My grandparents, 1929
The question has been asked, “A middle-class woman’s wardrobe would have been how big in the 1930s or 1940s? What about upper-middle/upper class? ”
I really don’t have the specific answers, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have some thoughts on the subject. Generally speaking, I think it is safe to say that the average woman today has more clothes in her closet than did her mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother.
I’m 55 years old, (old enough to be a grandmother though I’m not) and today I have many more clothes than I did when I was 18, which would have been in 1973. At that time, my mother had many more clothes than she had at age 18, which would have been in 1949.
So are women today just richer than they were in years past? Or are we more style-conscious? I really doubt that either is true, especially if you take inflation into account. But one thing I do know is that comparatively speaking, clothing is much cheaper today, and clothing in 1973 was cheaper than it was in 1949. I’ll use my own mother’s family as an example.
In 1949, most of my mother’s and grandmother’s clothing was sewn at home by my grandmother, who was an expert sewer. She sewed because it was less expensive for her to sew their clothes than it was for her to purchase clothing of a similar quality.
Some clothing was purchased, such as coats and underwear, and they bought the highest quality they could afford. My grandmother’s philosophy was that she’d rather have one nice thing than three shoddy ones. From talking with other women of that generation, I don’t think her ideas about this were very unusual.
My mother did not sew, and even after her marriage, my grandmother continued to make many of her clothes. When I came along, she made mine as well until she taught me how to sew around 1966. But as time went on, we began to buy more and more of our clothing. Two large discount stores had opened in our area, and suddenly it became cheaper to buy than to make. The last thing I remember my grandmother sewing was a prom dress for me in 1972.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but the discount stores were giving us a glimpse into the future. Much of the clothing sold in them were imports from Taiwan and Hong Kong. And of course today, most of the clothing sold in US stores comes from Asia. And with such sources like Target and H&M, one can buy a whole lot more for a comparable percentage of one’s income than was possible even 25 years ago. It seems to me that a lot of quality has been sacrificed for sheer quantity!
My thanks to Mei for asking the question. I’m sorry I don’t have the answer for you, but I bet many university papers have been written on the subject. Those would be interesting to read, but I’m actually more interested in the stories of real people. Anyone have stories of Mom’s or Granny’s closet contents that you would like to share? Email me!