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:
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.)
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.
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 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.
The catalog shows a full-page illustration of a completed dress, plus the various parts as they would be sent to the purchaser:
“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 — 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:
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.
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.
This semi-made Washable All Silk Crepe sports dress from Berth Robert cost $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.
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.
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.
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.
The two most expensive items on these three pages cost $3.95 each:
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.”)
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.]