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!”
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.
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.
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.