Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Before size 0

The V&A is just about to republish a delightful little book called How To Dress For Success by the Hollywood costume designer Edith Head. First published in 1967, Head meant it to be a manual for ordinary American women, both housewives and 'career girls'. It is a riveting period piece but what I noticed was the chapter in which she adviseds women on how to dress according to their size. The smallest sizes she cites are US 6, 8 and 10. There is no 4, 2 or 0. This tallies with my recollection of Britain in the 60s when only teeny, birdlike girls could fit into an 8 and most of were 12 or 14, or 10 if you were small. No-one I knew had an eating disorder (lack of central heating in most homes made eating salad in winter inadvisable). No-one was on a diet. . No-one ate fast food or ready meals. No-one was overweight. We now seem to be striving for mythical sizes. It's all in our heads.


phyllis said...

This is my kinda book…now we know that Edna Mode in the Disney film “The Incredibles” was based on Edith Head, yes?

Deja Pseu said...

Vanity sizing aside, I distinctly remember the shift in the 60's (Twiggy was a symptom, not a cause) with regard to size, and what size women were "allowed" to be. It wasn't good enough anymore to just be a normal, healthy weight, we were all supposed to aspire to be skinny. Hence the upsurge in dieting, eating disorders and overweight (often the body's response to repeated dieting).

Kim Chernin's book The Obsession has a fascinating analysis of this, linking the downward shift in desirable sizes for women with the growing feminist movement, and reflecting our unease with the image of powerful women. It's a fascinating read.

lagatta à montréal où il fait très froid said...

Indeed, if I look back at old photos people were a range of sizes but there was neither the obsessing about dieting one sees now or all the severely overweight people under 30.

Of course we didn't have the lingering effects of food rationing you had in Britain in the postwar years, but there just wasn't fast-food everywhere.

Now I see pubescent pre-teens with great bellies or thunder thighs, but also little girls talking about diets and being "fat", and girls and women whose body type I'd recognise as mine, obviously starved so as not to have any hips - among teens, but also women my age (Madonna...).

True, size 0 and 2 are vanity sizes, but there is a growing dissassociation between what women (and now, young men) are supposed to look like and the increasingly pudgy reality.

(Though I'm NOT doing healthy exercise outdoors today - it is -27c in Montréal - Canadian Prairie or Siberian conditions. Being a shameful mouse-potato in home office).

mq, cb said...

Tatjana Patitz points out in her interview in today's G2 that when she was one of the "supermodels" in the early 90's, she was expected to be a size 8 or 10. Astonishing in itself when you consider how tall she is. But then really models are genetic freaks. I recall that she looked quite healthy (in that she had boobs and a bum) at a size 10. Most women her height would not.

Jade Wombat said...

My mother wore an American size 12 almost all her life. When she was in her 20s, her measurements were 34-24-34. Now that she's 90, she still wears a size 12 jacket, but the clothing is much larger. My size 6 daughter had to really pull her tummy in to fit in one of Mom's old prom dresses!

Nancy (nanflan) said...

Food portions were also a lot smaller. In addition a lot of people walked or took public transport vs. driving everywhere.

As Jade Wombat said, a 12 back then was probably the equivalent to a 4 or 6 in today's sizes.

In spite of all the anorexia fears, I'm very concerned with all the kids and adolescents who are morbidly obese. It seems that there can be no normal anymore, just the 2 extremes.

Ethics Girl said...

Just a reminder, lagatta a montreal: not every size 0 and 2 is a vanity size. I'm 5 ft 2, US size 2 top half and size 0 bottom half. I know I'm skinny (*runty" is my other half's term) but so were both my parents. I don't diet and have a propensity to lose weight when stressed. Friends have a tendency to be envious, without thinking of the years and years I went through wearing sacks when I was too poor to have clothes altered, and before sizing moved down a bit. Thank God for Talbots is all I can say.

Alterations Needed said...

Actually, Ethics Girl, US size 2 & 0 (and 00 for that matter) are products of vanity sizing. None of those sizes existed until fashion retailers began changing the tags on size US6 clothing to US4 or even US2 to encourage size obsessed women to shop in their stores. So, if a US6 now fits like a US8 or 10...where do all those women who are naturally (and healthily!) petite or thin go for clothing? Well, the answer to that problem was size US2 ...0 ...00 ... and so forth.

It's a shame because most women don't even know their size anymore (most women's closets vary across 2-4 sizes), making shopping difficult, and some petite adult women find themselves sized out and forced to shop the children's departments.

Ethics Girl said...

Point taken, Alterations. And it's true about children's clothes, which are often cheaper anyway - but look a bit weird at work, when you're over 40, or have a bust.

phyllis said...

There has been a lot of discussion on sewing forums about vanity sizing. It’s not just as simple as “switching tags”, what has really happened is that slopers (a basic shell garment used as the base for design and pattern grading) have been sized up by manufacturers to accommodate bigger bodies. Some body measurements have remained stable in the past 20 years (back waist length for example) while others have drastically increased (bust waist hips) for just this reason.

tiffany said...

I just know that when I lived in the UK in the 80s, I was a size 8 (and considered tiny). I've put on maybe 3kg since then, but when I was in the US a couple of years ago, I was buying 0s and 2s. Absurd. Sizes like 0 and 00 belong on baby clothes!

Miriam said...

My clothes in the UK veer from an 8 to a 10 to a 12 to a 14, all in the same day, depending which shop I go to and the style of clothing.

When I vintage shop, I can almost guess which size I'll be based on the decade the clothes come from, regardless of the manufacturer.

So yes, sizes have changed but I'm not convinced that it's entirely to do with vanity sizing. It seems to have more to do with the age group and socioeconomic group the shop attracts.

Women my age and about a decade younger than me are clued up on which shops have smaller sizes, and are aware that there's a difference between a Topshop 10 and a New Look 10.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Deja, that sounds a fascinating book and a thesis that really chimes.
Lagatta, restez chaud! How do you say "Wrap up warm" in French?

lagatta à montréal said...

Ethics, I'm glad others explained what is meant by "vanity sizing"; it doesn't mean women who take small sizes are vain, and I'd never slag anyone over their size, whether small or large.

Emmitouflez-vous! Restez bien au chaud! And a good proverb with that word to go with my webname: Jamais chat emmitouflé ne prit souris.

But I may go out and have my hair cut and coloured this afternoon (coiffeur isn't far) so as to feel somewhat pretty, which is after all the point of Linda's blog! It is easy to look like a shapeless blob in this type of weather, whatever one's size.

I am listening to the news on CBC about every passenger and crew member being rescued from that plane in the frigid Hudson waters - Nice to get a spot of good news!

I'm looking forward to the Edith Head book; Iove ink line drawings and the prose sounds wonderful, and such an expression of the spirit of the time.

Arabella said...

I'll certainly buy the book.
My idea of visual entertainment: the opening film credits roll and there it is - "Gowns by Edith Head". Grace Kelly's beach ensemble in 'To Catch a Thief' and the overnight bag revelation in 'Rear Window' - inspired.

adele said...

,,,,and all through my childhood and youth I never once encountered anyone with a nut allergy. The term was quite unknown to me till a few years back. where did all that come from?

Ona said...

I think US sizing has shifted. I'm a UK 12 sometimes 10 in a more generous cut. However if I buy American clothes I usually need a US 10 and only ccasionally a US 8. Examples - a dress by Theory bought here in London where US 8 was too tight in the bodice and a DVF wrap dress where US 8 was too tight on the hips. However Banana Republic here seems to run tru to size - so is it just the designer end of US clothing?

Duchesse said...

Lagatta, prenez votre petite laine!

My mother's friends fretted continually about their weight, but the difference is, most were ample women trying to reduce from say, a size 14 to a 12- they were not trying to have toothpick thighs, or wear skintight jeans. Their goal would still put them at what's considered voluptuous for today's thin-obsessed aesthetic.

Anonymous said...

Sizes go down all the time. Unable to resist adding some basics to my wardrobe I bought size 6 online at Jcrew on final sale. Ten pounds and a year ago JCrew size 6 was a little big. Every piece in the box was far too large, and is currently at the tailor. At 5'8 and pushing 150lbs there is no reason I should have ordered size 4 which most likely would have fit brilliantly.
The only reason I am not sulking about the tailor bill is that I picked up eight solid pieces for about $200 - it was a great sale.

phyllis said...

People assume there is a consistent size standard that all clothing labels adhere to, but this is not the case. In the US there is a published government standard for women's measurements, but it's not required that every company use it. So each clothing label drafts their own sloper based on their market and end user. This is why there is no consistency from one clothing label to the next. It’s a marketing decision. The pattern companies (Vogue, McCalls, Simplicity, Butterick, Burda, Hotpatterns and all the independents) do the same thing.

Anonymous said...

I wear a size 2 to 6 in jackets. A relative's 70s-era Perry Ellis jacket was unearthed and I tried it on. It fit me beautifully.

Size 12.

Anonymous said...

phyllis (third comment):

An older fashion design student(he's sewn since he was 12 and sewn in a factory, among other experience), told me last year that women shouldn't expect to wear the same size across garments and lines -- they should find the size that fits them.

Of course, as a gay guy, he doesn't quite grasp how freaked out women get if they have to jump two sizes to fit into something.

Anonymous said...

ethics girl:

"not every size 0 and 2 is a vanity size. I'm 5 ft 2, US size 2 top half and size 0 bottom half."

I think the truth is somewhere in between. I'm also 5' 2" or 5' 1" (afraid to see if I've shrunk) and usually wear a 0 to 2 top and a larger bottom (pear shaped -- dammit.)

My weight usually is between 100 and 103.5. Although more weight has shifted to my bottom half as I've entered late middle age, I still don't have a very big torso, even though I've filled out a bit and done a little weight training. I have an embarrassingly small bust.

Nonetheless, there are some tops and dresses that I can't squeeze into -- it's as if they were cut for 14-year-old girls.

Another thing I noticed a while back: Suddenly, the size 5 shoes I used to buy were too big and I usually needed a 4 1/2. People's feet don't shrink, so I have to put that down to vanity sizing.

But yes, there definitely are small and petite people out there and it's just as frustrating as being an unusual large size. Unfortunately, the golden age of widely available petite sizes seems to be over.

K.D. said...

Yes, where do you find the 0 and 00 sizes now? And it seems that in the States most manufacturers run large. When I try on the smallest sizes at the Gap I look like a four-year-old playing dress-up.

I'm also tired of seeing all the Empire-waisted dresses and tops. It's getting harder and harder to find clothes that recognize the fact that one has a waistline. And I do think most women do, as much as our weight-obsessed culture might suggest otherwise. I've got Ethics Girl's problem - I have a hard time gaining weight but an easy time losing it. What's strange is the resentment I've often come across from other women and girls. I don't think I've led a charmed life simply because I'm a size 0. (I made a lovely dress pattern from 1959 - I was a misses' size 12 then!)

Anonymous said...

I am 21 and a US size 00/0, UK 4/6. I have an old M&S skirt of my mother's, size 10, which I struggle to zip up. I cannot get into the size 8-10 jeans she wore when she was my age. Yet I can't buy anything from gap as their size 0 hangs off me. The whole size zero thing is entirely a product of vanity sizing.

My parents are both normal sized now -my mum is small boned and a size 8-10, my dad a medium-large. When they were my age, both were skinny and fit without crash dieting or weird GI related fads. I seriously worry about how fat and unhealthy my generation will be in twenty years time.

Anonymous said...

"I'm also tired of seeing all the Empire-waisted dresses and tops. It's getting harder and harder to find clothes that recognize the fact that one has a waistline. And I do think most women do, as much as our weight-obsessed culture might suggest otherwise."

Not me. The empire waist is a boon to triangle-shaped women and most women have that shape.

Most women have waists, but they also have butts and hips that are not shown to best advantage by other styles.