Half Sizes, Part 3–The Martha Manning Brand

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Although I don’t yet know when or how half sizes were invented, by the 1940s there were a number of clothing lines devoted to the older, shorter, wider woman. One of the best known was Martha Manning, a clothing company based in St. Louis. That their target groups was older women is clear from the language of their ads. “Martha Manning designs women’s dresses with a flattering air…Creates a youthful YOU.”

The company began in 1939, so this photo documents its early steps into department stores. I’m assuming that the women standing, mainly in lighter colors, are models. Those sitting, wearing dark colors, are the potential customers. You can see how the designers used tried-and-true methods for slimming down the figure—color blocking, vertical lines, drapey fabric, soft folds. The company also made some dresses in regular sizes, shown by the few young models on the right.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the garment industry in St. Louis was mainly associated with youthful fashion. However, as the New York Times fashion writer Virginia Pope pointed out, the city’s manufacturers excelled in many types of specialty sizes, including junior, tall, petite, and half sizes. She notes that Martha Manning was part of a large operation called Forest City Manufacturing that also made the junior brand Doris Dodson and the sportswear brand Glen Echo. (“Accent on Youth in St. Louis Togs,” New York Times, March 17, 1951.)

Vogue, September 1, 1958

Vogue, September 1, 1958

Martha Manning was not a budget brand. It advertised extensively in Vogue, beginning in 1941 and ending in 1965. Vogue editors returned the love, mentioning the brand fairly often in fashion layouts. Moreover, stylist to the older woman, Mrs. Exeter, endorsed Martha Manning styles four times in the 1950s. Here’s one 1958 example: “A secret that Mrs. E. discovered years ago: a soft coloured (violet’s the news here) jersey dress cut in two easy parts is one of a woman’s best friends in fashion. This, by Martha Manning, in Alamac’s Thalspun jersey of Orlon-and-wool; $25. Half sizes.”

If I’m not mistaken, the model playing Mrs. Exeter in the photo above is the globe trotting Mary Whelchel.

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5 Responses to Half Sizes, Part 3–The Martha Manning Brand

  1. Good lord, that’s exactly how my grandmothers used to dress! I wish some designers would bring back this proportion, though. With the exception of Eileen Fisher, it seem like all of the clothes made now are either Misses or Plus, and neither of those fits work on many middle-aged bodies.

  2. Susan says:

    That photo of the half-sizes fashion show is great! It really shows an assortment of typical half-size figures. The print fabric on the dress worn by the slender woman standing next to the model stand looks the same as the slightly different style in the group of stouter women at left. (Frankly, I think the style on the thinner woman would be more flattering to the one on the left.) But it shows that Martha Manning was trying to fill the needs of the woman who liked the fabric but had to ask, “Do you have this in any other sizes?” The half-size story = Great series!

  3. I love how the Saint Louis manufacturers carved out their own odd sized niche.

  4. Jen O says:

    It’s interesting to see here that half-size customers were a clear design niche by 1940 with custom silhouettes to enhance their figure types. Ten years later, Gloria Swanson’s “Forever Young” for Puritan continued this custom design trend, along with other regional labels such as House of Shroyer in Pennsylvania. It seems that our current apparel industry has merged that defined niche into general ‘large sizes’ that appear more youthful in style, something that is clearly not always what an adult customer is looking for. This makes me want to know more about who besides Eileen Fisher is serving this huge customer base today with figure sensitive designs: Land’s End? Talbots? Chicos?

    • Lynn says:

      Well, there’s always Chico’s, which aims at the older woman. The thing about half sizes is that they were a different proportion from average sizes, with a shorter wider waist, usually narrower shoulders, and sometimes a broader back. I don’t think any of the “plus” sizes today are specifically aimed at the changes that take place in women’s bodies as they age.

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