Before the American Civil War (circa 1860), most clothing was made by tailors or by individuals or their family members at home. Ready-made or ready-to-wear apparel existed, but its variety was limited. Mainly coats and jackets (known as outerwear) and undergarments were purchased using predetermined sizes.
Mass Production & Sizing
The Civil War was a pivotal event in the historical development of men's ready-made clothing. At the outset of the Civil War, most uniforms were custom-made in workers' homes under government contract. As the war continued, however, manufacturers started to build factories that could quickly and efficiently meet the growing demands of the military. Mass production of uniforms necessitated the development of standard sizes. Measurements taken of the soldiers revealed that certain sets of measurements tended to recur with predictable regularity. After the war, these military measurements were used to create the first commercial sizing scales for men.
The mass production of women's clothing developed more slowly. Women's outfits generally continued to be custom-made well into the 1920s. In that decade, factors such as the development of industrial production techniques, the rise of the advertising industry, the growth of an urban professional class, and the development of national markets accessed through chain stores and mail order catalogs, contributed to the success of the women's ready-made apparel industry. Ready-made articles of clothing were portrayed as modern and fashionable during a time when the new consumer industries were rapidly redefining the way Americans viewed mass-manufactured goods. Instead of seeing the purchase of mass-produced clothing as entailing a loss of individuality, American women began to accept the pieces of ready-made merchandise as convenient, affordable, and up-to-date fashion items that could be replaced easily as styles changed.
However, the new ready-made clothing often fit poorly. Each manufacturer created its own unique and sometimes arbitrary sizing system based on inaccurate body data or no body data at all. Garments of widely different dimensions were frequently labeled the same size by different manufacturers. This situation resulted in additional costs for alterations and large volumes of returned merchandise. This, in turn, increased costs for the consumer of ready-to-wear clothing.
Standardization of Sizes
In 1937, the U.S. Department of Agriculture prepared to conduct a study of women's body measurements for the purpose of creating a sizing system which the entire industry could follow. During 1939 and 1940, about 15,000 American women participated in a national survey conducted by the National Bureau of Home Economics of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was the first large-scale scientific study of women's body measurements ever recorded. A technician took 59 measurements of each volunteer, who was dressed only in underwear. Volunteers were paid a small fee for participating. The results of the study were published in 1941 in USDA Miscellaneous Publication 454, Women's Measurements for Garment and Pattern Construction. The purpose of the survey was to discover key measurements of the female body - that is the important measurements from which other measurements could best be predicted - and then to propose a sizing system based on this discovery.
In the mid-1940s, the Mail-Order Association of America, a trade group representing catalog businesses such as Sears Roebuck and Spiegel, asked the Commodity Standards Division of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS, now NIST )to conduct research to provide a reliable basis for industry sizing standards. NBS agreed, and punch cards holding the USDA survey results were transferred to NBS at its request for reanalysis. (While the women's apparel sizing standard is the focus of this exhibit, NBS also reanalyzed USDA data for teenage girls and children, resulting in other standards.) The USDA data was augmented by data received from the Research and Development Branch of the Army Quartermasters Corps during World War II when measurements were taken of 6,510 WAC personnel.