View Full Version : Properly fitting women's clothing?

NJ Sekela
10-14-2006, 06:27 AM

Being that I work in a company geared towards women's wear, I always think of and apply the same approach to historical apparel. Our modern day fits are very complex, and do require considerable adjustment. In looking at the ladies' fashions from "our" period, unless I am missing something, the only "fitted" part is the bodice.

I was wondering exactly WHAT are the major fitting problems that require that the majority of high quality reproduction clothing be custom made?

Maryanne Zilley of EJ Thomas has dedicated herself to creating the same availability for women's items that now exist for men's. That being said, I am very seriously thinking of producing some ladies items, based on documented originals, and establishing the sizing scale of petite, missy, woman and woman petite.

Any and all feedback would be greatly appreciated.

I am, &c

NJ Sekela,


10-14-2006, 05:42 PM

You're going to have a variety of ' off the rack' problems. You may have the means to overcome them.

Let me try to broadly address a few of them. Having participated in a number of pattern testing work shops, but being a mediocre seamstress myself, some of my language with be lacking.

(1) The bulk of the women in the hobby remain in the mainstream--which means they are either not wearing a corset, they are wearing a non-period corset that gives a non-period line, they are wearing a modern bra, or they are wearing a long line bra. None of these make for a period line, and if you fit to a period line, those folks are going to look all lumpy and bumpy in the garment. They are going to say your dresses don't fit--when the reality is, they haven't gone to the effort to have the proper understructure to fit the dress. This will cut out a large area of your market.

2. Within the area of bodice fit, you have not only the misses/petite/woman sizing differentials ( assuming all three sizes are properly corseted), you've also got the problem of how flesh lays above the corset line. Dresses often require pads above the bust, near the arm to give a proper line, and the fitting of this line then affects the lay of the neckline and the collar fitting.

Variety is pretty infinite here---Sister and I sew both modern and period clothes for ourselves, and in multiple time periods. Sister is great on the very few modern pattern adjustments needed for her build, and I'm virtually an off the rack modern petite pattern. In other time periods we have little trouble.

In 1860, we're always fussing with something. And 5 pounds makes a difference in 1860---when 40 pounds does not make a difference in 1740, and it takes 10 pounds to make a difference in 2006.

Additionally, there is a personal preference thing going here--the armsceye is pretty high and close in 1860. Personally, I can't cope--for my impression, which requires substantial lifting, I've got to have arm room---so for some folks, a good fit is impractical.

(3) Then there is the period hem problem. Finished, faced hems, with length adjusted from the waist at construction--not hemmed later on, as with modern clothing.

And, if you try to hem that 1860 skirt 'modern', it never quite lays right. Believe me, I'm short, and I've tried that lazy solution a number of times, when what I really need to do is refold the top and regauge the skirt.

Finally, the community is small enough that getting the variety in period fabric while still getting a market economy of scale may be difficult. Whether in 1860 or 2006, women still don't want to see themselves coming and going--specially if the other gal looks better in the dress.....

10-14-2006, 07:29 PM
Mrs. Lawson has hit on a great many of the big challenges to "ready-mades" for our era. I'll only add:

At this point in history, "ready-mades" for women's things are just getting started. It's quite possible to make a goodly portion of the undergear multi-size, multi-fit, but the huge variety in women's figures when wearing period undergarments really makes it a challenge to apply any standardized measuring chart. Some factors include:

The shape changes dependent on different styles of historic support garments. There's a great photo section on the Farthingale's site that shows the same woman wearing several different historic corset styles, all appropriate to the mid-century--and the different shapes they create for an average woman. Add in that same number of variations for each slender figure, and the wide range of variations in ample figures (and my husband has noted that there are a lot of generously proportioned women involved in living history)--well, you've got a LOT of variation in shaping, bust position (affecting dart length), waist lengths, armscye depths... things that can't readily be charted.


Mrs. Lawson mentioned the effect of corsets on the flesh above the bustline; some will need bust padding here to smooth the line for fashionable dresses, and others will not. The shape, depth, and position of bust pads isn't something one can anticipate; they must be customized to the individual.

Another factor, besides the armscye height and snugness, is shoulder slope and neckline shape/circumference. Grading patterns, particularly above a size 16, leads to some odd distortions of necklines for fat ladies. :) Not all fat ladies have big necks... and neckline shape and position is a readily noticable feature in period clothing. It can be easily adapted in custom sewing, but off-the-rack, it gets a bit iffy.

Too, there's the challenge of women who aren't petite, but need a size 26 at the bustline, a size 14 at the front chest width, a size 16 across the back chest, a size 12 neckline, has one high hip and one slightly forward shoulder... this is NOT a unique situation!

There are also skeletal issues that may not be easily accomodated by a standardized chart. While I used to see dowager's humps, rounded shoulders, and hollow chests only on aged Grandmothers of the Bride, it's not unusual to see girls of 16 with some pretty severe deformities due to modern "posture" standards. Now I see it on Grandma, Mom, and Daughter, and have to overcome those deformities with specialized fitting, adjusted padding, and lots of lectures on "how to stand up."

Then, too, there's the problem of letting lay-persons measure themselves. It's the rare woman these days who could actually LOCATE her own waist, let alone understand where her historic "waist" measurement should be taken, in order to use a standardized chart, regardless of whether she has sewn herself or not. It's even worse with some teenagers, who seem to believe that the button on their low-rise jeans actually indicates their "waist", rather than their pubic bone. Good measurement diagrams and written suggestions help, but it's far, far easier for the dressmaker to be able to take the measurements, rather than relying on the customer to size themselves. There's also the vanity factor--many women just cannot accept that according to a standardized size chart, they need to order a size 26--when they wear a "Perfect 14" in their favorite brand of modern shirts.

Though skirts are not "fitted", the length changes at the waistline allow accomodation of unique figure needs. Two women may be the exact same height from waist to ground, but the one with a full abdomen needs a wholly different set of length measurements for a balanced skirt when compared to the one with one high hip and a prominent backside. Their skirt balancing length numbers will also change depending on the planned understructure (cage versus petticoats alone, bustle-pad or not, etc), and the proposed use of the dress (active or dancing length versus everyday length).

Arm length and bicep fullness play into several styles of sleeve.

Having done both modern and period fitting, I'd definitely say a period fit is just as complex, if not more so, than modern clothing. The lack of wearing ease plays in largely here, too--getting modern women to feel comfortable and confident *without* five and six inches of wearing ease is something!

Here's a controversial thought: I don't actually think a "perfect" fit is needed for every single woman. For any woman of the upper working classes and above, fit becomes more important, but there are hundreds of images of women from the period who lack an ideal fashion fit. For the lower working classes and underclasses, "fit" takes a pretty wide back seat to "clothing nakedness in a semi-decent way." So, the lower one goes on the economic scale, the easier it might be to purchase totally off the rack (or, in the period, from second and third-hand dealers, and out of charity barrels). The higher the economic class, the more "perfection in fit" plays in. As with anything in this hobby, Who You Are and What You Do greatly influences What You Wear.

I DO think it would be *possible* to offer "semi-custom" dresses for in-person purchase. Bodices can be made up with a wide neckline allowance and longish waistline allowance, without closures worked; skirts could be made up with an extra-generous length, hems set, and the whole thing set aside with the bodice. The individual could then try on the bodice, have side seam adjustments, dart adjustments, shoulder slope adjustments, neckline shape, and waistline level marked, and skirt length measurements taken (all over period undergarments and skirt supports); the bodice is then taken off for finalizing the adjustments, binding neck and waist, closure attachments, and skirt balancing, pleating/gauging, and attachment (all of which can be done in about 4 hours by a reasonably competent person used to period techniques.)

Mrs. Lawson's note on fabric is an excellent one. There are only so many fabrics out just now, and a great need for a better variety of dress-weight wools, in my opinion. Getting the economy of scale to mesh with variety would be hard.

And, into this big morass, there's the price point. The amount of labor into an untrimmed, semi-customized "average" dress can range from 10 to 15 or more hours, if period constructions methods are used. Someone who works very quickly may be able to do it in less time. But, getting the customer to pay for that many hours of skilled labor is difficult, which is why a great many people do their hobby sewing for themselves... they don't usually keep track of how long they're taking, only that they're spending $30 on a dress instead of $300.

The market is a big one, and I doubt one or two quality ready-made lines will put the custom dressmakers out of business at all. :) Several of the best custom dressmakers do offer semi-custom and off-the-rack options to good success, so it's surely not impossible to accomplish.

10-14-2006, 08:32 PM
Hmmmm--that class distinction is along the lines of what I'd just started working up with the free time I have right now, along with scads of material since I'm cleaning out the attic.

The concept of a generic loaner dress that does not look like it crawled out of the Goodwill/Salvation Army store.

Much easier to do for the lower/working classes, under the concept of 'poor folks, used clothing'.

It won't really quite fit the market Nick is going for, since that market really wants to look a little nicer than say, me out slopping the hawgs.

But, I'm about to run up several sacque and petticoats in a range of sizes, either lenthening the Altman/Past Pattern version or using the Heidi Marsh--so the sacque can be belted in or worn loose, and making the petticoat a catch as can length that can be remedied with a corded petticoat/modest cage on a short gal, or allowed to be a working length on a tall one.

And likely make it with those button on half-sleeves just to accomodate hard work and the heat of most of our Deep South reenacting season.

For those that followed the discussions around my 'haystack' or smuggling outfit---at the time I was also thinking of a generic cold weather maternity outfit to be available within our organization. I was a bit too chintzy with the fabric, and got the skirt too short for anyone over 5' 4".

But, back to Nick---yep, there is a market. How you are going to fit to it, I haven't a clue.

When you do it, be sure to put detachable white collar and cuffs in the package though--it will make a world of difference in the look and the authenticity.

10-14-2006, 09:48 PM
(1) The bulk of the women in the hobby remain in the mainstream--which means they are either not wearing a corset, they are wearing a non-period corset that gives a non-period line, they are wearing a modern bra, or they are wearing a long line bra. .

Just an FYI - not all mainstream ladies are corsetless. The majority, maybe.

10-14-2006, 10:55 PM
You're right--bad wording on my part. Of the some 20 women in the mainstream unit that I still pay dues to in order to get the mail, there are two who wear a proper period corset. I'm one of them.

And that's about the ratio I see throughout the mainstream, with the proportion of corset wearers slightly higher in the Mid-Atlantic (Penn.-Virginia) where the mainstream hobby attracts a bit more monied crowd than it does in the Deep South.

I'm so sorry the logistics were such that you missed Perryville--I do hope to meet you at some other time.

10-15-2006, 04:14 AM
Perhaps you could tend your needle not towards dresses but to other ladies items that are not so finiky to fit. I'm thinking of mantles, shawls, coats, bonnets, underpinnings and things like that. They are all things a lady needs, but they are not always the easiest to buy ready made in good constuction and quality.

NJ Sekela
10-15-2006, 05:06 PM

Coats, capes and Mantuas can be made at any time. Ironically, fabric is the least consideration, being that I work a block and a half from the garment district in New York. Whatever is available can be had there.

Some of the things that Mrs. Clark describes relates to the highest end of custom work, such as shoulder slope. ONE POSSIBLITY is another Gerber patternmaking software package that I own, called MADE TO MEASURE, which is taking a customer's measurements and creating a digital custom pattern. Again, measurements are critical.

From what I could see from the links you forwarded me, the silhouette minimizes the bust, which I would think would make it easier. Would it be logical that a person could corset herself to a smaller size?

Woman sizes are NEVER easy, and things can go wildly off course pretty quickly. Unlike missy sizing, you can't grade too far up, because of the distortion, such as the neckline which you mention, or the armhole. Oftentimes, you will see an armhole grow so that it is almost to the center of the bust.

I was thinking of some standard size 10-12 missy dresses. As with the men, pricing is the issue, and that is where the challenge comes in.

I expect that there will be a learning curve of sorts, and some adjustments to be made along the way. It is fun project, and I am very interested in seeing how it comes along, and would covet your feedback.

Thank you sincerely,

I am, ladies,

Yr, most humble and obed't Sev't.

NJ Sekela,
Cutter & Mf'r.
N.Jrs'y. & N'Yrk.


10-15-2006, 10:21 PM
Actually, as the corset photo series doesn't show the lady's figure in a modern bra, there's no real way to tell whether it's boosting her or minimizing her. Either way, she's a fairly slight figure--not over a full B cup, I'd say. Women in the hobby will range from a AA to a G or larger, and there are corset styles that work with all of that range. With the larger bust sizes, corsets don't necessarily minimize the bust, but do shape and lift it differently than most modern bras will.

Corsets can be laced to compress the figure, though tight-lacing is not a normal feature of this era. A large, soft-fleshed woman can compress her figure more readily than a very thin woman, and so she might, indeed corset down a waist size or two--but the bust will usually either not get smaller, or actually will increase, so you end up with an even greater bust-waist ratio.

I think the best way to test the software would be to enlist multiple women who own and use period undergarments, take the measures over the undergarments, and see how well the computer drafts fit. I'm sure the program could be trained to shift shoulder, armscye, and side seamlines to their period positions, and swing all dart control to the side seam and waist/bust darts. But, as with made-to-measure non-computerized sewing, the whole thing depends on the accuracy of the measurements taken in the first place, and you could count on having just as many variations of any one bodice shape as there are women. I'm sure you've seen it first hand: three women, all a size 12/14, but all with very different figure needs... it's just the same in the period, only they won't admit they're not a size 3. :)

I'll look forward to updates on this project--fascinating thing to attempt!

10-16-2006, 08:46 AM
One other thought: many people in the 10/12 misses range will be teens, and their clothing styles, lengths, and fit are a whole 'nother ballgame from adult women's things.

10-16-2006, 10:54 PM
I'm sure you've seen it first hand: three women, all a size 12/14, but all with very different figure needs... it's just the same in the period, only they won't admit they're not a size 3. :)

The hobby does seem to have an inordinate purportion of 'admirable' women--those who fit the mid-19th century figure ideal of being plump. For those that do attempt to tight lace in order to fit into a particular dress--besides being uncomfortable, it does nasty things to the corset-sometimes 'flipping' out the hip gussets, and accentuating a gap problem around the 'dog leg' closure of the dress.

For some, the bust is somewhat compressed by the corset--though a better word would be 'moved'--the soft flesh tends to head towards the underarms.

I'd noted on another site that Nick has wrappers in process---somewhat more forgiving in fit, and an item that is often overlooked.

As you develope all these garments--look to putting at least one pocket in the skirt seam on all but the sheer dresses--a fairly deep one, and supported if necessary. While not ubiquitious in orginals, they are not uncommon---and are an extraordinarly nice feature.

I make mine deeper than most would think--about a foot. That would be too deep for most tastes----but then, with that deep a pocket, I KNOW where the car keys are.

Mint Julep
10-16-2006, 11:09 PM
I have enjoyed reading this thread immensely, for a variety of reasons, but have chosen to post to make a point about corsets ...

The ladies may be surprised at the number of men that can and do spot corset lines and judge a woman's authenticity by it. We appreciate them. Some more than others!! :cool:


10-17-2006, 12:19 AM
See Joe,

You're one of the few fellers who has actually done some research on what a red-blooded 1860 man would have known about what women wore.

Its also a fine illustration that the difference in fit can be easily discerned.