berth Robert catalog, 1934.

Afternoon dresses from Berth Robert catalog, 1934.

p 7 btm 500 afternoon

All three dresses are “All Silk,” not rayon. The box at the lower right says, “We will be glad to send you samples of the materials used in our semi-made clothes.” That suggests to me that the quality of the fabrics was good — a selling point.

These three semi-made afternoon dresses were available in sizes 14 to 40. Prices were $7.95, $8.95, and $6.75. In other words, they were for middle class women.  A suggested clothing budget for a young female college graduate in 1936 allowed her to buy four dresses per year, at an average price of $5.00, from her weekly salary of $20.00.

I think Dinah was on the right track with her comment on Semi-Made Dresses, 1930’s. She wrote:

“This is an old marketing trick. In buying the kit of parts the woman avoids the difficulties of cutting out and sizing. However, she can claim that she made the dress because she put it together and added her own buttons and other notions.

“Years ago a UK packet food did the same thing for a custard tart or similar. The publicity said ” you add the egg”. There is no need as many packet foods use egg powder. But by adding the egg herself the woman could proudly say that “she” cooked it, it was not bought in a packet.

“We should not under estimate the importance of this, particularly in the past where women were *automatically* expected to make dresses, cook using basic ingredients.”

Many mothers feel guilty about spending money on themselves, and make little economies (like wearing worn-out underwear) to be sure their children are well dressed for school.  A “semi-made” dress might assuage some of that guilt.

Also, as Dinah suggests, a housewife could justify her Berth Robert expenditure by showing her husband that she was working — sewing her own clothes — to save him money.

Price Comparisons

This semi-made Washable All Silk Crepe sports dress from Berth Robert cost $5.50:

Berth Roberts Model 909, 1934.

Berth Roberts Semi-Made Model 909, 1934. Sizes 14 to 20 only. (Probably because it is cut high in front but very low in back.) $5.50

To compare prices, I checked the Sears Catalog for Spring 1934; these simple “Washable All Silk Flat Crepe” sport dresses cost $3.98. However, in the fine print you can see “Washable All Silk Flat Crepe, weighted.” Weighted silk was lower in quality — much cheaper by the yard — and vintage collectors know that the metallic salts which gave it more body also caused deterioration.

Washable silk dresses from Sears, Spring 1934.

Washable “weighted” silk dresses from Sears, Spring 1934. Price: $3.98 each.

The two piece, semi-made dresses from Berth Robert , below, cost $8.95 ($9.75 for sizes 42 and 44.) The one on the right is silk crepe.

Berth Robert Semi-made. 1934.

Berth Robert Semi-made. 1934. Priced $8.95 to $9.75.

p 12 jacket dress 923 924 text 500

This comparable, but ready-to-wear, two-piece outfit from Sears cost $7.98 in sizes 36 through 44. However, like Sears’ sport dresses, it is made of lower-quality weighted silk.

Sears catalog, Spring 1934.

Sears catalog, Spring 1934. Price: $7.98.

Berth Roberts Completely Made Dresses

A big surprise in my catalog was that there were several pages of completely finished, ready-to-wear garments: sweaters, skirts, blouses, dresses, work uniforms, bathing suits, slips, nightgowns, etc.

Berth Robert Completely Made garments. 1934 catalog.

Berth Robert Completely Made tops and skirts. 1934 catalog. Priced from $1.09 to $2.95.

Berth Robert Completely Made garments, 1934 catalog.

Berth Robert Completely Made garments, 1934 catalog. Priced from $1.95 to $3.95.

The two most expensive items on these three pages cost $3.95 each:

J20: Lisle shirt with zipper front and corded jersey trousers; J23" "All wool Zephyr in the New Mexicana colorings fashions this Bathing suit." Berth Robert ready to wear. 1934.

J20:  Two piece outfit:  Lisle shirt with zipper front and corded jersey trousers. $3.95.  J23:  “All wool Zephyr in the New Mexicana colorings fashions this Bathing suit.” $3.95. Berth Robert completed ready-to-wear. 1934.

The three completely finished dresses below (left to right) cost $1.95 (“corded plaid cotton,”) $2.95 (“eyelet embroidered batiste,”) and $1.95 (cross striped broadcloth and waffle pique.”)

Berth Robert ready-to-wear dresses, priced $1.95 to $2.95.

Berth Robert ready-to-wear dresses, priced $1.95 to $2.95. “All garments on this page are completely made and guaranteed washable.”

Unless there was a huge difference in fabric quality, it’s hard to understand why these completely finished, ready-to-wear, Berth Robert mail order clothes cost a lot less than Berth Robert’s “semi-made” ones. Go figure!

[I’ll be sharing more fashions from this catalog later.]


Filed under 1930s, Bathing Suits, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Sportswear, Swimsuits, Vintage Styles in Larger Sizes, Women in Trousers

“Size 16 Years.” What Does That Mean?

When you’re looking at vintage magazines, catalogs, or patterns, sometimes you run across an item that says “Sizes 14 to 20 years” or “Size 16 years” — as if all 16 year-olds were the same size! Surprisingly, even magazines that sold patterns by mail, like Delineator and Ladies’ Home Journal, rarely explained pattern sizes in terms of measurements. Often you have to look at an actual pattern envelope to find a chart of size, bust, waist, and hip measurements.

This McCall pattern from the 1930's says Size 18. In the 30s, women would have known that this is a "Misses" pattern, rather than a "Ladies" pattern, and that it was for ages 14 to 20 years.

This McCall pattern from the 1930’s says “Size 18.” But what does that mean?

Back of envelope, McCall #6815.

Back of envelope, McCall #6815.

Here are the “Corresponding Measurements:”

Corresponding Measurements chart from McCall #6815

Corresponding Measurements chart from McCall #6815. McCall, unlike Butterick, did not say “Misses” and “Ladies,” but notice the sizes: 14, 16, 18, then 36, 38, 40, 42. Size 18 and Size 36 both have a 36″ bust.

This particular design was available in both Misses’ (14 to 18 years) and Ladies’ (Bust measurement 36 to 42 inches:)

Enlargement of "Corresponding Measurements" and Sizes chart, McCall #6815

Enlargement of “Corresponding Measurements” and sizes chart, McCall #6815. The only difference given between Size 18 and Size 36 is 1/2 inch in skirt length. There are no waist measurements — a hold-over from the 1920s, when they were irrelevant.

This McCall pattern assumes that, even in those narrow-hipped thirties’ fashions, the average woman would have hips three inches bigger than her bust.

Note that the smallest size, 14, is two inches shorter  (46″) than the 16 and 18 (both 48″ long), and the Ladies’ sizes are mostly 48 1/2″ long. I wonder if size 18 had a shorter “nape to back waist” measurement than size 36, which had the same bust (36″) and hip (39″) measurements; issuing two different patterns for the sake of a 1/2 inch skirt length measurement seems silly.

Every pattern company (and catalog company) had its own version of “Misses” and “Ladies” sizing.

Size and Measurement chart from Ladies' Home Journal pattern #1583, early 1920s.

Size and Measurement chart from Ladies’ Home Journal pattern #1583, for a Ladies’ Dress, very late 1910s or early 1920s.

The Ladies’ Home Journal made all of its Ladies’ patterns the same length regardless of size: “Center-front skirt length from normal waistline is 39 inches.”

This Standard Designer pattern from the 1920’s . . .

Standard Designer pattern #8626, 1920s.

Standard Designer pattern #8626, 1920s. (I love that fabric design!)

. . . assumes that a 15-16 year old girl will be 2 inches shorter than a 17-18 year old, and four inches shorter than a grown woman:

Measurement and size chart from Standard Designer pattern #2826

Measurement and size chart from Standard Designer pattern #8626. Notice the difference in “Skirt Length Finished at Center Front below Normal Waistline;” 28 inches for size 16 Years, and 32 inches for all Ladies.

Pattern sizes were not standardized among companies until the late 1960’s, which is why the dark pink “New Sizing” box on an envelope is sometimes used for dating vintage patterns.

Simplicity pattern #7528, dated 1968. "New Sizing" box at upper left.

Simplicity pattern #7528, dated 1968. “New Sizing” box at upper left.

By the 1960s, the word “Misses” on a pattern meant what “Ladies” or “Women” used to mean:  bust sizes from 34 to 40 inches. (The larger sizes, 42 and 44, had disappeared. )

Size and measurement chart from the back of the envelope for Simplicity #7528, dated 1968.

Size and measurement chart from the back of the envelope for Simplicity #7528, dated 1968. “Juniors” is now the term for smaller, shorter sizes.

Misses’ Sizes for Butterick in the Nineteen Twenties

In the 1920s, Butterick sized its Misses’ patterns from 15 to 20 years, and Ladies’ patterns from 33″ (or 34″) bust to 44″ or larger. From comparing many pattern descriptions in Delineator, I’ve gleaned that Butterick’s Misses’ patterns used the following bust measurements in the 1920’s :

Butterick’s 15 years = 32″ bust

Butterick’s 16 years = 33″ bust

Butterick’s 17 years = 34″ bust

Butterick’s 18 years = 35″ bust

Butterick’s 19 years = 36″ bust

Butterick’s 20 years = 37″ bust

What’s more, Butterick often used the phrase “for misses 15 to 20 years, also small women,” which made me wonder,

“What was the difference between a Miss with a 34 inch bust, and a Lady with a 34 inch bust?”

You have probably already deduced that skirt length has something to do with it, but I got my first hint from the Ordering page of the 1917 Perry, Dame & Co. Catalog. [Women’s and Children’s Fashions of 1917:  The Complete Perry, Dame & Co. Catalog, from Dover Books.]

Perry, Dame & Co. catalog, 1917:  "How to Order Your Right Size." p. 146.

Perry, Dame & Co. Catalog, 1917: “How to Order Your Right Sizes.” p. 146.

Like Butterick, Perry Dame & Company distinguished between Misses’ and Women’s sizes. And, like Butterick, Perry, Dame also added the phrase “and smaller women” to some of its listings for Misses.

These dresses are for “Women:”

Women's Stylish Dresses, Perry, Dame & Co. catalog for 1917.

Women’s Stylish Dresses, Perry, Dame & Co. Catalog for 1917.  “Sizes: 32 to 46 bust measure.”

Like Butterick and other pattern companies, Perry, Dame & Company sold Women’s dresses by bust measurement — “32 to 46” in this case.

These dresses are for “Misses and Small Women:”

1917 Perry, Dame catalog; dresses for Misses and Small Women.l

1917 Perry, Dame Catalog, p. 28; dresses for Misses (14 to 20 years) and Small Women.

All the dresses on this page are sized “14 to 20 years.”

Text of Dresses for Misses and Small Women, p. 28, Perry, Dame catalog.

Text of Dresses for Misses and Small Women, p. 28, Perry, Dame Catalog.

For the costumer, knowing whether a dress was meant to be worn by a teenager or an older woman is very important. However, it’s clear that it is the size range, not the style, that marks these dresses as suitable to Misses, since they are also appropriate for Small Women.

These Perry, Dame skirts are also offered in both Women’s and Misses’ sizes:

Women's and Misses Skirts, Perry, Dame catalog 1917, p. 51

Women’s and Misses Skirts, Perry, Dame Catalog 1917, p. 51 [“Wash” or “tub” means “washable.”]

The catalog assigns different numbers to this skirt, depending on whether it is in Misses' or Women's sizes. p.51

The catalog assigns different numbers to this skirt, depending on whether it is in Women’s Sizes or “Misses’ and Small Women’s Sizes.” p.51

A woman with a waist between 22 and 28 inches would order either skirt #5A32 or #5A62, depending on the length she needed. Women’s lengths ranged from 36 to 43 inches. Misses’ and Small Women’s lengths ran from 33 to 35 inches, a considerable difference — 6 or 7 inches — if you had a 28″ waist.

Deduction:  Misses Are Shorter Than Ladies

Women's Dress Sizes vs. Misses' Dress Sizes,  Perry, Dame Catalog, 1917. Exerpted from page 146

Women’s Dress Sizes vs. Misses’ Dress Sizes; Perry, Dame Catalog, 1917. Exerpted from page 146. All Women’s dresses have a 40″ skirt length measurement. All Misses’ dresses are shorter.

Each company had its own size and measurement ideas, but the common assumption seems to be that women with a larger bust measurement will also be taller — which is not necessarily true.  In fact, in the nineteen twenties and thirties (and later), older women — women born before the end of the 19th century — were more likely to be short, because of a less nutritious diet during childhood. (Many families lived on bread and soup for several months each year.) And most older women are aware of our tendency to burn fewer calories and to put on weight after menopause. Lynn, at American Age Fashion, has been following the question of patterns and ready-to-wear suited to the needs of the short and rotund. You can follow her research by starting with “Hunting for Half Sizes” (Lynn has made this into a multi-part series. Just search her site for “half sizes.”)

I’ve also noticed that, in the 1920’s, younger women were not necessarily shorter; but they wore shorter skirts than older women. To some extent, the 1920’s styles which seem most attractive to us today are the ones initially worn by Misses and teens.

Two Ladies' patterns and a Misses' pattern, Dec. 1925. Butterick fashions from Delineator magazine.

Two Ladies’ patterns, left, and a Misses’ pattern, Dec. 1925. Butterick fashions from Delineator magazine. The Miss is showing a lot more leg.

(Teens had been called “flappers” as early as the 1910’s.) You can see more Misses’ styles for 1925 by clicking here.



Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1920s, 1920s-1930s, 1930s, Resources for Costumers, Vintage patterns, Vintage Styles in Larger Sizes