Friday, March 25, 2011

Clothes for the Plus-Size Woman - back then ....

"But now as she stood before the stunning creations hanging in the wardrobe she found herself face to face with a new kind of beauty - an artificial one created by the hand of man the artist, but aimed directly and cunningly at the heart of woman.  In that very instant she fell victim to the artist:  at that moment there was born within her the craving to possess such a garment - a Dior dress."    .... Paul Gallico, "Floeers for Mrs Harris" 1958.

I recall seeing the film, "Mrs Harrison Goes to Paris", starring Angela Lansbury.  This film was based on Paul Gallico's book Flowers for Mrs Harris.   In the above excerpt is really the basis of the story, and a wonderfully happy little film this is.

Each time however I read the above paragraph it reminds me of something quite incredible.  Fashion in the early 50s through to the 60s was undergoing radical change.  The Fashion Houses of Dior, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Monyneaux, Hartnell were designing creations that were fluid art, soft, feminine and flattering.  And everywhere, including the rag-trade of good old Melbourne town, took these designs to their heart, and recreated them (with appropriate subtle changes, of course!) into affordable fashion for the everyday woman.  Yes, they were a little more expensive than one bought from Forges of Footscray or Dimmeys of Richmond, but for a special occasion, the extra cost was well worth the effort.   Why, one could even wear such a garment time and time and time again, and no-one ever made comment about the fact that perhaps you had only one such gown in your wardrobe suitable for those special occasions.  The reason of course was that everyone else was in the same situation.

But what is even more incredible is that the majority of this affordable fashion was available in a comprehensive size range.  OK, so there was XSSW (the very petite and tiny woman) through to SSW, SW, W (which was the benchmark for the size of the average or typical woman - as far as the purchaser was concerned, anyway!).  Then came XW, XXW, and XXXW.  Sizes then progressed to XXXXW and the five X's.   I am unaware of whether where were in fact sizes for the larger woman than the 5X's.  But I do know this.  If there was a garment in XXSW that took my eye, I could without too much bother purchase a similar garment, in the same fabric and a similar colour range, in W - equivalent today to between size 16 and 18.

The other option available to women of size during those years was the huge market for "paper-patterns".  While there is quite a selection available today, the choice back in the 1950s was quite plentiful taking into account the fact that Australia (as with Britain) was trying to get back on its "feet" following the Second World War.  And readers who do recall the 1950s (either personally or from things their mothers or grandmothers have spoken about) will also remember the FREE paper patterns which were included in every issue of a leading Australian women's magazine, The Australian Home Journal.

Another favourite paper pattern supplier was "Madam Weigal" - marvellously simple to use, and always resulting in a garment that received ooh's and aah's from friends.

In fact a number of women's magazines offered patterns, whether as enclosures, or actual patterns that one could trace out onto brown paper and which would become the basis of a pattern to be used over and over, with cunning little changes that belied the fact that you may only have had one pattern to your name!

So women of size WERE treated with, dare I say it, more respect back in the 1950s than today, from a fashion perspective.   Discount the fact that the "sketches" on the fronts of these magazines and patterns showed tiny, tiny waists, the patterns themselves easily met the needs of a woman who had a figure - a "real" figure.    It must be remembered too that back then there were no shopping malls, there were only a few department stores and most shopping precincts consisted of what is termed today as a "shopping strip" - shops along both sides of a certain part of a street which were the hub of a suburb.

To be continued - What has happened since ....

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