• Tue, 16, Jun, 2020 - 5:00:AM

The women's clothing size system is broken

Rack of clothes / Pixabay

There’s always a line for the fitting room on the days I shop, though I have been thrifting a lot more lately. Most women I know couldn’t walk into a store, pick an item in their size and purchase it off the rack — because, well, what is our size? I only ever have a ballpark, a best guess, and even then I still need to try it on.

Truth is, our women’s clothing size system is confusing at the best of times. The inconsistency in women’s clothing sizes that has everyone waiting in line is really a modern problem. It didn’t exist before WWII, when handmade became unaffordable and made-to-wear experienced a boom in popularity.

The first problem arose in the data. In the 1950s, the U.S. commissioned a study of 15,000 women to determine a universal sizing standard for mass-produced clothing. However, all the participants were white (often poor, too) women that participated in the study because they would be paid. So from the start, the data that determined how readymade clothes were to be sized was not very representative of the population.

In 1983, the universal sizing system that came out of this data — flawed as it was — was scrapped. The average woman in America, much like NZ, was gaining weight and the population overall became more size diverse. Fashion labels were freed to conduct their own size research and make their clothes in whatever range of cuts and sizes they wanted.

Without universal sizing, many brands — which NZ imports in the hundreds — have entered a arms race using vanity sizing (when brands artificially lower their size labels to flatter women into buying items of clothing). It’s been commonly thrown out there with well-meaning, body positive intentions that Marilyn Monroe was a US size 12 — but in the 1950s the measurements of size 12 women were about the same as today’s size 6 (NZ size 8). Monroe was quite typically thin in the modelling industry of the times, which demonstrates exactly how much clothes have been increasingly size-dropped over the years.

That’s why today it’s hard to know exactly what size pair of jeans you’ve just picked up. With every size tag comes a great deal of uncertainty; the same size pair of jeans from two different brands can vary a few inches in the waistband. Different brands with different target markets will also adjust their sizes accordingly. A size 12 in a clothing line favoured by 60-year-old women will not have the same measurements as a size 12 from a store targeted towards young adults.

It’s been argued that these average size metrics are based on the primary market for each brand, that of course brands will size their designs to fit the people that shop there. This undoubtedly plays a part in the matter, but so too might a self-fulfilling prophecy. Studies have shown that negative shopping experiences at stores, like a lack of diverse sizes, turn people off visiting again. Brands receiving this data might interpret this as ‘confirmation’ of their target market and keep adjusting their sizes to suit a certain body type, continually excluding other demographics.

No-one is helped by trying to distill a wide range of body types into one number. Not businesses, and not consumers. Body image issues are certainly not helped by going into a store and not being able to squeeze into the size you swore you were yesterday. Aside from the shopping nightmare it rains upon consumers, online shopping retailers spend billions each year footing the return bill on improperly fitting items — the majority of them originally purchased by women.

So the system is broken — does that mean we should fix it? Could we even fix it?

Universal sizing — in an era where it would literally have to be universal, rather than specific for one country’s population — is likely to fail now for the same reasons it failed in 1983. Size isn’t a full indicator of fit because it’s affected by many factors like height, girth, bust size and even the type of fabric used. The size conversion charts on some shopping sites are helpful, if not finicky to interpret, until you realise that the next site, and the next, uses a completely different sizing scheme.

Instead, possible solutions are emerging from the technosphere. Fitting algorithms and databases like Fit Analytics, True Fit and Amazon Body Labs have sampled thousands of body types and fashion brands. Once you’ve entered your dimensions, you can be recommended to specific sizes and specific brands. Your perfect(ish) fit might be size 14 at Zara and size 16 at Dotti. When sizes become obsolete, as they are trending to do, determining your size — both in real life and online — might be as easy as scanning your body and entering your age (because weight distribution is impacted by age).

The concept sounds a bit dystopian to me, but the appeal is certainly there. If there ever is a software that allows me to bypass the shopping guesswork by simply twirling in front of my smartphone camera, I’ll jump right in line for it.


  • Fashion /
  • Clothes /
  • Size /
  • Inclusivity /
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