A Sewing Mystery

Sewing with vintage patterns is such an interesting activity. Beyond the finesse of the designs, the intricacies of construction, the attention to small details, and the fabulous pattern art lay some sophisticated and mysterious references to the history of fashion sewing.

For example, I am in wishful awe at some of the fabric suggestions on the pattern envelopes: one pattern for a coat and dress with a copyright of 1957 suggests, among other more common fabrics: Barathea, Shantung, Surah, Matelasse. Another coat pattern suggests Camel’s hair and Worsted, while Madras is suggested on two dress patterns. This is just a small sampling, but you can surmise from this that the sewing audience for these patterns knew their fabrics – and the pattern companies expected them to.

But it is in the short descriptive entries on the back of the envelopes where I have come across a mystery of terminology. One of the first vintage patterns I purchased was this coat pattern:

This pattern is dated 1957.

On the back of the envelope, to quote:

9232 Coat “easy to make” Flared back coat in regulation [my emphasis] and shorter length. High front and back belt, optional. Tapering kimono sleeves may be worn pushed up. [Don’t you love that styling advice?]

So, I thought, “What is regulation length?” I could not find a reference to this term anywhere – not in Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion, not in any of the vintage sewing books I own, nor in any of the vintage Vogue Pattern Book Magazines which I have in my collection.  I figured I would just keep an eye out for other references to this term, and it did not take long for me to come across another one.

Isn’t this just so chic? No date on this pattern, but it clearly is about 1961.

This one was in reference to pants:

Again, to quote:

5234 Coat, blouse, slacks and cummerbund Knee length coat with standing band collar has full length novelty or buttoned closing. Opening in side seams. Below elbow length kimono sleeves. Over-blouse may be worn tucked in. [More of that styling advice!] Below elbow length sleeves and sleeveless. Regulation slacks. [Again, my emphasis] Shirred cummerbund fastens at underarm.

Then my search for other examples went dry – until a couple of months ago when I found this pattern on eBay:

(I have a difficult time resisting Asian-inspired dresses.) When the pattern arrived, I was delighted to read its description:

5571 One piece dress and pants   Sheath dress [here’s another mystery – why did they call this a sheath dress and not a cheongsam?] in three lengths, has opening in side seams. Optional waist-line darts. Diagonal right side frog closing below standing band collar. Below elbow length sleeves rolled up for cuffs, short sleeves and sleeveless. Regulation pants. [My emphasis]

With two examples of pants/slacks (notice that one is called pants and one is called slacks, just to compound the confusion), I thought I might be onto something. So back to Fairchild’s I went to look at the entry for pants. I found this excellent diagram about pant lengths, but no reference to “Regulation” length.

The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion, Third Edition, by Charlotte Mankey Calasibetta and Phyllis Tortora, Fairchild Publications, Inc., New York, New York, 2003, p. 354. Click on the picture for a better view. It was difficult to avoid the distortion on the spine side of the book.

Some further sleuthing led me to some of the descriptive terms used for military attire, and yes, there are references to regulation requirements, but nothing that could be transferred to fashion sewing in the early 1960s. I suspect there could be a carry-over from those pants/slacks that women wore in war plants during World War II. But that doesn’t help explain the coat length. And here, look at this pattern from approximately the same time period as the coat at the beginning of this post: it is virtually identical, but there is no reference to “regulation” anywhere.

This pattern is dated 1957.

I am stumped! I am certainly not losing sleep over this (that I save for my sewing projects), but I do find it intriguing. Do any of you, my readers, know why the term “regulation” is used regarding the length of some coats and pants? Has anyone else come across this term?  Can you solve this sewing mystery?


Filed under Coats, Mid-Century style, Uncategorized, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1950s, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1960s

43 responses to “A Sewing Mystery

  1. Erika M Yuille

    I think “regulation length” had to do with the length of the skirt of the WWII uniform.

  2. The patterns and clothing from this era bring back such wonderful memories of how my very beautiful and elegant Mother dressed. The 60’s were the early beginnings of the modern day mini skirt, perhaps the regulation length was in reference to the more “refined” look rather than the “new mod look” which was embraced by what is now known as The Baby Boomers.

  3. What a puzzle! I’ll be reading along keenly to see if anyone has some insights!

  4. ellecsews

    Perhaps something to do with rationing of fabric? Just reread your post, probably not, having just checked the dates. I hope someone out there has an idea what is meant by regulation length.

  5. Kim Fraser

    The first thing I thought of was regulations regarding proper clothing coverage for protection on a factory or shop floor. I used to be a professional baker so there were rules about close-tied shoes, head scarves, no dangling jewelry (to be caught up in a mixer), etc. That wouldn’t make sense for coats, though, because of course you’d take those off to work. Hmmm…

  6. So happy to see someone else get lost in the suggested fabrics on these old patterns. We have patterns from the 1920s into 2010 and I love to see how the description formats have changed over time. If you haven’t visited http://www.patternswithapast.etsy.com yet hop on over. We’ve included the original description for every pattern listed — it’s a bit of a trip through time. Here’s a promo coupon code for you and your readers — 50DRESSES20

  7. When comparing the two pants patterns, they both have double darts, front and back, wonder if that’s a clue. If I remember correcting, the vogue pants sloper pattern has two darts front and back. Maybe? I bet Erika is right about the coat’s reference to regulation length.

  8. I have looked in several vintage sewing related books, and haven’t found anything about “regulation”. So, I pulled out my grandmother’s that was published in 1945. They have a definition of regulation that references the cap worn by a nurse, usual and customary. In the dictionary I used in high school & college, published in 1974, one definition is “required by regulation, as in regulation uniform”. Since the 1960s was the beginning of the clothing revolution (mini dresses, foundations tossed by the wayside, etc.), I wonder if the use of the word “regulation” has to do with an accepted length by the general public. For example, if you wear this to the office, you won’t be sent home to change.

    • It sounds like you followed a lot of the leads I had, too, in searching for an answer to this question. I would love to see a “real” definition for “regulation” as it refers to patterns.

  9. Yelena Alexander

    The only possible explanation I can found is in a book “Blueprints of Fashion “Home sewing patterns of the 1940.It explained that during WWII, and it is extended to post war time, sewing patterns” were affected by the WPB regulations and that the pattern companies needed to make revisions to official ARC uniform patterns….
    In short: fashion and sewing were restricted by regulation and practically didn’t much changed for a quite long time as country didn’t want a frivolous spending by one and take resources from war time. It extended to after war too as restrictions on fabric .i believe it extended to the 50’s
    When French couture houses tried to revive the high fashion and did travel/ display with Theatre De La Mode to raise the money and Dior new style make a such big effect.People got tired to wear same old garb.
    Quite good book, got from my daughter as a present ( was on my wish list)

    • I wrote about seeing some of the Theatre de la Mode fashions last August when we were on vacation in Washington state. That was a fascinating time in French couture and I was so delighted to see some of the display!

  10. Mary Lynn

    Some of those pictures reminded me of Mary Tyler Moore. Do you all remember what a novelty as a housewife she was considered wearing pants!
    She was a hit because she looked so terrific in them. I remember my beautiful mother ironing in a shirtwaist dress, pearls and heels! It took her a
    while to dare to wear pants ( we were all very southern with pearls and white
    gloves) Thinking abut those days has sent me way down memory lane! Every young mother I see now is in yoga pants, etc. Showing my age 🙂

  11. alaniasheeley

    Regulation L85 that has been referenced a couple of times expired in 1947, the same year Dior’s “New Look” was introduced. So, that would not apply to sewing patterns/clothing after that. I’m going to go in a different direction. Is it possible that the reference to regulation has to do with a license that the pattern company may have had with the designer?

    • That’s an interesting idea, Alania. I believe the patterns I have found, however, were designed/drafted in-house at Vogue Pattern Company, so there would have been no “name” designer involved.

    • Erika

      Maybe “regulation” is just hanging around as language – while the actual regulation wouldn’t be in force in the 50s and 60s, people might still remember what it referred to. Maybe one company had older writers than the others, and used somewhat archaic language?

  12. Pauline Leadley

    I am 88 years old so am familiar with patterns in this era. Regulation simply meant Standard as in Short Standard Long. Regulation length in the Forces and for Nurses was so many inches below the knee and had to be obeyed. Fashion’s rules were obeyed from choice so Regulation length was simply the standard length being worn at that time. It told me that this pattern was made to the length I was used to rather than the extra length of the New Look.

    • Thank you so much, Pauline. This is the most logical explanation I have read, and it makes perfect sense to me. I really appreciate your comment! I would have been between the ages of about 9 and 11 when these patterns were being sold, and although I remember the beautiful fashions well, I was still too young to be aware of specific terminology.

  13. Trish

    Could this refer to the regulations for ‘utility clothing’ – slightly different to rationing, it was intended to provide affordable clothing for everyone, at least in the UK.

  14. What an interesting post, and so many interesting responses. I’m with Mary Lynn, I thought immediately of MTM, with her famous body-hugging pants on the Dick Van Dyke show. (Even then, I struggled with a body that wouldn’t permit huggable pants…) Love these vintage patterns!

  15. Jaenice Palmer

    I’m still falling down the vintage pattern rabbit hole myself, and I found myself baffled as well by the “regulation” indicators just described, at least until I came across Pauline Leadley’s explanation above (thank you, thank you, for that precise, succinct description of terminology!). I’ll be sure to keep that in mind for future projects–once I really get cracking, that is. To borrow an old chestnut, it’s off to the races after this!

  16. Mery

    Wartime terminology remained long after the regulations themselves, and like grammar that becomes archaic it lives longer in the written word than in the vernacular. When we were little in the 50’s many regulation styles were the norm but we didn’t often say the term. We called only new styles by their label: “ankle length fitted.” One exception was civilian men requested their barbers to cut regulation except a little longer here or there. Mary Tyler Moore and other chic young housewives and Barbie dolls slowly made wearing pants stylish (and then came bell bottoms for youth). There was a great distinguishing between the ankle length usually fitted pants best worn by those with the figure for them and longer slightly looser (regulation?) slacks. They were slowly catching on, but remember most required ironing. By the time doubleknit pants worn with Pucci-inspired colorful tops, neither of which required ironing, caught on like wildfire and became the norm for all ages in about 1967 so many styles had been established that the wartime definition of regulation was archaic even in descriptions. This trip down memory lane, the question & all the comments, has been a pleasure. I think I shall go roll my hair with bobbi pins.

    • How did your hair turn out?? Speaking of hair and barbers, I remember my father (who served in WWII) saying he kept his “regulation” haircut long after the war was over because he just like it that short! As always, thank you for your entertaining thoughts and observations, Mery.

  17. Mery

    I recently went thru a similar phase wondering whether there’s a precise definition of “afternoon dresses.” Concluded they were just what assumed – something worn after morning chores when sat down to cleaner tasks like sewing or correspondence, worn especially when hostessing or visiting. It’s pleasant to have these serial wonders.

    • I’m not home right now (on vacation!) but I know I have books at home that give a precise definition of afternoon dresses, but you’ve basically got the idea. Don’t you love the concept of an afternoon dress? So refined! Afternoon attire now is blue jeans or yoga pants…. (I’m guilty, too, by the way!)

  18. I am pretty sure that it is a colloquialism that just means “as designed”, and the other lengths are variations.

  19. Marguerite

    It is a mystery! I have several patterns that mention “regulation” and have often puzzled over the meaning myself. Many of the commentors have wonderful explanations. I’m going to dig out my patterns for a quick inventory, do some research and get back with my report!

  20. Mery

    Hi, Karen, I hope this note finds you and yours well snd thriving.
    A current vintage contest on Pattern Review sent me down this rabbit hole again. The goal was to use at least 15% less natural fabric in order to uniform millions of people in uniform and to free up manufacturing from unnecessary clothing production.
    “War Production Board guidelines:
    Men: no cuffs, narrow lapels, single-breasted jackets, no pocket flaps, and suits were no longer to be sold with two pairs of pants—until then the norm.
    Women, skirts had to be at least 17 inches above the floor and slacks had to have narrow legs. Hems and fabric belts could be no more than two inches wide, and no garment could have more than one pocket. The order banned pleats, ruffles, hoods, voluminous sleeves, and full skirts entirely.”

    With skirts that length, coats would have been only a little longer. Although I didn’t find a length regulation on ladies slacks, they had to be narrow, which only looks good when no longer than about ankle length. I found several ads that listed 14 1/2” as the width of ladies slacks at the hem (shown ankle length).

    Anyone who remembered the era would recognize in an instant the look influenced by war regulations. People like my mother’s friends who were young and pretty during that era didn’t easily give up the style of their youth. Whether one wanted it or didn’t want it, people would have it as something to compare to for a long time afterwards.

    As Ms. Leadley mentioned, uniforms were strict about covering the knees. My school teachers wore dresses or suits and none would have dreamed of showing their knees even when seated at a desk before the mid-1960’s.

    • Dear. dear Mery, I just realized i had not responded to this fabulous comment, which I read multiple time! I found the 14.5″ width of ladies’ slacks to be so interesting. That is actually the width which I feel looks best on me. And, I agree about your observations on teachers’ attire before the mid-1960s. How times have changed.
      Knowing all these strict guidelines for wartime clothing, it is no wonder Dior’s “New Look” took the fashion world by storm, is it?

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