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What Dress Size Was Marilyn Monroe, Actually?

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In 1945, a 19-year-old Norma Jeane signed up with modeling agency Blue Book. The receptionist wrote down her measurements as 36-24-34, which at 5’5” and 118 pounds would be considered, by today’s BMI standards, a completely healthy, average size. But even then, the head of the company referred to her as "too plump, but in a beautiful way." Another note from the receptionist: "Size 12."

Marilyn Monroe's figure has been discussed almost as much since her death in 1962 as it was when she was stunning on screen and at parties during Hollywood's Golden Age. From the '50s hourglass ideal that she embodied to her enduring sex symbol status, the desire to channel Marilyn's look continues. And with that, a debate on her actual size comes up time and time again. "The myth that Marilyn would be considered near plus-size today has become a battle cry in the culture wars over female body image," NPR's Jessica Seigel has reported. "The truism that the world's sexiest woman would be fat by today's glamour standards has been repeated unattributed in hundreds of articles and books."

But part of the confusion—and the reason this myth perpetuates—stems from the fact that as retail fashion changes, clothing sizes change as well. Sizing during Marilyn's day was not the same as today's market sizing: A woman who wears a modern size 8 cannot shop for size 8 vintage clothing. The fit would be completely off.

When discussing vintage clothing sizes, we have to keep in mind that dresses and pants were cut slim because they were intended to be worn with structured bras and girdles, and more recent vanity sizing has skewed our notion of clothing and body sizes. The market for ready-to-wear women's clothing consistently changes, and with that, the standards for production.

Before World War II, women's clothing was mass-produced with the same sizing mindset as men's—the only measurement taken into account was the chest. While an assessment of the chest measurement can roughly deduce the proportions of the rest of the body for menswear, that obviously doesn't hold true for women. Following the war, more standard measurements were put in place for womenswear, and in the 1950s, a commercial standard was set. Women's clothing for off-the-rack production would range from 8 to 38 based first on bust, and then height, hips, and girth. There was no such thing as a sizes 0 through 6.

This sizing was standard through the early 1980s when it was withdrawn—companies noticed that appealing to one's vanity helped with sales (which still holds true today). The private standards organization ASTM International, which publishes annual updates for clothing manufactures, regularly accommodates for this size inflation. As the size and shape of the average American woman began to change, so did the vanity sizing aimed at soothing egos. While a size 8 was considered the smallest available in 1958 when the initial sizing standards were put into effect, an 8 corresponded to roughly a 31-24-33 body. By 2008, a size 8 had increased by five to six inches for each of those measurements. By 2011, the ASTM even had a standard size 00. 

Though Marilyn's weight and sizing obviously fluctuated over the course of her career, her standard measurements, according to her dressmaker, were roughly 35-22-35. This accounts for why her pant and dress sizes were often listed as an 8 and 12, respectively—a dress would also need to accommodate her bust, while pants could be sized smaller based on her slimmer hips. She is often cited as having been a size 16—and she was! Kind of. But only based on British vintage sizing (a U.K. size 16 was a rough equivalent to a U.S. size 12 in the '50s). But according to today's sizing guides—which is what people generally have in mind as a reference when discussing her measurements—Marilyn would be roughly a U.S. size 6 or 8. She'd likely need an 8 for her bust, but with forgiving fabric, a 4 or a 6 would easily fit her hips. And of course, her tiny waist would certainly need a belt. 

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Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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