The big American catalog companies that started in the late nineteenth century—1872 for Montgomery Ward and 1888 for Sears—fueled the American ready to wear industry. In order to supply clothing to far flung parts of the United States without easy access to goods, they used standardized sizing systems to fit a wide range of customers.
But what about those who didn’t fit the standard sizes? That was one of the questions I had when I began looking through a full collection of Montgomery Ward catalogs housed at the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming. In the very first catalog I opened, I was intrigued to discover that the company offered made to measure clothing for women and men. “All garments will be made according to measurements sent to us, and positively cannot be returned or exchanged unless we are at fault,” the catalog copy read. “Alterations will be made at a reasonable charge.” Included in the catalog were detailed instructions on how to measure, with the offer of a free measuring tape.
Prices were high compared to other offerings. Model X2508 on the left above, with a bodice of shirred silk, cost $14.50. At the same time you could buy a ready made linen suit for $4.99. And if you wanted your custom outfit in a bust size above 46 inches (42 was the largest standard measurement), you had to pay extra.
There were only two pages of made to measure offerings this 1900 catalog. That was just a small fraction of the considerable offerings for women, including shirtwaists, skirts, suits, cloaks, and coats. Clearly custom clothing was not a large part of the company’s business—but I’m amazed they offered the service at all.