Tag Archives: thirties fashions

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

Waitress Uniforms, 1930s

Two waitress uniforms from the 1930s.

Two waitress uniforms from the 1930s.

In the Depression-era movie of my imagination, the waitress is always Joan Blondell, cynical, wise-cracking, but good-hearted, slipping an extra piece of pie to a guy who’s down on his luck. Since all the 1930s movie waitresses I’ve seen were in black and white films, it’s exciting to find some period research in color.

Pic-Wic Frocks Uniform:  Green Dress with Detachable Apron

Uniform from Pic-Wic Frocks Direct.

Uniform from Pic-Wic Frocks Direct.

This image on card stock was cut from a salesman’s (or saleswoman’s) catalog for showing Pic-Wic fashions to potential customers. It is undated, but the skirt length, style, and close-to-the head hairdos place it in the early thirties. In a black and white film, this green dress would photograph as gray. What a loss!

Pic-Wic logo

Pic-Wic logo: Pic-Wic Dainty U[niform]. The bottom should say “Pic-Wic Frocks Direct to the Home.”

There’s very little information about Pic-Wic online, except newspaper ads (“wanted women everywhere to sell Pic-Wic frocks direct to wearer“) and a 1930s sales receipt book on Etsy (sold) that says Pic-Wic was located in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In this closer view (below), you can see how much detail went into this uniform, with its paneled apron, applied trim, pointed waist, pretty cuffs, and its little necktie tied with a bow. Oddly, the dress has pockets, but the detachable apron doesn’t. (Where would a waitress put her order pad and tips?) Perhaps this is a uniform for a manicurist, but I can also imagine it worn by the waitress in a tea-room.

Top of Pic-Wic waitress uniform.

Top of Pic-Wic uniform.

This view (below) of the dress without the apron shows more, expensive-to-manufacture, styling details in the bodice, which has points like a weskit. This much-nicer-than-it-needs-to-be work uniform wasn’t custom designed for a prestigious restaurant chain or hotel; Pic-Wic sold door-to-door to individuals and small businesses. A similar card showing nurses’ uniforms from Pic-Wic gives prices between $2.95 and $3.45 (less if you bought three at a time), including free shipping.

Pic-Wic dress without apron.

Pic-Wic dress without apron.

Perhaps Pic-Wic uniforms were just too well-designed to be profitable in the mass-produced clothing business. However, the vintage waitress outfit below is also graced with unexpected details.

Vintage 1930s Cranberry Red and White Dix-Make Waitress Uniform

Vintage 1930s waitress uniform. From a private collection.

Vintage 1930s waitress uniform. From a private collection.

I admit that I fell in love with this outfit the minute I saw it. It may look red on your screen, but it is the color of a ripe cranberry. Like the Pic-Wic uniform, this one has peaked cuffs on the sleeves, and styling details that go beyond the basic needs of a washable uniform. Although this apron is pretty basic, it is bordered all around with white rickrack, creating a delicate scalloped edge to match the collar and cuffs of the dress.

Dress details, white rickrack trim.

Dress details, white rickrack trim.

The rickrack on collar, cuffs, and pockets is inserted between two layers of fabric to create a subtly softened edge. The low pocket on the skirt of the dress gets a similar treatment.

Detail of dress front and pocket.

Detail of dress front and pocket.

The center front closing on the bodice becomes a side front closing on the skirt, a detail that would add to manufacturing cost.  It does make room for the nice, big pocket. This uniform was heavily starched, presumably by a commercial laundry.

Dix-Make waitress uniform.

Dix-Make waitress uniform. The skirt is slightly flaired, but not pleated; it’s just wrinkled from storage.

The Dix-Make company is also hard to trace, but The Vintage Traveler says she found a Dix-Make advertisement in a Vogue magazine from 1925. The uniform she was trying to identify was white, and trimmed with white lace.

Dix-Make label.

Dix-Make label from waitress uniform.

This cranberry red uniform is probably from later in the thirties than the green Pic-Wic uniform, because it is somewhat shorter — but still far below knee length. It has slightly puffed, set-in sleeves, but not the exaggerated puffed sleeves or the broader shoulders and snugly fitted waist of the later 1930s and 40s. So:  mid-1930s is an educated guess — corrections are welcome!

In a black and white movie, this deep cranberry red dress would definitely photograph as black. Try to keep that in mind the next time you watch a black and white movie; the past was much more colorful than we might think!




Filed under 1930s, Dresses, Uniforms and Work Clothes, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing

Spring Styles for Older (and Larger) Women, February, 1931

On Tuesday night I was going through photos I had taken of Delineator fashions from February, 1931. Someone had removed the February 1931 cover from the bound volume at the library – a shame, because the covers in the 1930s were especially lovely. This is the cover from March, by Dynevor Rhys: (Click image to enlarge)

Delineator Cover for March, 1931, by Dynevor Rhys

Delineator Cover for March, 1931, by Dynevor Rhys

I had found a page of spring fashions for older women, so I was thinking about one of my favorite blogs, American Age Fashion: What American Women Wore, 1900 to Now.  Serendipity:  In the next day’s mail, I received a gift from Lynn at americanagefashion.com: a copy on fabric of the missing February 1931 cover of Delineator! (I haven’t photographed it yet.) In return, here are . . .

Four February Fashions “Charmingly Suited to the Dignity of White Hair”

Butterick patterns "Charmingly Suited to the Dignity of White Hair" from Delineator, February 1931

Butterick patterns “Charmingly Suited to the Dignity of White Hair” from Delineator, February 1931

Back Views

Back Views

This text is typed below — the print here is a bit small!

1931 feb p 106 suited to white hair pattern info

Butterick 3363 & 3697

Butterick 3363 & 3697

3663 FLATTER YOURSELF With a deep ivory lace yoke and a lace jabot on your new black frock, and the result will turn other heads than your own.  A bit more lace is added at the cuffs. The angular line of the skirt yoke is flattering also. Notice the hem; it is at exactly the right place for the smart matron. The frock is designed for sizes 34 to 46. [bust measurement]

3697 IF YOU ARE SLENDER Choose raspberry for this frock – it is a new color with dark coats, and a charming one with white hair. If not slender, choose black with white or flesh chiffon vestee. The belt is slightly below the normal line, and both the long collar and the curved insert with a flare have a one-sided trend. Designed for 34 to 48. [bust measurement]

1931 feb p 106 3681 3675f white hair large top

3681 THE SLIMMEST LINE All the important lines in this frock are diagonals – that’s the clever part of it, for they flatter the mature figure. The straight skirt is shirred  on the diagonal. The bodice has a diagonal closing. A long white collar helps to make one appear thin, and soft flares finish the three-quarter sleeves. The frock is designed for 34 to 52. [inches bust measure]

3675 ONE TYPE OF TUNIC  The flared tunic is broken at the center front and back, so that it will not cut any length from the figure, and both skirt and tunic are joined to the long bodice in scalloped outline, Wear the belt where it suits you best. The flared three-quarter sleeves and lace vestee are flattering. The frock is designed for 34 to 48 [inch bust measurement.] “Wear the belt where it suits you best” — in other words, if you are not ready to give up the low waistline of the 1920s.

Lane Bryant Adds a Touch of Reality

Pattern number 3681 is illustrated as if the model were a little larger than the 1930s ideal. However, the three other models appear to be size 34, not size 48 or 52.  This advertisement for the Lane Bryant catalog (Style Book) for Stout Women is also from February 1931 — and a bit more realistic.  The model appears to be wearing a very good corset, with bust support and hip control. There is still a twenties influence in the low waist (or lack thereof.)

Lane Bryant Ad from Delineator, February 1931

Lane Bryant Ad from Delineator, February 1931


Filed under 1930s, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Vintage patterns, Vintage Styles in Larger Sizes