“Waisted Talent” Dispelling the myths and confusion surrounding reproduction Civil War trouser sizing.

US Quartermaster Trouser Measurements
(Printed with permission of CJ Daley.)


In this article I will attempt to answer some common, and age old questions concerning the sizing of authentic Civil War era reproduction trousers.  It is important to note that whenever we are talking about waist size and measurements, we are discussing the “natural waist”, at the navel, and not the modern waist where most modern pants and unauthentic reproduction trousers are worn.

NOTE: The intent of this article is not to disparage any individual or company, but rather to dispel the great deal of confusion surrounding reproduction trouser sizing.  All attempts at keeping names anonymous will be made, but it should be understood that no negative connotations are intended.  This is just the way things are.

 In the above chart it is important to note that all the sizes denote measurements in inches.  So a size 1 pair of trousers would have a waist measurement of 32″, a size 2 would measure 34″, and so on.  These four sizes were all that were issued through the majority of the war. 

Let’s do a bit of experimentation.  If you don’t have a cloth tape measure, find a yard stick and some string.  Cut a length of string at 32″, and another at 38″.  The 32″ string is the actual length of the waist on a pair of size 1 trousers.  Try wrapping that around yourself.  Now try the 38″ string, remembering that this is the largest size used during the war.  (I’m not trying to make you feel bad here, I wouldn’t fit the largest size since I was in college!)  But this exercise is meant to give you an idea of what we’re dealing with in the discrepancy between original trouser sizes and modern authentic trouser sizes, and why the decision was made to alter them outlined in the next section.

Vanity Sizing

Take a look at this chart of belt and pant sizes from major men’s clothing companies from esquire.com:

(chart courtesy of http://www.esquire.com/blogs/mens-fashion/pants-size-chart-090710)

For most of our lives we have all been unwitting participants in “vanity sizing”. Heck, I shop at Old Navy quite a bit because their smaller sizes fit me better (amazing what a little size mark can do!) But vanity sizing causes many problems, and is rampant in authentic Civil War re-enacting trousers. The name itself is relatively self-explanatory, if a person with a waist that measures 42″ around is told he is a “size 38”, he then figures that must mean he is an authentic “army size 4” and all is right with the authentic re-enacting world. Ultimately, however, we are deluding ourselves.

How did this happen?  Very simply, as a matter of fact.

It would not be an exaggeration to estimate that fully two-thirds, if not three-quarters of the trousers worn today by authentic re-enactors are made directly from, or are a derivative of one vendor’s trouser patterns.  When these patterns were developed apparently the decision was made to allow for a “rule of four” in the waist sizing, and as they were and still are the most authentic commercially available trousers today re-enactors as a whole and the vendors who supplied them became unwitting participants in this system.  Simply stated, the vast majority of authentically-made trousers today are oversized by four inches at the waist, putting them on par with some of the worst offenders of the menswear stores above!

The end result of this is that we have all been conditioned to think in “sizes” rather than in real measurements.  The original army had “sizes” (1, 2, 3, & 4) so this isn’t necessarily a new thing, but the real trouble starts when someone confuses the modern “size” with the actual inch measurement.  A “size 34″, for example, would actually measure 38” around.  So if a person places an order for a pair of trousers saying something like “size 34 inches” or simply, “34 inches” expecting what they have always been told is a “size 34”, boy will they be surprised (and angry) when they receive a pair of trousers that are four inches too small for them!  “But I’ve always worn size 34 trousers, and these are way too small!”  This happens all the time.

This is a situation that we as a community, re-enactor and vendor alike, are trapped in.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It is 100% necessary that we have trousers in larger sizes.  After all, we aren’t all 18-25 years-old as the majority of enlisted men were.  And to put it simply, this is a different time where prowess with a keyboard is valued more than prowess with a tractor.  Not better or worse, just different.

So what should and can we do to improve this situation?  Simply put, educate ourselves.  As in most things a little education is all that is required to dispel problems.  If you have the opportunity to try on several pairs of trousers at an event or retail shop, fantastic!  But if you have to order something through the mail, take the extra thirty seconds to measure yourselves.  Don’t simply say “I wear a size 34”, that means nothing!  And especially don’t say “I wear a size 34 in modern jeans”…that statement means DOUBLE nothing! (I’m not sure if that’s even an expression but you get my meaning.)  Measure yourself around your waist at the navel, and tell the vendor what that measurement is when ordering.  Inseam length (ironically), is the same as your modern size AND your raw inch measurement, so there should be no trouble there.

Understanding this, and taking a few extra seconds to measure yourself before ordering will ensure that your new authentic trousers fit perfectly right out of the box.