Monday, August 1, 2011

Strawbery Banke's 1930s swimsuit - an exercise in vanity sizing

With the heat blazing on the seacoast, our readers have likely been heading to the beach to celebrate the summer! In keeping with our favorite summer traditions, we at Strawbery Banke have brought our classic early swimsuit out of storage to share with you. This one-piece suit from the glamorous 1930s features a low v-back, button closure and a tie belt, with a short skirt hiding the leg openings. Although early swimwear was often made from heavy worsted wool, this example makes use of an early lightweight synthetic fabric - much more like one expects of a modern swimsuit! Although much more modest than today's swimwear, this suit has a playful charm and printed design that still has the appeal of a cute and flirty sundress.

What puzzled us about the suit was that it was recorded as being a "size 40", but measures 28" in the waist and 34" across the bust, with stretch factor allowing for a somewhat larger size. Even accounting for the stretch, this is not what we would now expect from something labeled "size 40", so we needed to do some research about clothing sizes in the past.
As it turns out, vanity sizing has come a long way in pinning smaller numbers on clothing of the same literal size. According to Alaina Zulli of, sizing in the 1930s was just as complicated, if not more so, than today. In the 1920s, Zulli explains, women's clothing was divided into misses' and ladies' (or women's), and sometimes juniors (for teenagers). Misses were generally sized by age, called "14 years", "16 years", etc., and were based on a generalized notion of the dimensions that the average young woman would have. Women's sizes were based on the bust measurement, and numbered accordingly; but in a confusing conflict of manufacturers, some smaller bust measurements were also labeled as "misses". (For example, a "32 misses" would not be intended specifically for a 32-year-old woman, but for a woman with a 32" bust, and was therefore the same as a size 32 women's.)

An advertisement for swimwear in the 1930s, showing the fashionable silhouette of the suits when worn. Note the different sizes for women's and junior misses' suits.

By the 1930s, vanity sizing started to affect misses sizes. Alaina Zulli points out that advertisements stopped using the basis of age for misses' sizing, allowing for smaller size numbers to be added in the future, while the nominal size (14, for example) would become literally larger. The advertisement above includes a swimsuit for "junior misses", intended for teenagers and slender women. Notice that a misses size 16 is intended for a 34" bust, which equates to a modern junior size 5, or women's sizes 2-6.
While misses sizes experienced some changes, women's sizes in the 1930s remained generally the same as before, being measured by the bust size. The advertisement above sold suits for bust measurements of up to 40 or 42".

In the 1930s, the most common women's sizes ran from 32-44" bust. Today these sizes equate evenly to misses sizes 2-20. Alaina Zulli attributes the beginning of vanity sizing to the fact that if a misses size 14 was equal to a woman's size 32, as was the case in the 1930s, women would much rather buy the size 14. By the 1940s, she says, "women's" became less common, and the nominal sizes of misses clothing became literally larger over time. Sizing was re-defined on a scale that made a size 14 for a 32" bust, size 16 for a 34" bust, and so on. However, manufacturers knew that women would want to feel smaller, and over time pushed each size number up to a larger measurement, changing 14 to a 34" bust, then 35", and so on, until now equating to 39". This of course made it necessary to introduce smaller size numbers so that the 32"-busted woman would have something to wear - thus as vanity sizing continued to work companies introduced the size 8, then size 6, 4, 2, and most recently 0.

With all of this in mind, the best explanation for Strawbery Banke's swimsuit is that it was intended for a 40" bust measurement, and the fabric has more stretch factor than we had accounted for! Otherwise, the manufacturer's sizes may have run small, which was as much a problem in the 1930s as it is today. In any case, we may say for certain that if you are a woman who has had trouble finding the perfect size, you are not alone - women over generations have had the same experience since ready-to-wear clothing became popular!

ModCloth sells a 1930s-inspired swimsuit, but with the characteristic waist belt placed somewhat lower in keeping with modern trends. One other difference - this suit only comes in the four standard sizes of small, medium, large, and extra-large!

To read more about vanity sizing over the course of the 20th century, see this website from Alaina Zulli:

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