Do you ever wonder how people came up with the idea of sizing clothes? The creation of sizes allowed for the mass production of ready-to-wear garments. It was not created at a meeting of industry professionals, but evolved over time. Great leaps in sizing occurred because of war - somebody had to quickly and efficiently outfit an army.
Winifred Aldrich traces the development of sizes and ready to wear in her article History of Sizing and Ready-to-Wear Garments found in the Sizing in Clothingbook*. Aldrich is a British pattern maker, designer, and researcher. I own two of her pattern drafting manuals and consider them among the best drafting manuals available (link in the sidebar to the left for the children's drafting manual). She knows her stuff, and she presents it well.
The understanding of body proportions began slowly with tailors producing clothing for men. They used strips of paper to measure the body and transfer the measurements to cloth. In time tailors devised tape measures and drafting systems. A size was not the beginning of the drafting job, rather the completed garment represented the size of the customer. As the industrial revolution progressed, tailors began to teach and sell their drafting systems. This included some already drafted patterns, sometimes in more than one size.
The concept was revolutionary and men began to be able to purchase their clothing ready made. Women, on the other hand, still had most of their clothing custom made into the early 20th century. There were attempts at creating patterns for women with sizing, but it still required customization. There was a lack of knowledge of women's body measurements most likely because of the Victorian ideals of the time.
It is important to understand that our understanding of body measurements and proportions were not formalized until the 1940's. Ruth O'Brien, an employee of the U.S. Department of Home Economics and the Department of Agriculture, was commissioned to conduct a body measurement study of the American population. The purpose was to create a set of size standards based on reliable data that the apparel industry could use. The work involved in this study was enormous and revolutionary. O'Brien and her department created a measurement procedure that is still in existence today (only to be superceded by 3D body scanning). The data from these studies have been study and analyzed around the world.
To put this in perspective, it wasn't until the 1940s that we could finally see and understand human proportions with any clarity. It's easy to pan this early work as outdated and wrong but the 1940's was not that long ago. We still have so much to learn and understand.
A fun little factoid. Grading using the shifting or slide method, a common method still used today, can be traced back to 1908.
Aldrich's article goes into much more depth about the history of sizing. She includes pictures of early patterns and sizing systems. It is well worth a read if you can get a copy of it. This article is a combination and expansion of two previously written articles found in the journal Textile History.
*As I review individual articles from the Sizing in clothing book, I will not give a detailed discussion of each article. Rather, I will summarize and highlight a few key points along with my own thoughts on the subject.