In the era of the pencil slim, boyish flapper, plus size clothing gained a real foothold in the American clothing market. Perhaps this isn’t as much of a paradox as it seems at first glance; larger women who wanted to follow current the styles as much as possible needed special cuts and undergarments. According to Paul Nystrom’s fascinating 1928 book, The Economics of Fashion, (you can find it online here), interest in plus sizes (called stout sizes then) exploded in the 1920s. He estimates that 32% of women clothes were made in “stout” sizes.
Not only that, but Nystrom identified five different stout cuts. The regular stout was an extension of standard sizing proportions, but bigger. The long and short stouts were meant for women who were on average about three inches taller or shorter than the norm. The last two stout categories are particularly intriguing. The “stylish stout” had a bigger bust, longer waist, and smaller hips than average. The “stubby stout” had a smaller bust and bigger hips.
Before we envy the 1920s shopper, we need to ask if these size ranges were consistent. A short search through newspaper ads and articles shows that they were not. One New York Times article, “Catering to the Stout Trade” (8/13/1922) defined the terms differently. This author called the “stylish stout” a “narrow-waisted, well-corseted woman found chiefly in the large cities.” The “stubby stout” was simply used for short women.
To make matters even more confusing, most ads didn’t differentiate between stout sizes at all. Instead, they used the most attractive label—stylish stout—and applied to any and every large sized garment. It was even a brand name.
My grandma, slightly plump but I wouldn’t say “stout”, always wore a firmly boned corset, all day, every day. She was a hard-working, very active farm woman and I would think such a corset would be extremely uncomfortable but she never complained, to me at least. The corset-wearing was because of surgery, I was told.
There used to be a store in Denver called “Catherine’s Stout Shop,” an unfortunate name for sure. Now it is just called “Catherine’s.”
As tiny as most of the vintage patterns are from that era, I’m not surprised that a third of the women were considered “stout.” I have patterns from the 20s where the sizes 12, 14, 16 etc. correspond to “12 years” “14 years” and then change to measurements at 20.
Right now I’m making up a version of the ’39 Claire McCardell “Nada” dress, which gathers and the neckline and is loosely secured by waist straps. No wonder they were so popular!
I meant “gathers at the neckline”…and I can’t blame my typo on autocorrect!
The idea of wearing “age 16” or “age 18” does seem bizarre, but in the 1910s and 1920s these sizes were often listed as “15 to 20 and small women.” They were shorter than the patterns sold by bust measurement. Butterick patterns from the 1920s often ranged up to a 44″ bust and 47.5″ hip. Some patterns were available up to bust 52,” but the short stout woman was out of luck, or into a lot of pattern alterations! Lane Bryant found a niche and filled it. (Two niches; first, maternity clothes and then “stout” styles.)
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