Why clothing sizes aren’t standard.

…and why the solution to “fit” is something else.

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Chances are, you’re frustrated with the way clothes fit. Most all of us are.

Sizes aren’t consistent from brand to brand; sometimes even garment to garment within a store. It’s the number one complaint from consumers in the apparel industry, and the number one reason garments (especially those bought online) are returned. It’s one hell of an elephant in the room, and the industry isn’t addressing it.

Why?

The main reasons:

#1: There are no standard sizes in clothing because there are no standard sizes of people.

Especially women.

As designer Elizabeth Hawes put it: “There are no size 14 women in the world, nor are there any size 16. There is no wholesale dress which fits any woman who buys it. No two women in the world have the same proportions, width of shoulder, length of arm, height of waist.”

In a 1927 New York Times article, one retail executive said, “I don’t know who the mythical size 36 is who forms the basis of sizing, but average, tall, short, thin and plump women come into a department store and the 36 size fits none of them.” Not because the size was “wrong,” but because there is no “right” shape of woman.

Textile Clothing Technology Corporation conducted a study called SizeUSA, for which they installed body scanners at 13 different locations across the country and, over the course of about a month, scanned the bodies of almost 11,000 people between the ages of 18 and 80.

Fashion industry expert Lynn Boorady, in her analysis of the data, said that in trying to find an average hip girth for a 28-inch waist — today’s size 6 — she discovered a 12-inch spread.

Problem is: there can only be one “size 6” in the store.

So retailers have to decide what their “size 6” — its hips and bust and height — looks like, and odds are: it’s not you.

#2: “Size” is more than just size. It’s style and strategy.

In choosing what their “size 6” looks like, brands deliberately target specific demographics, and they craft their garment proportions accordingly. To fit anyone, they can’t fit everyone (see above), so they pick a niche body type woman.

In a 1986 New York Times article, Lisa Belkin observed, “The Laura Ashley woman is different from the Liz Claiborne woman, who is different from the woman whom Calvin Klein envisions.” Lenore Smith, a designer of women’s evening gowns, agreed: ‘’Fit is a type of identity.’’

There are brands out there who only want tall, thin women wearing their stuff. There are others who shoot for hourglass, and still others who target stout petites.

Expert patternmaker Kathleen Fasanello writes: “Detailed sizing information is considered to be proprietary information.” Much more closely-held and secret even than designs.

Why? Because finding a brand that fits us — in the sea of so many that don’t — keeps us coming back.

Freelance writer Julia Felsenthal admits: “My sense of brand loyalty is as much about the way a designer’s clothes fit as how they look. I do pretty well with J.Crew sweaters, Urban Outfitters jeans, and Frye boots — because those have become, after years of trial and error, my brands. If these companies suddenly changed their sizes to adhere to some synthetic average of the American female form, I’d feel annoyed — even indignant.”

This “brand loyalty” through sizing is anything but accidental. In an industry that is largely perfect competition, apparel companies need every edge they can get in convincing you to call them “your brand.”

#3: The vanity sizing race

We can’t blame only the manufacturers here. We as consumers are rather caught up in our body image and we’ve let it influence our identity, so we delight when we fit into a “smaller” size. Manufacturers know this (our body image preoccupation being partly their doing.) But when one started vanity sizing, the rest of them — again, the industry being pretty much perfect competition — had little choice but to follow suit. And we, the consumers, chase after them all.

The solution:

First, it’s not a matter of “one average” — of forcing “proportion compliance” and demanding each size be consistent across brands.

If you suggest that all sizes fit exactly the same from store to store, then I ask of you: which “size” is it? Based on what? Waist? Hip? Bust? If we pick one of these measurements, are brands free to fill in the others?

If we lock down waist but retailers are free to choose everything else, women will still have to move up or down a size across brands according to differences in bust and hips.

If we lock down waist, hips and bust, what happens to the increased number of women who are now left out? You’ll make it easier only for this precisely-proportioned woman to shop, at the cost of making it impossible for everyone else.

So it’s also not a matter of a “better average” — redefining what each “size” means.

A lot of people point to research on bodies as the solution. From the first formal undertaking by the U.S. government in the 1940s to the recent innovations in body scanning, we seem to think a fix will come in better understanding our shapes. Like the issue is “bad” or “insufficient” data — measuring the wrong women or too few of them.

But no amount of research on body measurements is going to fix the sizing problem for everyone, especially if we think we’re just going to chuck these findings over the fence at manufacturers.

Even if each manufacturer responded by updating each size to better reflect a “more accurate average,” it’s still only an average. And with such a wide spread of shapes, still very few people are going to measure exactly that.

It’s also not a matter of “more averages.”

We once came up with 27 “better” sizes, and we still ran into sizing problems.

In 1941, statisticians Ruth O’Brien and William Shelton published findings from a nationwide survey in which they took 59 distinct measurements of almost 15,000 women. They proposed a system based on a single measurement of the upper body and combined that with a height index (regulars, longs, and shorts), and a lower body girth index (regulars, stouts, and slims).

As many of us know, this still isn’t perfect. For example, even “longs” or “talls,” which are usually fitted to 5’7”, are still too short for any women over that. (At 5’9”, everything “tall” — jeans, tops, dresses, skirts — is still 2 inches too short on me.) The problem is worse for all those women who are even taller. And the problem exists in “shorts” and “petites” as well (though, fortunately for them, difference there is that they have the option to have hemlines altered.)

Worse, in addition to not solving the problem, adding more and more sizes makes for a manufacturing and inventory nightmare.

Because:

It’s a matter of fixing the manufacturing model.

We won’t get satisfaction in sizes — through standardization or accuracy or increasing the number of them — because “sizes” exist first and foremost to satisfy the mass manufacturing model — not us.

Mass manufacturing is a machine where profitability is only in economies of scale. The more you make of a single item, the more money you make off of it. And with each size being it’s own “item” (when it comes to patterns and cutting), the fewer sizes you make and the more you produce of each, the more money you make off them all. Mass manufacturing necessitates making the least number of discrete sizes as possible to still induce sales.

We will never get a satisfactory solution to our biggest complaint in clothing — and therefore will never get good clothing — in the current mass manufacturing model.
With all the ranges and variations of our bodies, good fit is found in clothing that’s manufactured explicitly for you, from your unique measurements. And this requires a different manufacturing model; one where profitability doesn’t require multi-thousand item runs of a single size.

It means “fit” is measured not as cookie cutter parameter sizes, however defined and redefined or standardized, but rather in the way you gauge it: as fitting you.

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