If you have spent any time bemoaning the fact that ordinary clothes don’t fit older women’s bodies, you are not alone. I have found complaints stretching back to 1900, the start date of my research, and I am sure that it would be easy to find earlier examples without looking very hard.
The search for a better fit for older figures is also not new. If you look through the fascinating Journal of Home Economics (available on the website Hearth) you can find many studies where researchers address this problem. One interesting example, published in 1951, is “The Design and Construction of House Dresses for the Mature Figure.”
To figure out what to change, researchers asked women what they wanted in an ideal house dress. Women over fifty responded that they looked for dresses that were suitable for shopping and entertaining friends as well as housework, even if that meant they were harder to clean. They wanted big, practical pockets close to the waist. A common complaint from older women was that the arms fit too tightly on most dresses, which made it hard to tackle household chores. However, they did not want to substitute sleeveless styles because “they preferred to cover the upper arm for the sake of appearance.”
The clever home economists came up with a proposed style with longer arms and a bias gusset (an inset cut on the diagonal) under the arm in order to ease movement. As far as I know, the idea never made it into wide scale production—I suspect because it would have cost a lot more than $2.98.