If I could have one research wish, it would be to have all the Sears catalogs available in a searchable data base on line. There is so much to learn from these resources, even the highly edited versions in the series Everyday Fashions as Pictured in the Sears Catalog. In the volume on the forties, I discovered these dresses named after the famous actor Marie Dressler (ca. 1868-1934), known for her portrayal of older, motherly figures. Thanks to experts at the Vintage Fashion Guild, I discovered that the line was created by the Gottlieb dress company in Ohio after Dressler’s death. Fashion historian Jonathan Walford tells the story of the brand here.
By choosing the larger, older actor as their muse, the Gottlieb Company and Sears were finding a way to sell to the no longer young and slim. Note the size ranges here. The dresses came in both women’s sizes and “stout sizes.” What’s the difference between them? Women’s sizes were based on even bust measurements—going from 36 to 44. The “stout” sizes were based on odd bust measurements and went from 43 to 53. Was the ratio of bust to hip the same? Unfortunately, I could not find a full explanation of women’s sizes that included bust and hip sizes.
In the product descriptions, the words “slim” and “slenderizing” are repeated over and over, but there are no references to age. I wonder if a young but not slim woman would be attracted to dresses carrying the name of a much older celebrity.
Although Sears claims to be the exclusive purveyor of Marie Dressler clothes in its 1939-1940 catalog, that was not always the case. I discovered ads for the plus size range in the Los Angeles Times from 1936 and 1956. The earlier ad is particularly interesting, because the dresses were offered not just in half sizes, but also quarter sizes. The half sizes were for taller women (in contrast to standardized half sizes in the 1950s); the quarter sizes were “for the shorter woman.” That means that clothing for the larger woman was available in three different size ranges in the 1930s!