Catalog Clothing

The summer before my fifth-grade year, wanting a sophisticated look my home-sewn wardrobe failed to deliver, I spent my cherry-picking money on store-bought, back-to-school clothes. In rural Utah in the 1950’s, store-bought meant catalog-ordered; so the Montgomery Wards catalog became my fashion consultant as I earmarked pages, pondered options and wallowed in excited indecision.

Eventually, I chose a set of seven panties — each embroidered with a day of the week so I would know when to wear them — a sack of red, white, and blue anklets because I liked their patriotic flair and a red dress with white polka dots on the skirt and a droopy white bow at the collar.

When I totaled the cost of my selections and double-checked my math, the order came to $15.34 including sales tax and postage, which left thirty-seven cents for Snickers bars and giant jawbreakers.

I next went to work on the order form, happily recording item numbers and descriptions until I encountered the problem of sizing. I assumed the clothing would come in 5th-grade-girl sizes. It didn’t. Stymied, I thought of asking my siblings for help, but they would criticize my choices and say my brain was smaller than my nose. Mom knew my size because the clothes she sewed for me fit, but she wasn’t home. Besides, the last time I asked which anklets she thought I should order, she looked wild-eyed and dodged into the bathroom.

When I decided to search the catalog for help, I discovered size charts on page 215. Studying the chart for young misses, I learned my size depended on my chest, hip and waist measurements. Good grief.

I secreted myself in the bathroom with Dad’s tape measure. I knew my chest measurement, being in the habit of checking, and I quickly measured my waist. But hips stumped me. The instructions said to measure nine inches from my waist and around the fullest part. Of what? Each leg? After a few contortions, I came up with a number. Alrighty. Then, going back to the charts, I realized my measurements didn’t fit one size. Different parts of me matched different sizes.

I was a freak.

Frustrated, I marked my selections with what seemed to be the size in the middle of the list, thinking things would average out.

During the following weeks, the mailman and I became best buddies as we waited for the package that would give me the air of a catalog model when I went back to school. The day he handed the bulky parcel to me, my new friend seemed as happy and relieved as I was. Beaming, I ran home to try on my new clothes — try being the right word.

My beautiful dress the color of strawberries wouldn’t go over my shoulders though I wriggled and strained until stitches popped. The socks didn’t stretch over my foot no matter how much I hopped and yanked; and the panties, rebelling mid-hip, labeled my thigh as Monday.

Overcome by my first case of catalog despair, I collapsed on the floor in sobs with my beautiful back-to-school clothes stuck on odd parts of my body. And stayed there, snuffling and snorting, until Mom rescued me.

To this day, I open packages of clothing I’ve ordered with trepidation; and I often use the return envelope — though I no longer collapse and cry.

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86 thoughts on “Catalog Clothing

    • Probably because of the catalog experience, my realization that my mom sewed wonderful clothes for me increased during jr. high and high school. She made one of my all-time favorite dresses when I was in college. Unfortunately, she also started to think when I was in junior high that I should make some of my clothes. So I did. But I never developed the skill and creativity she had. I’m glad you like the post, Martha.

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      • My mom made me the prettiest green tween wrap jumper with leather buttons when I went away to college. I loved it. Other than that, I made a lot of my clothes after 9th grade. I liked sewing them but all I have left is one Barbie dress I made when I was 11 🙂

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      • Wow, I’m impressed. Mom always said making doll dresses was more difficult that sewing for her children because everything was so tiny. Your jumper sounds wonderful. I, too, remember specific dresses and outfits my mom made for me. They were quite beautiful.

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      • I loved designing clothes for my Barbie doll and making houses for her out of cardboard boxes. I used the Monkey Ward and Sears catalogs to decorate the walls of the rooms — bookcases, windows with curtains, etc. I cut the pictures out and glued them to the insides of the box. I made her furniture out of scraps of wood covered with fabric. 🙂

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      • So you’ve always been the creative person you continue to be, not with words alone, like I am, but with various materials as well. I think you practiced your entire life for an enjoyable retirement.

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  1. For us, it was the Sears catalogue. We used to play “pick”, which meant that we would look at the catalogue and pick our favorite things on each page.
    My mother didn’t sew, so I had a different problem. I was tall and skinny, so clothes that fit were always too short for me. Letting down the hem was something my mother wouldn’t or couldn’t do, so usually I wore things that I “grew into”.
    I too had day of the week underwear. What a concept!

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    • Oh, Shelley, I had forgotten about the game we called “you choose,” which was identical to your “pick.” We entertained one another quite well playing it, except for Bob who wanted to skip all the good pages: clothes, perfume, jewelry etc. I never had the problem of growing into clothes, though I can remember being anxious for Carolyn to outgrow some of her pretty outfits so I could inherit them.

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  2. I loved this Janet. I was also a product of home-sewn, as were my children. I don’t remember checking out Montgomery Ward by myself, but when my eldest daughter graduated from the 8th grade she rebelled against home-sewn. We bought a cute dress from Sears catalogue, but when she went to the school dance she found several other girls had bought the same dress. She decided that home-sewn wasn’t too bad after that..

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    • What a funny anecdote, Kayti. I wonder at the thought process that led to my short-lived rebellion and that of your daughter. I look at photographs of myself in clothes Mom made and think how attractive they are and how perfectly they fit. I also ended up sewing for myself until well into my forties and enjoyed wearing what I’d made — usually!

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  3. Awww, I can feel your sad disappointment. Those were the days when returns were more complicated. My mother made my clothes until I had enough skill to sew my own. Now, underpaid workers in other countries make them far cheaper than I can. ( I wonder if there are any clothing lines still made in the USA.) Ordering clothes online is pretty much hit or miss but I keep trying, I’m sorry your childish excitement turned to such grief.

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    • It was a true and genuine grief, Mary, but Mom solved it by giving me a snack of cookies and milk, an offer to help me with the return process and suggesting a nap — her cure-all for everything. I gave up sewing for myself when I realized that by the time I bought the pattern, fabric, zippers, etc. and spent hours sewing, it was less expensive to buy my professional clothing, especially if I watched for sales.Rarely do I see clothes made in the USA. I have an acquaintance who says she will never buy anything, including clothing, that isn’t made in the USA.I wonder about that.

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  4. Ya know, until I read your post today, I TOTALLY forgot about my mail-order nightmare…I think all of us (from “our generation”) have had it. As usual, u make me laugh and always bring a smile to my face and heart…Thanks, J, for once, again, bringing me down memory lane. ❤ (((Hugs)))Lucie

    PS Am off for Utah next week. Miss u like crazy. I need to get my "writer's mo-jo" back!

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    • Joel and I are on the road as well, my dear friend, which is why my responses to comments has been sporadic at best. I’m glad you enjoyed this one. It seems many of my readers had similar experiences. Earlier I noticed your email. I’ll get to it soon. It seems forever since we’ve talked.

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  5. I enjoyed this post a lot, Janet. You brought back some happy memories of ordering stuff from a catalog and waiting for days and the (sorry not for you) joy of getting the package. Can you imagine how that sounds to a young woman today?

    I can only partially relate, from the times when I would try to buy clothes for my wife. I was pretty good at guessing what she would like, but size, oh my no.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I could feel your despair especially after spending your hard earned money. I did not order from catalogues very often as we did have shops but mum sewed as well. I do remember mum getting a catalogue from Hong Kong though and us pouring over all the exotic and beautiful things.

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    • Ooh, a catalog from Hong Kong would have entertained my siblings and me for days. Lucky you! And thanks for understanding my despair, because that’s exactly what my dashed hopes produced in me.

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  7. Ah, those were the days. Hand-sewn clothes, hand-me-down dresses, and catalog “wish books”. It was a time of Home Economics in junior high school. I remember sewing a two-piece suit (my fav) in 8th grade. Thanks, Janet, for skipping down Memory Lane. Blessings! 🦋

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  8. For us it was the Sears catalogue and a game of “dibs.” My mom and grandma sewed most of my clothes. My mom went to dress designing school in LA and was expert at revising patterns. She’d whip up a new dress for a dance or party. She even made my dress for the Christmas formal and my wedding dress. I didn’t know how good I had it. I only appreciated her work when my girls needed my merely adequate skills.

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    • I know the rules for Dibs. My siblings and I played the same game but called it You Choose. My mother made me an absolutely beautiful dress for the Harvest Ball my first year in college. I still have it.How lovely that your mother made your wedding dress. With your mom’s expertise and your grandmother being a seamstress as well, how did you miss being more than merely adequate?

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  9. Once again you bring back fond memories. I swear my mom used that pattern for my dresses. I ached over the Spiegel catalog, tattered and torn with my name written on all my desires. Mom did the best she could… and those homemade clothes didn’t always fit right either!

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    • I remember my city cousins had a Spiegel catalog I thought was quite upscale compared to Montgomery Wards. I’ve been surprised by how many of my readers daydreamed over worn, earmarked catalogs along with you and me. When I found the illustration for this piece from the right timeframe, the dresses looked so familiar I couldn’t believe it. We wore those fashions, and they are quite nice, don’t you think?

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  10. Ohhhh Aunty Beulah …
    I was with you the whole way and could feel the excitement in my chest as you waited and waited for the mailman to bring you your parcel of promises.

    I’m so glad that you had a Mom who could rescue you from the brink of despair.
    Catalogue shopping is like a minefield. You can buy a hundred different articles of clothing, all in the exact same size, and yet, when they arrive, none of them will fit in same way as another does. I’ve got clothes in my wardrobe which are all different sizes on the label, but when you measure them across the chest/waist/hips they’re all measuring the same size according to the tape measure.

    When I go clothes shopping now I only use the size on the hanger/label as a guide. I actually have a little tape measure Key Ring attached to my car keys, and I don’t even take something into the fitting rooms to try on, until I’ve measured the item with my measuring tape. I’m constantly surprised at how many items go back on the rack because they’re not the correct measurement, even though they say they’re the right size.

    Sending heaps of love ~ Cobs. x

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    • What a bright and clever person you are. I’m going to start shopping for clothes with a tape measure. I already have a mini tape I carry around in my purse, but I’d never thought of using it to check measurements. So you not only sent me heaps of love, Cobs,you sent heaps of wisdom my way as well. I like your phrase “parcel of promises” because that’s exactly what it was. Thanks for understanding my huge disappointment.

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      • Before you shop, Aunt Beulah … measure your favourite top – the one which fits you in your most comfortablish way. Lay the garment on your bed so that you don’t stretch it at all, then measure it from armpit to armpit across the chest. Now if you’re anything like me you’ll want to write that measurement down.

        Do that again for your waist measurement. If you’ve got elastic waists/sides/backs – then pull the elastic to their best and get someone else to measure the waist while you hold it stretched. (Write it down.)

        If you want to add leg length – again, lay trousers on bed and measure from inside leg top to bottom of trouser leg.

        Length of top – well again, use your favourite top which has the best length – lay on bed and measure from either the nape of neck, or from the highest point of the shoulder, down to the bottom, and again.. write it down.

        Make sure you put that list of measurements inside any handbag (purse – I think for you in the USA) you go shopping with so that it lives there permanently. That way if you ever come across something you like, by accident, you’ll have all the measurements you need, right there at your disposal.

        Thrilled to have been of help.
        Sending love and wishing you happy shopping vibes. ~ Cobs. xxx ❤

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      • Oh, this is SO helpful. I’m going to follow your instructions this afternoon and into the purse (You’re right, that’s the USA term though on occasion folks will say handbag) it will go with the tape. You didn’t mention the hip measurement (the one that gave me trouble with my 5th grade catalog order). Am I correct in assuming I’d put a pair of slacks that fits me well on the bed and measure…what?…about 9 inches from the waist? around the fullest part between the waist and the crotch? (You see hips still confuse me.)

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      • I’d say that …. when you lay your trousers out on the bed and want to measure the hips measurement …. I would look at what seems to be the fullest part of the trousers between the crotch and the waist. For that’s where your hips will fit, with (hopefully) a tiny bit of wiggle room. (You need that wiggle room for when you stop off and have a cream cake and coffee, so that you don’t split em. lol

        No … not really. It’s just comfort.

        If you’re at all unsure about measuring your exact hip measurement – you could always put on the trousers and, using a bit of chalk, you could gently make a mark where you can see your hips are when you look at yourself in the trousers, in the mirror. Make a mark roughly the same place on each side, on the fullest part of your hips … then take the trousers/slacks off carefully, (so that you don’t rub the chalk mark out) and then lay flat on the bed and measure across from chalk mark to chalk mark. That way you’ll get the exact place!

        This sytem has stood me well and saved me SO many trips to the changing rooms …. take the clothes off, …. try the ones on which I liked …… take them off …. put my clothes on ….. take the garments out and give them to the lady, ….. and do it all over again with a larger size. (Or smaller, and that’s just the best day!!! LOL)

        There was a time when I’d broken the link on my measuring tape key ring and had nothing to measure things with … so I simply asked the lady on the checkout if she had a measuring take she could lend me to measure a blouse. When I explained how I did this measuring … she looked at me as if I were some sort of magical Unicorn turned into a female for the day! She was so happy that she’d been on duty and found this out … and she said she was going to do that exact same thing too.

        It’s such a simple idea – but boy oh boy does it work well.
        Sending squidges ~ Cobs x

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      • Thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s a done deal. And I’ll appreciate you every time I measure a garment I’m considering then shake my head ruefully and put it back on the rack. You are a Godsend indeed, dear Cobs.

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  11. I remember those days. Though we lived in a town, not everything was available. We used the Sears and Roebuck Catalog (yes, that used to be the name). Often things did not fit quite right. My mother-in-law ordered from catalogs for just about everything until she passed in l996. When I think of the internet these days, I consider it just a giant catalog ordering place. I miss the simpler days. Thanks for the pleasant walk down memory lane.

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    • You’re welcome, Laurel; I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. I agree that the internet is like a giant catalog, but the process has been greatly simplified, including returns praises be.

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    • I think I remember it so well, Michele, because not only did my clothes not fit, but I had felt so grownup and responsible spending my own money and doing the ordering by myself (I even bought the money order from the mailman, which you could do in those days) and then nothing worked. Fortunately,I was a resilient child, and by the time I went to bed I was busily making other plans — mostly having to do with movies and my stomach — for the refund I’d receive.

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    • Mom offered to help me with the return and reordering, but I wasn’t interested in another disappointment, especially after she took me to town and let me choose the patterns and fabric for back-to-school outfits she would make. I don’t remember what I did about the anklets and panties.

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  12. First of all, I loved the catalog page at the top of this post. Those girls all look so happy! I remember getting the Sears and Penney’s catalogs but our family didn’t catalog-shop for clothing because we had several department stores in our area.
    I laughed when I read the paragraph about taking your measurements. I still have trouble with this…
    And I laughed at your thigh labeled as “Monday”. Actually I laughed through most of this post!
    Another gem, Janet. Thanks for sharing.

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    • I’m happy when I make you laugh, Rita, and I’ve noticed that you do so in all the right places. I loved the catalog page when I found it. It looked so right, and the girls looked young and happy rather than like wanna-be models.

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  13. Another wonderful read and laugh and oh yes those pictures bring back memories I’m pleased to have forgotten. I never purchase anything online for all the reasons you experienced and I’m an odd shape that doesn’t seem to match the ‘normal’ shape: more like an upside down pear so if you come across a catalogue with a body descriptor that matches mine I’ll be waiting to hear from you …

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  14. We had plenty of shops to go to, but to this day I can’t resist a catalog! That waiting period is all about the anticipation, so a disappointing purchase would have been all the more upsetting.

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    • It’s funny, Maddy, but I, too, can’t resist a catalog to this day; though I order less from them and online because, being retired, my clothing needs have changed. I need fewer clothes and I’m more interested in comfort.

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  15. I really enjoyed your thoughts on ordering from a catalog for the first time! Growing up in Albuquerque and buying my clothes at the department store it was an experience I didn’t have until years later living in Wyoming after clothing stores became rare. JC Penney, Baldwins, and Hub Cramers became a thing of the past. Not only did I have to buy for me, but for the kids and JL. It was and continues to be a learning experience. That being said, that is how I buy clothes now.

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    • I think the first summer I spent in Lander after my family moved there, those three stores were still in business.The only one I don’t distinctly remember is Hub Cramers. I bought a white uniform for my job at the training school at JC Penney because neither Mom nor I had time to make one before I had to show up for my first day of work. And I used to like to walk through Baldwins looking at things. It’s always good to hear from you, Janice.

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  16. I loved this, and was impressed you earned fifteen dollars. I always wanted to find a job but our farm was too remote. Daddy kept us busy on our own farm so we were free labor. “Them that don’t work don’t eat.” I learned to sew at an early age so I wore what I made after about eighth grade. Grandma bought random sizes she found on special knowing they would fit one of us, so out of necessity, I learned alterations, a great skill. The best place to measure hips is ten inches below waist, just so you know.

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    • I picked cherries for several weeks, the area where I lived was a fruit orchard haven. I also did some babysitting, and saved every penny from both endeavors for my wonderful new clothes. i had cousins whose families owned farms, and they were never able to work for pay for other people either. But I thought they had wonderful lives. I never did learn to do alterations, a skill that would have greatly benefitted me to this day. It is a great skill, and thanks for the hip information.

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  17. The Montgomery Ward catalog was deceiving. I tried ordering a polka dot dress from it once. When I opened the package, I was dismayed to find the polka dots were painted on the fabric.

    When I was still employed several years ago, I ordered some of my clothes through the Penny’s catalog and had great luck with them. Of course, the closest store was less than 10 miles away so exchanges were easy. My reason for not buying my clothes right at the store was I hated trying clothes on in the dressing rooms. I still hate that.

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    • Often in my lifetime of ordering I’ve had disappointments similar to your painted-on polka dots. It is so much better to actually see something before you go to the effort of trying it on. I agree with you about the horrors of dressing rooms. I hate them too. In fact, I’m thought of writing a piece about their lighting, mirrors, lack of hooks, etc.

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  18. Well thank you for explaining a few things for me. In Australia the American catalogue system has always been a bit of a wonder. I always wondered how you could order clothes that fit. Now that everyone seems to buy things online from heaven knows where I still insist on trying everything, everything, on before I buy it.

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    • I would say that two out of three times I order clothes that fit from a few reliable online sites or their catalogs because I know how their sizes run. Still, about every third time I have to return something because the fabric it not what it seemed or the workmanship seems poor or what looked sparkling green in the catalog is more like avocado. But I would have to drive nearly three hours to find clothing stores to choose from, so ordering is often a necessity. But, believe me, I wish I could do the same as you and try everything on before buying it, not after.

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    • Me too, but hey, my sister lived for many years on a big Queensland property and she had to buy clothes from catalogues. She was pretty darn good at it too! Me, I’m a try-before-you-buy person except for pyjamas and t-shirts.

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      • Pajamas are the one thing I buy without trying them on. My usual concern about clothes being too short in the arm and leg fly out the window when it comes to pajamas. Like you, I also buy t-shirts without trying them — unless they are long-sleeved in which case on they go.

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  19. This brought back memories. When I went away to boarding school, my mother ordered dresses from a catalogue. It was so exciting. I’m so sorry your experience was such a disaster, Janet.
    I hope you could return the goods and get your right size!

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    • I think had I waited for Mom to help me, my first ordering experience would have had different results, but I couldn’t wait and the result was disastrous. Mom helped me return the goods but I opted against another try, having realized how much easier —on me — it was when she made my dresses: I didn’t have to pay for them, they fit and they were pretty. So I had fifteen dollars to decide what to do with, which was fun in itself.

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      • How lucky you had such a clever mum. I think my mother gave up sewing for me when I criticised her handiwork when I was 15. How thoughtless I was in those days!! We were so privileged to have loving caring parents you and I! ❤

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      • Looking back on it, I’m surprised my mother wasn’t offended by my statement that I wanted to buy clothes because I thought I’d like them better. Perhaps she felt I should be free to experiment as long as I was using my own money. And maybe she knew my experiment would send me back to home sewn. Or, it just occurred to me that perhaps she was hoping my order would work out so she would have one fewer back-to-school outfits to sew.

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  20. Oh, you’ve painted the pic of me whenever I’ve ordered anything from the Boden catalog. I love the idea of their clothes–but none are made for my shape or size. So I try on, chagrined I look nothing like the catalog model. At least you were young! I should know better:).

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    • And you’d think I’d know better as well; but, no, just yesterday I ordered some new workout clothes certain they’d make me look and perform like the beautiful, lithe, young yoga instructors modeling them.

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  21. Oh Janet! You have me in stitches once again! What a wonderful way to start my Saturday morning!

    What memories you have brought back for me! To this day, I am still befuddled by how to “measure” myself for mail order clothes. So I inevitably order things which fit & hang loose so that my ineffective tape-measuring has the least impact.

    And I really empathise with you regarding straddling various sizes! My happiest moment was the 2-piece swim suit (not the bikini variety, but the tankini type which covers the midriff completely!); overnight, I didn’t have to put up with ill-fitting swim-wear anymore!

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    • So good to hear from you again, my friend. I’m glad I made you laugh; and thank you for reminding me about the glorious day when I discovered I could buy the two pieces of a two-piece swimsuit in different sizes! Hurray!!! Like you, the tankini has been a blessing for me, especially those that have the swim shorts to match rather than the typical bikini bottom. How I wish those things had been around in my younger years.

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      • Good to be back! Have taken a hiatus from the computer on account of pneumonia & then recovering from it.

        I am slowly getting back to reading, and corresponding; I have missed the communication and am really glad to be back!

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      • I sorry you were so ill with something as serious as pneumonia, but happy to hear you have recovered. I look forward to reading posts from you whenever you feel good enough to publish again.

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