Half Sizes Part 5: The Record in Montgomery Ward Catalogs

Montgomery Ward catalog 107, 1927. Click to enlarge

I’ve long been fascinated by the category of “half-sizes,” a term now associated with clothing for shorter and wider women.  But until the US government issued standardized sizing guidelines in the 1950s, the term “half size” could mean just about anything.

What did it mean for Montgomery Ward?  I first saw the term in 1927 used for “coats for little women.” Here the only difference between half sizes and normal sizes was a woman’s height.  We might now call these “petite sizes,” where the cut was made with the smaller woman in mind.  “No need for alterations—for the sleeves are shorter than average and the length in exact accord.”   The size number was related to bust size.  If your bust measured 46 inches, you would choose size 45 ½.

Half size dresses didn’t come for two more years.  Here the promise was the same—the clothes’ proportions would flatter the shorter woman.  “They are designed for the smaller figure—a little shorter in skirt and sleeve, a little higher at the hipline—every detail exactly right!

Montgomery Ward catalog 114, 1931. Click to enlarge

In 1931, an ad for half size dresses even used the word “petite.”  Here Ward’s tried out new sizing numbers.  A woman with a 46 inch bust now had to choose a size 26 1/2.

Montgomery Ward catalog 118, 1934. Click to enlarge

By 1934, however, the company’s conception of the half size began to change.  This size range now aimed to fit women who not only found regular sizes too long, but who had other fit issues as well.  “Don’t worry if the dresses you buy are usually too long in the skirt, in the bust and through the arms, and from shoulder to waist,” the ad copy promised. Half sizes would address all of those issues.  The fashion drawings changed as well, depicting women who looked older than in the first half size advertisements.

Montgomery Ward catalog 127, 1937. Click to enlarge

Three years later, Ward’s half size category completed its transformation from one intended simply for shorter women to one designed to fix other fit problems.  The catalog listed the attributes of the size range: a higher waist, broader hips, roomier armholes, and shorter sleeves.  They were, as the ad copy read, “betwixt and between” women’s sizes and extra (or stout) sizes.  And the new cut just happened to accommodate the kinds of body changes most women experience as they age.  This concept of the “half size” is the one that was codified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1958.



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Miss Allen in 1955

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Although I know nothing about the woman depicted in this photo, beyond her name and the date noted on the back, I am quite certain that she was a free spirit.  Her dress is a very interesting shape, fitted through the bust, waist, and high hip and then opening up into a fuller skirt along a curved seam.  It’s a different cut from the two dominant silhouettes of the early to mid 1950s, either a slim skirt or a full skirt starting at the waist.

Advance pattern 6051 via vintagespatterns.wikia.com

I like to imagine that she made this cheerful dotted dress herself.  A 1952 pattern from Advance has a somewhat similar shape.  Perhaps Miss Allen herself came up with the idea of the high cuffed sleeves that look like small wings.

Be sure to enlarge the image so you can see the great care Miss Allen took with her jewelry. To go with the dots on her dress, she chose range of accessories made from round beads. Take a look at the long 1920s-looking pearl necklace, the beaded bangle, and the very large beaded earrings. To complete the theme, it looks like she also has on a very large cocktail ring.  Although she is not wearing the newly stylish high heels of the fifties, she is also not in the sensible shoes so beloved of her age group. She does not look at all like the Mrs. Exeter-style of older woman, who always dressed in a subdued version of the latest fashion.  Instead, she has found her own way.

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Pants for Women in Montgomery Ward Catalogs, 1907-1924

Montgomery Ward catalog 76, 1907

When did Montgomery Ward begin offering pants designed for women?  The first mention I found (and I could have easily missed some) had to do with horseback riding.  In 1907, you could buy a custom made divided skirt “for cross saddle horseback riding.”  Technically this was not yet a pair of pants, but the bifurcated skirt allowed women more flexibility in riding. As a custom made item, it could come in any size.

Montgomery Ward catalog 79, 1910

Three years later, the company had a half page ad featuring custom made riding outfits, including a pair of riding breeches “to be worn with a divided skirt.”

Montgomery Ward catalog 84, 1916. Click to enlarge

By 1916, there were drawings of women wearing these riding breeches without the skirt over them, a big step forward in the depiction of women in pants. And as you can see in the ad, the idea of “riding” had been expanded to bicycle riding. These outfits were no longer custom made, and on this page were primarily offered in smaller sizes.  The breeches, for example, only went up to a size 30 inch waist.

But these were leisure time activities.  What about work clothes for women?

Montgomery Ward catalog 90, 1918. Click to enlarge

Ads for overalls began in 1918, after the United States had entered the First World War.  These ready to wear outfits were listed on pages of “practical work clothes for women.” They came in both misses and women’s sizes.  In the image above, there is direct reference to the war.  The work suit was designed “for all who do war work as well as for those women who are taking men’s places on the farm and elsewhere,” a reference to the “farmerettes.”

Montgomery Ward catalog 102, 1924. Click to enlarge

Overalls continued to pop up on work clothes pages throughout the 1920s.  But in 1924, I discovered them also listed as sportswear! Now called overalls, not work suits, the catalog gave detailed description of their construction as well as suggestions for possible venues to wear them. “Durable khaki overalls for the woman who works outside or drives a car. They are strong and well made, but roomy enough to give you unusual freedom. Made with drop seat, deep patch pockets, and elastic at the ankle… Also for camping and touring.”

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Kitchen Aprons in the War Effort

Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

In my ongoing effort to show that not all female war workers during World War Two were young, I bring you these two photos from the Office of War Information.  The top photo shows two women sorting artillery shells in Philadelphia.  The bottom documents a woman cutting off the cotton tops of silk stocking so that the silk could be recycled for war use.

Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

The women in the top photo do not appear to have changed out of their normal clothes for factory work.  Indeed, the one above on the right might have come from hosting a tea party with her floral print dress, lacy collar, and broach.  Her colleague also looks a little dressed up for the assembly line, although she at least has added an apron to protect her dress. Might they have known the photographer was coming and put on special outfits?

In the second photo, the woman is more practically attired.  Her dress is quite plain and she wears no jewelry.  Her apron, however, looks like she grabbed from the back of the kitchen chair before she left for work.

Calisphere. Click to enlarge

I’ve seen factory dress codes for women shipyard workers that were quite specific.  Apparently similar rules did not apply to jobs without flying sparks.  The artillery factory and recycling plant must have been very colorful, with kitchen aprons brightening up the work space.

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Elderly, Matronly, or Mature? Montgomery Ward Experiments with Names

Montgomery Ward catalog 81, 1912. Click to enlarge

In 1912, the Montgomery Ward catalog went through a major revision that favored women clothing buyers.  Before that year, women’s clothing was scattered throughout the catalog; you had to look through the index to find everything offered to female consumers.  In a big reorganization that year, the company consolidated all of its women clothing in the opening pages of each big book.

In addition, the company began a more careful differentiation among its female consumers.  It was in 1912 that the catalog started to offer “stout” sizes.  Misses’ sizes, aimed initially to teens, were suddenly advertised as fitting “Misses and Smaller Women.” And if you looked carefully in the small print, there were references to older women as well. I caught this hat above, offered to an “elderly woman,” because of the drawing.  The face didn’t look as young and perky as the others, and the hair might conceivably been gray.

Montgomery Ward catalog 87, 1917

Advertising copy for hats was a favorite place to try out new terms for the older set. In 1917, a black hat with an ostrich plume was on offer for the “matronly woman,” visible in the description.

Montgomery Ward catalog 90, 1918

And a year later, the “mature woman” had an entire page of hats to choose from, with a banner headline at the top of the page.

During the 1910s, the company tried out many different adjectives for the older crowd.  By  the following decade, “matronly” had won out as the favored term.  But don’t try it today…

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A Visit to Times Square, 1970s

Kenneth Siegel, via the New York Times. Click to enlarge

Today Times Square in New York City looks very different than it did before its big clean up in the 1990s.  It used to be a hub of prostitution, adult bookstores, and sex shows.  You can see evidence if you look at the marquees in the background behind this group of older women.  A few don’t look very happy to be passing through what was once called “the cesspool of sin.”

My friend Sally, my go-to expert on American photography, sent me the link to this photo by Kenneth Siegel.  His archive, held at the New York Historical Society, only gives the date as sometime in the seventies.  It shows how quickly pants and pantsuits caught on in the decade.  Only one woman is wearing a skirt or dress.  The other four are in pants, many with the stiff, thick look of seventies polyester.  Bouffanty hair styles were obviously also in style for the older set.

I am fascinated by the woman on the right.  First of all, her look is different.  I think her pant suit is made of cotton, not polyester, with a kind of Western styling.  Her hairdo is less exuberant.  But most of all, she looks happy to be there.  Don’t you wonder what she was pointing at?  Perhaps it was a marquee even more explicit than “Anita Nympho.”

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“Stout” Sizes at Montgomery Ward

Montgomery Ward catalog 81, 1912. Click to enlarge

In 1912, the Montgomery Ward catalog launched a new size range for larger women.  Originally called “stout” sizes, the company expanded its standard size range from a 32 inch waist and a 42 inch bust in 1900 to a 40 inch waist and a 50 inch bust, with slightly bigger sizes for coats.

I wondered if Montgomery Ward stole this idea from Lane Bryant, the company best known for plus size clothing.  The short answer is no.  Looking through advertisements in the New York Times for the early twentieth century, I discovered that several different stores offered “extra” sizes for stout women.  What Montgomery Ward and Lane Bryant accomplished was to make these clothes available to a wide audience through their catalogs.

Montgomery Ward catalog 84, 1916. Click to enlarge

In its depiction of larger women, the Montgomery Ward aimed for some degree of verisimilitude. The drawn models were full-chested with faint double chins.  They did not look skinny, but they did look young.

But what of full chested, older women, who might have also benefited from the larger size range?  Why was no catalog copy directed to them?

Montgomery Ward catalog 91, 1919. Click to enlarge

By 1919, the marketers at Montgomery Ward apparently caught on and changed their language at times.  In this offering, the stout and “mature” (aka old) were combined.

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The Woman in the Marx Brothers’ Movies

Click to enlarge

Part of the fun of Marx Brothers’ films is Groucho’s sarcastic ribbing with a rich dowager figure, a joke-filled interaction that reappears in seven films, including the classics Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, and A Day at the Races.  The actress was Margaret Dumont, sometimes called the fifth Marx Brother.  Born in 1882, she was in her fifties when she played these famous roles.

In all the films, Dumont was the straight woman for Groucho’s jokes, many of which had to do with her size.  Here is one exchange from Duck Soup (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Dumont: I’ve sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia.

Groucho: Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself! You’d better beat it; I hear they’re going to tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing!

To facilitate the jokes, Dumont dressed to emphasize her size, sporting tight and often shiny dresses clothes that made her look larger than she was.   The bigger she appeared, the more fun Groucho had knocking her down.

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Made to Measure Clothing from Montgomery Ward

Montgomery Ward catalog 68, 1900. Click to enlarge

The big American catalog companies that started in the late nineteenth century—1872 for Montgomery Ward and 1888 for Sears—fueled the American ready to wear industry.  In order to supply clothing to far flung parts of the United States without easy access to goods, they used standardized sizing systems to fit a wide range of customers.

But what about those who didn’t fit the standard sizes?  That was one of the questions I had when I began looking through a full collection of Montgomery Ward catalogs housed at the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming. In the very first catalog I opened, I was intrigued to discover that the company offered made to measure clothing for women and men. “All garments will be made according to measurements sent to us, and positively cannot be returned or exchanged unless we are at fault,” the catalog copy read. “Alterations will be made at a reasonable charge.” Included in the catalog were detailed instructions on how to measure, with the offer of a free measuring tape.

Montgomery Ward catalog 68, 1900, Click to enlarge

Prices were high compared to other offerings. Model X2508 on the left above, with a bodice of shirred silk, cost $14.50.  At the same time you could buy a ready made linen suit for $4.99.  And if you wanted your custom outfit in a bust size above 46 inches (42 was the largest standard measurement), you had to pay extra.

There were only two pages of made to measure offerings this 1900 catalog. That was just a small fraction of the considerable offerings for women, including shirtwaists, skirts, suits, cloaks, and coats. Clearly custom clothing was not a large part of the company’s business—but I’m amazed they offered the service at all.

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For the Love of Circles, 1939

Click to enlarge

I’ve just returned from a trip to Laramie Wyoming, where I spent a week looking through Montgomery Ward catalogs at the American Heritage Center.  Not everyone would call that a fun vacation, but I do!  You will see results from my research soon.

In the meantime, here is a 1939 photo of someone who liked a well coordinated outfit. Her jacket is trimmed with scallops (half circles) and embroidered with a circle and dot design  that evokes the swirly paisley print of her blouse.  She embellished the basic outfit with a necklace of round beads and a hat finished with netting decorated with small dots.  A woman with a theme!

This particular photo also comes with information on the back—an uncommon treat.  It gives the subject’s name—Grace Kissam; the date—May 1939; and the place—143 St., probably in New York City.  But what was the occasion?  Since she wears a flowery corsage, I am guessing it was a special event, like a wedding or an anniversary dinner.

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