Tag Archives: clothing prices 1930s

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

Living on $18 per Week, 1930s

“Marrying on so small an income is a courageous undertaking….’I can’t allow a cent more than $8 a week for food,’ says Mrs. Green.”

Ad from Delineator, Feb. 1935, p. 35. Royal Baking Powder

Ad from Delineator, Feb. 1935, p. 35. Royal Baking Powder

"No Need for Self-Pity." Ad from Woman's Home Companion, Sept. 1937, p. 112

“No Need for Self-Pity.” Ad from Woman’s Home Companion, Sept. 1937, p. 112

By chance, I came across two advertisements from the late 1930s that referred to living on eighteen dollars a week (above), and I also found a clothes’ budget article for a young college woman which confirms that her wages after graduation would be about $20 per week. (I will go into detail about each of these later.)

"What Can A Girl Live On?"  Woman's Home Companion, Oct. 1936

“What Can A Girl Live On?” Woman’s Home Companion, Oct. 1936

Sharing the History of Everyday Fashions and What They Cost

It’s difficult to get a sense of what things really cost in the past, but theatrical costumers need to be able to place fashions not only in time, but in social class.

We ask, “What kind of woman could afford $6.50 shoes in 1936? Are they cheap or expensive?”

Red Cross Shoe Ad, Delineator, April 1936

Red Cross Shoe Ad, Woman’s Home Companion, April 1936

“Would these dresses have been worn by the wife of a clerk, or the wife of the company president?”

Companion-Butterick Patterns from WHC, March 1937

Companion-Butterick Patterns from WHC, March 1937

Even information from the same magazine can be contradictory; a September 1937 advertisement seeking women to sell subscriptions to Woman’s Home Companion magazine (“No Need for Self-Pity”) implies that a working girl will struggle to get by on $18 a week; an editorial in the same magazine, October, 1936, said she would be able to afford vacation travel, and still put money into savings, while earning just $20 a week.

What Can A Girl Live On? A College Girl’s Clothing Budget, 1936

I have broken this brief editorial (one column from Woman’s Home Companion, October 1936) into sections so that it will be large enough for you to read it yourself: 1936 oct college girl's budge theadline1936 oct college girl's budget number only1936 oct working college grad woman budget paragraph top1936 oct working college grad woman budget end

I’m posting it in the hope that some enterprising economist or women’s studies researcher will find it of interest.  I’ll try to limit my comments, but…

1. Note that items with an asterisk are expected to last two or three years: coats, pull-on rubber shoe covers, an umbrella, bedroom slippers.

2. She is expected to get by on four dresses ($5 each), and four pairs of shoes ($3 each), per year. (Walk-in closets were not needed in the 1930s.)  This explains the many 1930s patterns for dresses that were easy to transform with a change of collar, or sash.

Wardrobe Dress, Companion-Butterick Pattern 7579, Oct. 1937

Wardrobe Dress, Companion-Butterick Pattern 7579, Oct. 1937

Companion-Butterick offered a series of patterns with “button-in” features, like this one, # 7579, which can be worn with three separate button-in vestees. “If you are an executive’s secretary you may want two vestees for the office — one in the dress material perhaps, with a tiny piqué collar, the other in plaid taffeta – and a third, for after-hours parties, in sparkling gold lamé.”

3. A pair of stockings is expected to last a month (15 pairs per year.)

Ad for Lux Soap, Oct. 1937

Ad for Lux Soap, Oct. 1937

Ad for Lux Soap, Woman's Home Companion, Feb. 1937

Ad for Lux Soap, Woman’s Home Companion, Feb. 1937

“Runs cost money.” A run in her stocking could be enough to drive a working woman to tears – she might have to choose between eating and buying a new pair of stockings, and she was expected to wear stockings to work.

4. A “smock” is a puzzling item, but could be required in certain college classes, such as chemistry, art, or home economics. When you only have four dresses, protecting them would be important, and an apron or housedress would only be worn while doing work at home.

Women wearing smocks in Sealtest laboratory kitchen, 1930s

Women wearing smocks in Sealtest laboratory kitchen, 1930s

Living on Twenty Dollars – or Less – a Week

The 1936 article confirms that “The average University of Washington co-ed who steps into the working world earns an average of eighty dollars a month.”

"No Need for Self-PIty." Ad from Woman's Home Companion, Sept. 1937. p.112

“No Need for Self-PIty.” Ad from Woman’s Home Companion, Sept. 1937. p.112

This advertisement – purportedly quoting a letter from a subscriber – says “If you have ever known the need for extra money you can understand how I felt when I found, on starting my business career, that for several years I could not expect to earn more than $18 a week…. Therefore my small salary would just about pay my room and board and keep me in lunches and carfare with nothing left…. I needed new clothes and I often felt like crawling into the darkest corner of the office because my dress was so shabby…. My heart fairly ached.” Her problem was solved when – like “ten thousand” others, “girls and women in offices and homes, …even sweet-faced grandmothers” — she began selling subscriptions to the Woman’s Home Companion [or so says the ad.]

On the other hand, Royal Baking Powder ran a series of Great Depression advertisements, like the one at the top of this post, featuring true-life stories about people who were coping with low or lost income:

"Income cut in half... food prices rising... and six hungry mouths to feed." Ad from Woman's Home Companion, 1934

“Income cut in half… food prices rising… and six hungry mouths to feed.” Ad from Woman’s Home Companion, 1934

"Getting married on $20 a month takes courage these days." Ad from Delineator, Feb. 1934

“Getting married on $20 a week takes courage nowadays.” Ad from Delineator, Feb. 1934

The house this couple lives in (pictured at top of ad) looks rather impressive to me.

Home of the couple who married on $20 a week. Ad, Delineator, Feb. 1934, p. 43

Home of the couple who married on $20 a week. Ad, Delineator, Feb. 1934, p. 43

Maybe a single woman earning $20 a week could afford a vacation.

A Summer Wardrobe for $34.33

Make Your Wardrobe for Summer for $34.33. Delineator, May 1934

Make Your Wardrobe for Summer for $34.33. Delineator, May 1934

This home-made summer wardrobe (Delineator, May 1934, p.71) was analyzed as costing $34.33 – including patterns, not including thread. 1934 may p 71 prices summer wardrobe 5623 5686 34 33At first glance, it seemed much more than the $20 for four dresses per year allotted to the University of Washington co-eds. However, the $34.33 total included a coat ($8.13) and a shorts and shirt outfit ($3.06.) The four dresses (one a jacket dress) could be made for $23.14 (or less, if you made the striped dress from cotton instead of silk. ) If you didn’t sew, you could buy a dress, or a suit, or a skirt and two blouses from the Sears catalog for about $5 in 1937. [Everyday Fashions of the Thirties as Pictured in Sears Catalogs, by Stella Blum.] But a secretary probably could not afford to buy those $6.50 shoes.

POST SCRIPT (July 2018): Related posts are “The Great Depression Reflected in Ads from the Back of Womens’ Magazines”,   “A Woman’s Clothing Budget for 1924 versus 1936”, and Clothing Budget for a Married Couple, 1925.”


Filed under 1930s, Companion-Butterick Patterns, Hosiery & Stockings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Shoes, Uniforms and Work Clothes, Vintage patterns