The Size of a Wardrobe

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!


Filed under Proper Clothing, Viewpoint

15 responses to “The Size of a Wardrobe

  1. I definitely agree that quality has been sacrificed for quantity. When you can look at clothing in department stores and find horrible stitching and (sometimes) ripped seams, you realize the quality is not there. We love buying and wearing vintage (and I make lots of my own) simply because we love wearing nice things.


  2. I have often thought of the very little closet my grandmother had for her clothes. There were never any complaints, just acceptance of the way things were. One had less, but it all seemed to mean more.
    You have written a thought provoking article, taking me back to my own childhood of the 1950s. Thank you.

    Love the photo of your parents/grandparents!


  3. mei

    This is great, Lizzie!

    The reason I asked is because I’ve been doing a lot of Etsy browsing, and it looks like many of the dresses and coats have been hemmed, re-stitched, had linings replaced, etc. and then also feature things like personalized labels and monogramming. I started to wonder how many garments there were to get this special treatment!

    Thank you! 🙂


    • I see your point. I think people did a lot of this sort of thing in order to stretch the wardrobe. A good example is the transition from the late 1950s to the 60s. In a lot of cases, the “style” stayed the same, but the “fashion” called for shorter skirts. That’s what we see so many late 50s dresses and skirts that have been shortened.


  4. random butting in on mei’s comment: i really dislike it when vintage dresses or skirts are shortened too much, unless it’s a case of resizing to fit myself.

    the thing about quality is, much effort (and more money) is needed to ensure the quality lasts? i kinda have an issue with that. so i don’t fork out too much for expensive clothes.


    • ttft, sometimes shortening can lead to real confusion. Someone posted a dress on the VFG forums last week that at first glance, I’d have sworn was from 1972. Then upon closer inspection, it became clear that the dress was shortened quite a bit. At that point the dress took on the appearance of being from the early 1940s. And after looking at all the details, i honestly could not tell whether the dress was 70s or 40s.

      Clothes are meant to be worn, and that means they often have to be altered to fit properly. But it does hurt to see a good vintage dress chopped off so badly that it is virtually unwearable.

      I don’t fork out much for expensive clothes either, but I sure love finding them secondhand or deeply discounted!


  5. Em

    My mom stopped sewing our clothes sometime in the late 80s, but I still have some of the dresses she either sewed or knitted for me. I think there was an interest in crafting in the 70s that as soon as “designer” mass produced products came in the 80s kids started refusing to wear home creations. Sad really, because I think people use to get as much life out of a garment as they could (maybe that’s why you see a lot of linings changed out and alterations made as maybe the garments changed hands between relatives, etc.?) and they were generally of higher quality even if you were poor and couldn’t afford the most expensive fabrics and notions.


  6. I don’t know how big her wardrobe was, but my middle class grandmother dressed very well (suits, gloves, hats), but would purchase most of her clothing at end-of-season department store sales. My other grandmother was poor; she and her sisters worked in the garment industry and there was a lot of home sewing, and sharing and passing down of garments. This would partially explain why–though I was brought up in a middle/upper middle class home, I was wearing the handed-down disco era garments of my older cousins well into the mid-1980s! Both my parents–regardless of their very different financial situations–were brought up to be thrifty.


  7. Apparel costs? When I was in grammer school, my babysitter c. 1960 saved all winter for her one summer swim suit. That was alot of baby sitting, and by today’s standards, I’m guessing that it would compare with a few hundred dollars today.

    Closet contents? In the 50’s and 60’s I remember alot of wardrobe planning talk. At that time in my suburban neighborhood, I’m guessing a middle class mom who wore pants during the day had in her closet: 1 good winter suit, 1 good summer suit (weddings, church), 1 good winter dress, 1 good summer dress, 1 cocktail dress, 2 or 3 casual dresses, several cotton blouses, fewer skirts in wool or cotton, maybe 2 pairs of casual pants, 1 good winter long coat, maybe 1 winter sport coat, 2 cardigans, 1 pullover sweater or wool shirt/jacket, 1 or 2 shorts, 2 or 3 summer blouses, 1 swim suit cover up with 1 swim suit. The rest of her wardrobe she borrowed from her husband (his old shirts to garden in etc.). The more simple shift dresses in the late 60’s were easy and cheap to sew, and that opened up the wardrobe count.
    In our house, the sewing machine was always up and projects were in various stages of work. We also sewed all curtains, slip covers and other home dec stuff. Today it is nearly impossible to think of my mom doing all that. She’s no fashionista, nor a perfectionist, but we wore the stuff anyway. I was sewing by the 6th grade to get the styles that I wanted!


    • Your list sounds quite reasonable to me.

      My husband has 2 photos of his mother, her sister and their parents, walking down the streets of Asheville, circa 1937. For a long time we thought the photos were taken on the same day, but when I studied them carefully I could see that the accessories were different. They all actually all had one nice dress they wore when visiting the city!


  8. I’d like to add that a growing trend is toward the shrinking wardrobe. I’ve written about choosing quality over quantity in the past months, as have many others. People are discovering that it is easier to dress when there are 3 good dresses in the closet, rather than 10 questionable ones.


  9. Pingback: Vintage Miscellany « The Vintage Traveler

  10. Kimberly

    My mother was born in 1941; her sister was two years older. When they were teenagers, they bought a skirt which they alone thought cost too much. My mother was five or six inches taller than her sister. When my aunt wore the skirt, she would tape it up, and my mother removed the tape to let it down. They shared it for several years, and people would say they both had such good taste, but you would never see them in it at the same time. Later my grandmother turned the skirt into pillow ticking.

    I wonder about the quality question, am I just not drawn to low quality goods, or do I treat my garments more gently than others, because I have had the experience of a very few items being truly bad.


  11. I love your story about the shared skirt. Priceless!

    Maybe you just have an innate feel for better quality.


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