A woman being measured for Women's Measurements for Garment and Pattern Construction, a 1941 government report that laid the groundwork for women's clothing sizes.
Where did women's clothing sizes come from? In 1939, during the Great Depression, the Department of Agriculture teamed up with FDR's Work Projects Administration to undertake an ambitious bit of research that had never been attempted before: a scientific survey of women's body measurements. Fifteen thousand women participated. They were paid a fee--money spent on food, most likely, this being the Depression--to stand in their underwear behind a curtain while researchers took 57 different measurements of their bodies. The results, published in 1941 as Women's Measurements for Garment and Pattern Construction, helped the garment industry develop the sizing system still in use today.
In 2004, a new national survey--done with laser scanners, not rulers--found that American bodies had changed dramatically in the last sixty years. People had gotten thicker, especially around the middle. The population had also become much more diverse. How do you manufacture ready-made clothes for such a wide spectrum of shapes and sizes? 3-D clothing printers?