How many times have you stood in the fitting room wondering what intellectual midget or woman-hating sadist came up with the so-called ‘system’ of sizing for women’s clothing? I’m going to start calling it size number roulette, because honestly it sometimes feels that random. Trust me, you’re not alone. We’ve all been there. And I’m sick of it. So first things first, I decided to do some research.
Where on earth did the size chart come from?? As it turns out, the whole concept of ‘standard’ sizes for clothing is a fairy recent phenomenon…
For the majority of American history, women have made their own clothes — not to mention the clothes of everyone in their families. In fact, through a good part of the 1900s in the US it was just assumed that all women knew how to sew (LOL — amirite??). There were of course also plenty of dressmakers and seamstresses for those who had the privilege to be able to outsource this time-consuming task. But the bottom line was that for woman of all walks of life, whether rich or poor, clothes were essentially made to measure so there was no need for an objective sizing system.
On top of this, women at this time simply had fewer clothes in their wardrobes, not to mention more limited choices (um, hello, e-commerce). The wealthiest women had their clothes specially designed and hand sewn for them personally by the fashion houses of Europe, under the designation of haute couture that was formally established in the 1800s. But even the richest women had relatively modest wardrobes in terms of quantity compared to what’s in the closet of contemporary women like you and me.
Around World War I, however, things started to change. As individuals began to spread out across the country, moving west and settling in smaller towns, the traditional fashion industry was disrupted. Although many, if not most, women were still able to sew their own clothes, the birth of the catalog industry changed everything. Retailers like Sears and Montgomery Ward (early ancestors of Amazon) sold everything from cod liver oil to carburetors, all delivered by the US Mail. And thus, ready-to-wear clothing was born.
As it turned out, women were happy not to be chained to their sewing machines (who would’ve guessed??), and they eagerly bought what catalogs had to offer. The problem was, just as it is today, that when something didn’t fit they had to send it back — and items often didn’t fit. But this was before the days of free returns and two-day shipping, so the amount of time and investment that came from items being sent back created quite an obstacle for these retailers. So the big catalog companies, estimating their annual losses from returns in excess of $10 billion dollars, began to pressure the US government to come up with a standardized system of sizes for women’s clothing. And so the race was on.
The first attempt at creating standardized sizing in this country began, not surprisingly, with men. At the turn of the century, the military had begun keeping a collection of ready-made uniforms for soldiers. These garments were sized according to a single measurement — that of the chest — based on the assumption that from that one measurement, one could deduce the proportions of the entire body. As a result, when manufacturers first started to produce ready-made clothing for women, they based their concept of size exclusively on a single measurement — the bust — and just assumed that all women conformed to the ideal of an hourglass figure.
I don’t think I need to convince any of you how idiotic an idea this was, based on a false premise and patently ridiculous to anyone who looked up from their tape measurer long enough to observe the actual female population. There are small women with big busts and big women with small busts and every variation in between. Also, statistically, fewer than 8% of women have figures that qualify as ‘hourglass’. But even with this utter idiocy causing frequent poor fits requiring alteration or returns, women continued to clamor for ready-made clothing (sound familiar? I thought so too…), but manufacturers, for their part, continued to press on to come up with a better system of sizes.
Eventually, in the 1940s, the US Department of Agriculture of all people commissioned a study to measure the bodies of 15,000 women in an attempt to establish a baseline for a standardized sizing system. One hundred trained (we hope) operatives were to be sent out into the world to take 59 different measurements of the female form. Everyone from scullery maids to showgirls were to be measured in the hope that by analyzing the data they would be able to come up with a system of sizing that could be applied to all women.
This was undoubtedly an ambitious project, especially when you consider that back then there were no computers, and I’ll give them credit for positive intentions. But the study was flawed from the start. For one thing, even though the sample size was large, it was unlikely to observe an actual cross-section of the American female population without some serious strategizing. And furthermore, it relied on volunteers. Women who came forward to be measured were given a small payment for their participation, meaning the women measured were far more likely to be low income, and potentially malnourished given the times. Even more significantly, all of the women measured were white. When women of color volunteered to participate in the study, they were either turned away or their measurements were simply discarded. To say all of this would skew their results would be an understatement.
Later, in an attempt to increase the sample size (so at least they realized their first mistake), data on women serving in the US military was added, since their measurements were already available on file. Unfortunately, these women represented another small subset of the female form — the most physically fit segment of women — and only further distorted the sample.
All of that being said, it’s unclear whether any of these efforts ultimately made any difference whatsoever. After years of painstaking analysis (remember, this was the pre-computer era), the statisticians in charge of the study were forced to conclude that women’s bodies were too varied to conform to a single system (SHOCKER, I know). But feeling obliged to come up with *something* to report, they coughed up an admittedly arbitrary system based on, well, nothing at all.
Unlike children’s clothing, which is ostensibly based on age — a girl’s size 5 dress is meant to fit the average 5 year old girl (whatever that means) or an actual measurement, a woman’s size 7 shoe is 7 inches long — the numbers assigned to women’s clothing were meaningless from the start, and utilized however an individual retailer saw fit.
And as time has gone on, these sizes have just become more and more nonsensical, with individual retailers not only choosing for themselves how to define what falls under a particular number, but others simply deciding to devise their own unique system entirely from nothing. While on an overall basis, the basic numbers of the size chart have stayed the same (2, 4, 6, 8, and so on), the actual, physical dimensions associated with these numbers have shifted dramatically over time. Some of this can be attributed to vanity. Many women don’t want to know their real size, probably because society teaches us that we have to use this arbitrary number to define our own self worth. And manufacturers want to sell these women clothes, so they re-label bigger sizes with smaller numbers and hope that no one notices. A size 8 in 1958 was six inches smaller than it was in 2008. A women’s size 12 that same year is now the equivalent of a size 6. And the truth is with improved healthcare, more food options, better nutrition (or sometimes worse), we are getting bigger. The average woman today weighs as much as the average man in 1960 (although we all know it’s not just all about weight — just proving a point here).
In 1983 the government gave up on the size game altogether and withdrew its standard sizing system, in essence, formally giving clothing manufacturers and brands the freedom to label their products however they pleased. Not that it’s complete anarchy. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), an organization that sets voluntary product standards, has taken it upon itself to publish a set of recommended sizes. But their numbers are constantly evolving to accommodate both industry and population trends.
In more recent days, as women have gotten bigger, manufacturers and brands have often chosen to shift their sizes to try to make women feel skinnier in a practice known as vanity sizing. As my mother lovingly calls it, “insanity sizing” just gives us the end result that many clothing labels are essentially meaningless, and we are left to fend for ourselves, trying on ten pairs of pants just to find one that both fits our bodies and hopefully doesn’t make us feel terrible about ourselves. According to one estimate, a pair of size 6 jeans can vary in the waistband by as much as 6 inches. While this is insanely frustrating for shoppers who spend around $240 billion annually on online apparel purchases, it also comes at a huge cost to the industry itself. Customers return an estimated 40% of purchases, mostly due to fit-related issues. So we’re not just talking about a hassle for shoppers like you and me, but a nightmare for retailers who waste money and inventory on “free” returns. You’d think this might galvanize them into action, but it seems they are more than content to let us suffer in silent tears in dressing rooms across the country, accepting that no one cares how demoralizing something as simple as shopping for jeans can be.
So where does that leave us? Pretty much exactly where we started. Amazon may have replaced the Sears catalog and people now order online from Walmart instead of via snail mail from Montgomery Ward, but women are still sending back almost half of what they buy, often because it simply doesn’t fit. The question “What’s your size?” has become so loaded with shame, frustration, and confusion that no one seems to want to tackle the elephant in the room head on.
Maybe it’s time to take back the dressing room and find a better way. Together. Who’s with me??