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.

The best damn stance on clothing I’ve ever seen.

Clothing – particularly women’s clothing – is pretty obnoxious. Overall, it’s not doing women many favors.

Men hear me say this and they’re like “but look at the options!” Some of the more… “conventional” men, who delight in it all, are also like: “but women look so beautiful!” (“As you all should!”) Or they think to themselves but do not say: “This is a ‘you’ problem. Other women are clearly doing just fine.”

Women field my complaints with rebuttals of “oh my gosh, you just don’t know where to shop! Come with me sometime!”

And I’m like “honeycakes, no offense, because you look amazing, but I really do not have time for that.” Like, maybe that’s the problem. But “figuring out where to shop so I’m not so infuriated with clothes” isn’t really something I think I should have to do. I am my clothing’s Master. Not the other way around.

The sheer inefficiency of shopping and the amount of time we’re expected to shop — the fact that we see it as a past-time; the fact that we dress ourselves “at hanger,” lifting something from the rack and exclaiming, “ooh, cuute.” And then try to convince ourselves it looks just as good on — is only part of the problem.

But then there’s also the issue of dressing: what style top to wear with what style of bottom; what skirt goes with what shoes; having a pair of pants tailored to every heel height.

Then the issues with quality. Fabric options: polyester and poly-blends? And construction: For a while, I thought it was my fault, buying “cheap” clothes. But then my Hugo Boss trousers from Nordstrom and my custom-tailored dresses all came apart at the seams and discolored at the shoulders after one day in the sun. (Was I not meant to wear this clothing outdoors? I guess I should have clarified.) We can’t even get a decent dress shirt, let alone easily get one custom-tailored. (If we do find a tailor willing to do it, chances are it’s only after a degree of prima donna back and forth. Because #deargodnotbreasts.)

And I look around and I’m like: What is this? What year is it? How are we all still okay with this?? And when will it ever end?

I have been asking myself these things lately, and today I found a kindred spirit in a one Elizabeth Hawes.

Elizabeth Hawes

Elizabeth Hawes was a writer, sketcher, copyist, stylist, journalist, author, union organizer, champion of gender equality, and political activist.

But above all, Elizabeth Hawes was a fashion designer who believed that “Fashion is a parasite.”

It is easy, of course, to find fashion designers. Even philosophical ones (and aren’t they all? Really?) But Hawes was an outspoken critic of the fashion industry, and champion of ready to wear and people’s right to have the clothes they desired, rather than the clothes dictated to be fashionable.

She drew a merciless distinction between “style” and “fashion,” saying:

“Style gives the feeling of a certain period in history. Fashion is a parasite on style. He is the horrid little man who tells you last winter’s coat may be in perfect condition but you can’t wear it because it has a belt.”

“Style is what you can have, the right clothes for your life in your epoch, uncompromisingly, at once.” Fashion “changes not in response to events or to public taste or need, but because industry payrolls must be met, magazines published, a myth perpetuated.”

“I’ve become convinced that ninety-five percent of the business of fashion is a useless waste of time and energy as far as the public is concerned. It serves only to ball up the ready-made customers and make their lives miserable. The only useful purpose that changes in fashion can possibly have is to give a little additional gaiety to life. But by the time you’ve taken off fashion’s bright cellophane wrapper, you usually find not only that fashion is no fun at all, but that even the utility of your purchase has been sacrificed.” – Hawes, Fashion is Spinach

“The public, in a dumb way… stick to [what they find] until something really better crosses their path.” And if they never find something satisfactory, they just keep searching. And this is what the fashion industry wants, because “if a fundamentally satisfactory way had been developed for making clothes in mass production, Fashion would be far less successful in changing women’s clothing every six months.” So they deliberately make things mediocre in order to, as Ellison effectively wrote to exactly the same effect in Invisible Man, keep us all running.

Hawes lamented, “some people seem to like it. There are a good many people who don’t, but just accept it as inevitable, throwing away perfectly good old clothes and buying new ones every year.” (Or, worse, being forced to throw the clothes away because the construction is so bad that they have to.)

And if we’re not cheated by constantly-evolving whims, we’re being cheated on fit.

“The great majority of women in the United States, never having had their clothes made to fit them, have not the faintest idea what it is to be really comfortable in clothes… Any dress which is made to a size catches you somewhere, in the ribs because the waistline is too high, across the back because the back is too narrow, under the arm where the armhole is too small.”

But we don’t know it. “The vast majority of American women are uncomfortable in their clothes whether they know it or not. A good many of them know they can’t get wholesale clothes to come anywhere near fitting.”

The problem, of course, is that mass-production lends itself to pumping out countless identical garments that fit nobody, because, as Hawes brilliantly, cuttingly observed:

“There are no size 14 women in the world, nor are there any size 16.”

“No two women in the world have the same proportions, width of shoulder, length of arm, height of waist.” And yet we agonize over these garments – things that were never really intended to suit us because their makers never cared enough to do so – and we blame ourselves for the fact that they don’t fit, or urge ourselves to overlook or un-see it. Things don’t fit and we think it’s us, walking dejected from store after store with the piling belief “my hips are too big,” “my boobs are too small,” “I’m too short,” etc.

But in the words of the shoe salesman from Me and You and Everyone We know:

“You think you deserve that pain, but you don’t.”

We all deserve better. Clothing should be subservient to us, and not the other way around.

Clothing must not rob the wearer of our basic human rights.

Hawes also defended authentic, honest human form and was adamant that that human form should always, always trump fashion.

After taking design courses at Parsons, she wrote:

“I learned a very important thing, namely that no art school, however satisfactory to others, was ever going to teach me how to design clothes… We took life drawing but no one ever mentioned anatomy to me as a student of dress design. Apparently it did not occur to them that I was going to dress living human beings who had bones and muscles.”

She believed a successful dress must fuse with the wearer, that line, in relationship to anatomy, was the basis for a beautiful dress. That “the lines of the body are naturally beautiful and its movement naturally graceful, so any clothing that impedes movement is, by definition, ugly.” – The Lost Art of Dress.

“No dress can be really beautiful which in any way hampers action.

Clothing must honor the individual’s personality as well.

Hawes despaired that most men and women were clothing conformists. Clothes should be the expression of personality, of fantasy, of individuality. (If a woman occasionally wanted trousers to wear, or a man ruffles, she argued provocatively, why shouldn’t they have them?)

T Magazine columnist Alice Gregory wrote a piece about Elizabeth Hawes in which she calls her “The Most Brilliant American Fashion Designer.”

“Throughout her career, Hawes offered an honest, often funny appraisal of the fashion world as it was and as she thought it should be. She was a proponent of using style to get what you want (and, essentially, to become who you want to be), and a wicked critic.”

Gregory curated Hawes’s wittiest one-liners from her nine books. Here are some of her favorite:

1. “It is impossible to be completely abstract about clothes because they have no life unless they are worn. They must fit onto a body or they do not exist.” – Why Is a Dress?

2. “I would not be doing justice to the future of clothes if I did not point out that practically all psychologists who have bothered to consider the subject agree that eventually we will all become nudists.” – Fashion Is Spinach

3. “I took a brandy at lunch to dull myself for the ordeal of afternoons on Seventh Avenue.” – Fashion Is Spinach

4. “Running any business is just figuring out what the traffic will bear. American women bear a lot.” – Fashion Is Spinach

5. “No store can afford to get above the general level of its public’s tastes.” – Fashion Is Spinach

Hawes felt optimistic, albeit critical, that:

“The clothes designers of the future, the American Designers if you like, will find some way of solving these problems of neatness and cleanliness and a fundamental human desire to look attractive. These designers will also find some way of designing clothes that must fit, so that they have no specific demarcation line to emphasize the varying widths of shoulders, so that they must, by virtue of the basic design, hug into any size waist.”

Nearly 100 years later, though, we still haven’t. We still subject ourselves to the same agonies.

On the upside, however, we can download and read her Fashion is Spinach here.