Skip to content

August 16, 2023

The Devil Wears Prada and the Textile Clothing Division

By John Willis

Whenever writing a book, there’s always going to be details and story that eventually get cut for one reason or another. In a biography, when you’re trying to chronicle an entire life, this “cutting-room floor” material can still hold gems of learning and fascination. Here is one such story that didn’t make it into the final version of Deming’s Journey to Profound Knowledge but can have a second life here. And to read more stories like this one, check out the full book from John Willis out now.

In 1960, Marilyn Monroe wore a size twelve. If she’d time traveled to 2006, she’d wear a size six. The same woman at half the size—a great example of the body shaming culture so prevalent in the US over the last several decades.

A conversation from the film The Devil Wears Prada typifies this culture. The movie features Meryl Streep (who, by all accounts, represented fashion mogul Anna Wintour of Vogue magazine) and her intern, Anne Hathaway. There’s a scene where Stanley Tucci’s character reveals that “vanity inflation” has crept into the fashion world.

Hathaway: “So, none of the girls here eat anything?”

Tucci: “Not since two became the new four and zero became the new two.”

Hathaway: “Well, I’m a six.”

Tucci: “Which is now the new fourteen.”

Yet men’s clothes continued to be measured according to…actual units of measure. This dates back to the War of 1812 when the Americans needed a way to mass-manufacture soldiers’ uniforms. They standardized sizes according to chest size. The clothing industry continued to use this same logic as it further developed men’s clothing sizes. A size thirty-two pants mean the pant waist is thirty-two inches around. You can take a tape measure to a shirt sized “16 ½ 32/33.” The collar will measure sixteen-and-a-half inches; the sleeves will be thirty-two to thirty-three inches long. That makes sense to me.

I’ve never understood the fact that women’s sizes are arbitrary numbers. If an actress wears a size zero, what does that even mean? If vanity inflation continues, women’s clothes will soon come in negatives.

Whom do we have to thank for this mess?

As usual, an unholy alliance between business and the US government.

After the end of World War II as America entered its postwar economic boom, mail-order catalogs became what Amazon is today. Sears and Roebuck were particularly famous, but others like the now-defunct Montgomery Ward’s and Spiegel department stores were in on it, too. Well, these mail-order companies began to lose money because of an increasing number of returns. Specifically, returns of women’s clothing.

To Uncle Sam they turned.

In 1947, the Mail Order Association of America asked the US National Bureau of Standards to do something about it. The Bureau had an internal team dedicated to such situations, the Commodity Standards Division. The division had already created standard sizing in 1944 for boys’ pajamas and in 1946 for men’s shirts. It seemed like a no-brainer.

What’s more, the division didn’t need to go through all the work of gathering the data. The Textile and Clothing Division (TCD; part of the US Department of Agriculture) conducted a study in 1939 of fifteen thousand women. Anthropometrists (who knew there was a word for experts who study body sizes?) took fifty-nine measurements per woman, from weight to inseam to ankles—885,000 data points, all told.

The TCD, however, was reluctant to share its study’s data with the Bureau of Standards. The Bureau of Standards, on the other hand, was wary of the study’s numbers. For one, the TCD only kept the data from white women. There was also some concern about the participants in the study being predominantly poor and, therefore, malnourished due to how the women were compensated. It simply wasn’t worth the time for wealthier women (who could afford more and better food). This selection bias skewed the data population. All in all, the study group didn’t represent the average American woman. A new study would have to be done.

The two government agencies compromised: The Bureau would create a new division called the Statistical Engineering Laboratory. The TCD would share its data with that laboratory…but not the Bureau’s Commodity Standards Division. Perhaps the difference was that the Statistical Engineering Lab didn’t employ the Bureau’s bureaucrats but four experts in applied mathematics and mathematical statistics who worked for one of the TCD’s sister divisions in another part of the USDA.

Namely, one Lola Shupe, someone who would come to enjoy a special relationship with Deming, became a major contributor to his early research efforts and a close confidante as he developed his ideas.

The Mail Order Association of America wanted just five standard measurements for teenage girls. When Shupe applied statistics to the data from their new study, she found that five sizes weren’t enough—the clothing sizes wouldn’t fit half the girls. Through what I’m sure must have been an absurd number of negotiations between the Mail Order Association, the National Bureau of Standards’ Commodity Standards Division, the USDA’s Textile and Clothing Division, and the quasi-independent Statistical Engineering Laboratory, the government finally settled on standard sizes. It only took eleven years.

The sizing numbers weren’t really about a measurement. They were a code. The smallest size, an 8, meant a 23 ½-inch waist, a 32 ½-inch bust, and a 34 ½-inch hip. In the beginning, Uncle Sam required all clothiers to use this standard. In 1970, it was switched to a voluntary standard. By 1983, the Bureau quietly killed the whole thing. All those thousands of women’s data, those countless hours of data analysis, all down the drain.

Perhaps the greater waste, though, was Lola Shupe’s time. Shupe had been employed by the USDA for years in its Bureau of Chemistry and Soils since at least 1928. Her published articles included “Electron diffraction by the oxides of nitrogen” and “Heat capacity of gasses at low pressure.” To have a woman with a master’s degree in mathematics and chemistry, no less, and skilled in applied statistics? To saddle her with something as mundane as catering to the whims of the Mail Order Association of America? Disgusting.

Fortunately, the standardized sizes project didn’t keep her from pursuing her more serious work. Within the USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry and Soils sat the innocuously named Fixed Nitrogen Research Laboratory, the FNRL, where Lola worked for several years. Under the auspices of the USDA, it focused on improving farmland crop yields. Prior to 1921, however, it had been part of the US Department of War.

Bombs. They made bombs out of fertilizer.

Well, actually, it was the other way around: The Lab made fertilizer out of bombs. In World War I, the Germans had mastered the art of nitrogen-based explosives, giving them a decided advantage on the battlefield. The US wanted to catch up. By the time Shupe joined, however, it had become a civilian-focused project. What had once been used for war was now being used for food. Lola Shupe found herself right in the middle of it.

After 1932, though, none of her work was ever credited to her name.


A chain of events stretching back over the previous five years.

Ed Returns to His Roots

While Ed wouldn’t be awarded his Ph.D. until 1928, he had finished all his coursework at Yale in 1927. He was officially on the job market. He turned down job offers from Bell Labs to the shock of many, I imagine; that’s like passing up an offer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory or Google. He could have joined government agencies working on weapons research. Instead, he took a position with the FNRL in Washington, DC, for less than half the pay he could have made in the private sector.

I don’t have any evidence, but I would bet my bottom dollar his career choice was due to his upbringing. It was too late for the Deming family farm, but maybe he could help someone else. Maybe by increasing crop production, he could help some other families avoid tarpaper shacks and candlelit prayers for food. Whatever his true motivation, Ed returned to his roots ten years after leaving the farm.

I continued to be amazed by the Forrest Gump-like life of amazing coincidences Deming experienced. The FNRL’s deputy chief, Dr. Charles Kunsman, took the soon-to-be doctor under his wing. He was so impressed that he decided Ed simply had to meet his old colleague and flatmate from when Kunsman had lived in Brooklyn from 1920-1923. Kunsman and his colleague commuted every day to Manhattan. To 463 West Street.

Shewhart. His flatmate and workmate had been Walter Shewhart.

Deming would later say that Dr. Kunsman “…arranged for me many visits to Dr. Shewhart, the first one in the fall of 1927. In fact, I would claim that I had the privilege to work closer with Dr. Shewhart than anyone had in the Bell Laboratories.” The two men would collaborate and correspond over the next several decades until Shewhart’s death in 1967.

Deming would live in Washington, DC, for the rest of his life. His wife, Agnes, too…though that would only be three more years for her. In the summer of 1930, she returned home to Wyoming to see her parents. She contracted tuberculosis. By November, she’d passed away. Deming was left a widower caring for their two-year-old adopted daughter, Dorothy. He placed her in a few private households over the next two years until he remarried. As a father, I can’t conceive of giving my children up to someone else to raise, even if only for the first two years of their life. Knowing the kind of father he was later, this decision undoubtedly tore him. Part of his actions were surely driven by his desire to pour everything he was into his work. Another motivation was that the 1930s were a different time; men didn’t raise children on their own.

During that period, he continued working at the FNRL, frequently publishing papers along with the other researchers there. In an unusual move at the time, Deming often listed the office’s administrative assistant (tasked with preparing papers for publication) as a co-author.

One Lola Shupe.

In 1932, however, that changed. Shupe would never again be listed as a co-author or contributor on any subsequent papers for the rest of her natural life. This, despite continuing to work alongside Dr. Deming for years afterward. This continued even after he left the employ of the USDA and she continued her own work there, then later at the National Bureau of Standards from 1943-1963. The story behind this change made the front page of her alma mater in Emporia, Kansas. The short article begins, “Mrs. W. Edwards Deming, who before her marriage was Lola Shupe, is continuing her research work in the department of agriculture…” Thereafter, she was credited in her co-authored papers as Lola Deming. Ed had remarried.

When Kevin dragged his grandfather upstairs to watch “If Japan Can…Why Can’t We?,” Grandma Lola sitting there was one of the few people in the country who could fully appreciate—and fully understand—why her husband was being thrust into the national spotlight. For nearly fifty years, she’d been by his side, often literally, acting as a confidant and a true peer. This was in an age where women were still second-class citizens in many regards, especially when it came to academia, research, and publication. Lola was also by Deming’s side many times on his trips to Japan over those decades, having firsthand experience of his transformational work in the Eastern nation. Her work in statistics, including the clothing size project, and her firsthand collaborations with Deming were important influences in his journey to understanding Profound Knowledge.

- About The Authors
Avatar photo

John Willis

John Willis has worked in the IT management industry for more than 35 years. He is researching DevOps, DevSecOps, IT risk, modern governance, and audit compliance. Previously he was an Evangelist at Docker Inc., VP of Solutions for Socketplane (sold to Docker) and Enstratius (sold to Dell), and VP of Training & Services at Opscode where he formalized the training, evangelism, and professional services functions at the firm. Willis also founded Gulf Breeze Software, an award winning IBM business partner, which specializes in deploying Tivoli technology for the enterprise. Willis has authored six IBM Redbooks for IBM on enterprise systems management and was the founder and chief architect at Chain Bridge Systems.

Follow John on Social Media

No comments found

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Jump to Section

    More Like This

    Industrial DevOps: Bring Agile/DevOps to Cyber-Physical Systems
    By Suzette Johnson , Robin Yeman

    The following is an excerpt from the book Industrial DevOps: Building Better Systems Faster…

    My Fit Experience: Leaders
    By Lucy Softich

    In previous articles, I've been going through some of the excursions from André Martin's…

    2023 Fall Releases
    By IT Revolution

    We have had quite a year so far, and it only keeps going! As…

    Learning Sprints at DevOps Enterprise Summit Las Vegas
    By IT Revolution

    We are just three weeks away from (hopefully) seeing you all in Las Vegas…