During the last couple of years many people spoke out about inconsistent sizing at popular retailers such as H&M zara or gap and many newsletter outlets and content creators picked up on it and started doing size comparisons showing significant differences between the different brands. So why can’t our clothes fit the same at different stores?
Ready-to-wear clothes through history
First a little bit of history. The need for ready to wear clothes arose in times of war. The US mass produced military uniforms during the war of 1812 based on men’s chest measurements.1 In the beginning of the 20th century, clothing was still tailored to the individual with upper class folks taking their clothes to a professional and others tailoring them themselves, making them fit the wearer and also to fit in with current trends. In europe, ready to wear clothes also first gained traction in menswear, as that is a lot more difficult to tailor at home, and it really became popular during the 1930s. Now, during the second World War the european fashion industry was heavily impacted by scarcity, rationing and also anti-semitism. The french ready-to-wear industry had 80 000 workers in 1938. In 1943 – five years later – only 25 000 workers were left.2 America had already been incredibly successful promoting ready-to-wear clothes in the interwar period.3 So in 1940 a large study was conducted where 15 000 women were measured with the goal to create a standardized sizing system. However, due to flaws in the study design and the complexity of the resulting sizing system, the findings of the researchers were dismissed.4
The birth and continuation of vanity sizing
With the capitalization of diet culture, tablets reporting on celebrities‘ dress sizes and lifestyle brands promoting their diets with „letting you lose up to two dress sizes“, dress sizes became something that defined us. A small size became desirable regardless of fit or comfort, and still to this day many people wear clothes that are actually too small. And thus vanity sizing was born. Fashion brands discovered that people buy more when a smaller size fits them, so they stopped trying to standardize sizes 5. They deliberately increased the measurements of their garments so that someone wearing a size M usually could now fit into a size S and a person wearing a size S would now fit into an XS. This way smaller people got pushed off the charts and brands started adding measurements up to a triple zero, as with JCrew and Abercrombie and Fitch. And with that came the outrage: CNN did a segment on the size triple zero and they invited a plus-size model to discuss it with. Now, judging by the style of the segment it just seemed like shallow daytime TV to keep users engaged, and while the moderator did start with a sarcastic opening statement he did later mention vanity sizing and also the fact that j crews said this size was intended for smaller built asian customers. The plus size model states that the existence of a size triple zero puts a lot of pressure on women, then she ditches a question about vanity sizing and goes on to explain that 68% of american women are larger than a size 12 and that such a small size would push them into dieting and also eating disorders because they could never be a size zero. Those people would then have to go online – for whatever reason – to purchase larger sizes at JCrew. Then she goes on to state that women wouldn’t want to be a size that indicates nothing and a size triple zero would reduce their self-esteem, before finally bringing up standardized sizing as the solution.6
The model’s arguments do showcase the variety of problems we as consumers have with this topic. It is great that we finally managed to break free from the extreme diets and senseless workouts of the 2000s but the dread of stepping onto a scale or finding an old pair of jeans that doesn’t fit anymore is still ingrained in many who grew up during that period; and while we do know and acknowledge the problem of vanity sizing, body image issues or the fear of falling back into them is what makes many people support it eventually. The existence of small sizes is almost considered to be a threat but at the same time we can’t stand seeing ourselves move up the size chart, as would happen if we downsized the actual size of sizes again.
In 2018 H&M changed its UK sizing system and increased sizes by one standard deviation to meet shoppers expectations. One article from the time reads: „H&M sizing has remained more reliable than most, though some would say reliably small. H&M has been criticized for running smaller than most american brands and for being out of touch with the average american woman who often felt alienated as a shopper. This is essentially the reverse of the vanity sizing controversy that has plagued american brands such as j crew in recent years which received widespread backlash for the launch of its infamous size triple zero in 2014.“ 7 Still some customers think that these changes aren’t enough and that more sizes should be added8 :
According to the article, the changes were not only made in the UK but also in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Colombia9. This indicates that regional differences also come into play with sizing. A country where the population is generally larger may be more vocal about wanting larger size ranges at their disposal and since companies know that vanity sizing works, they may feel tempted to offer clothes that are cut a bit larger to appeal to these populations. Other brands entering that market then have to adjust to the vanity sizing those companies may already have implemented and thus the cycle continues. I have a Mango coat which i thrifted in 2017 but i’m pretty sure it was from the mid-2010s and on its size label i can read it’s a EU size XS and in Mexico the same coat is labeled as XXS. So not only are brands determining their own sizes, but it [sizing] also depends on different consumer markets and other factors that i do not really count as being a part of vanity sizing such as issues with the supply chain and also the target group in that specific market.
So to gain a more objective perspective on the matter we should take a look at this chart from the Washington Post10. It shows how the standard dress size increased between 6 and 8 inches from 1958 to 2011. It shows how waist and bust circumference are related to dress size with the smallest standardized stress size being a size 8 in 1958. And if we compare the very small triple zero measurement from the aforementioned brands to this chart, we will see that while the size is very small, it is not off the chart11. Brands didn’t just start adding ridiculously small sizes to mess with us, they just added these small sizes that were previously pushed off the size charts by years of vanity sizing. JCrews triple zero would have been a size 8 in 1958 and the same goes for Abercrombie and Fitch.
Marilyn Monroe’s dress size – settled once and for all
And while we’re at it – this is also why Marilyn Monroe is not a current US size 16. In the last decade people started to celebrate Marilyn Monroe, but not because historians worked really hard to finally put the record straight after decades of sexism tainted her image and ridded her of her personhood – it was because people praised her for her curves, claiming that she was a size 16 – as the average woman – and thus she became an icon to the body positivity and fat acceptance movement.
Now, if we look at Marilyn Monroe’s measurements as stated by the modeling agency she was signed with in 1945, she measured 36 inches bust, 24 waist and 33 hip12; or in centimeters that is 91.5 centimeters bust 61 centimeters waist and 86 centimeters hips and the agency described that to be a size 12. Comparing these measurements to current size charts she would be a size XXS or 0 or EU32 in waist circumference and commonly a size M in her bust measurement, although that seems to vary a lot which i find is really interesting. It looks like American retailers assume a larger bust measurement than European companies. At Abercrombie’s and JCrew she would actually be a size S, US6 or EU38 in bust measurement H&M places here as a size M, EU40 or US8 and Gucci and Valentino place her bust measurements to be in between a size M and L, meaning a EU size 38 to 40 and a US size 10 to 12, while all these companies agree on an XXS measurement for her waist and an XXS measurement for her hips13. Now going back to the chart from the Washington Post: in 1958 standard sizes this leaves her at a size 8 in waist measurement to a size 14 to 16 in bust measurement14. The discrepancy between this source and the size stated by her modeling agency may be due to some vanity sizing happening between 1945 and 1958 or simply to the agency using a different sizing system And there we have it: Marilyn Monroe was a size 16 before decades of vanity sizing. She would only be a size 8 today and that also only goes for her bust measurement as she was very „top-heavy“.
Marilyn Monroe’s weight did fluctuate a lot due to health problems and pregnancies but the weight listed by her modelling agency in 1945, the weight on her ID card from 1954 and finally the coroner’s report from when she died in 1962 are consistent.15 I honestly don’t think it’s right to dig up the largest size a person with well-documented health problems has ever been and use that for one’s own agenda. When you’re fluctuating due to medical problems – especially gynecological issues16 – body weight becomes a very sensitive topic beyond the realms of culture and vanity. And i don’t think she should be further exploited in that way.
How can we standardise dress sizes and stop vanity sizing – should we even stop it?
The „American Society for testing and materials“ as well as the „Joint European standard for size labeling of clothes“ propose standardized size charts, but both seem to struggle to establish generally applicable size labels and they are of course subjected to vanity sizing as well17. So will we never have standardized sizing? I personally am convinced that we must standardize our sizing for the sake of the environment. Ordering three pairs of jeans online just to send two of them back or not being able to thrift online because the sizing is just too inconsistent isn’t environmentally friendly. Of course this goes against the goal of large corporations who are often market listed and want infinite growth, and we as customers have to do some personal growth as well because standardizing our sizes could mean that we need to size up on the size charts. I honestly remember being pretty bummed about never being able to fit a size two or zero in spite of my low weight simply because my bones are too large. Embarrassing – i know.
In addition one must also take into account that bodies have gotten more diverse during the last century. Not only has a sedentary lifestyle and food abundance left its mark, but we’ve also gotten culturally diverse. Companies started to cater to a global market and ill or disabled people are advocating for safe and accessible clothing. So instead of crazy big corporations trying to cater to everyone we would greatly benefit from many different clothing lines with transparent communication on their sampling methods. A Japanese university student is simply different from a Kenyan woman, a Dutch mother a Mexican grandmom or an Indian athlete. Let’s support more size and proportion diversity – not only with the usual petite tall or plus sizes but also with curvy clothing, clothing for people in wheelchairs, unisex or teen sizes. I would love to hear your experiences on that.
If you learned something new, please give this video a thumbs up and if you have any information on sizing in fashion please dump it in the comments below because i love to nerd and i’m super obsessed with this topic in a weird way. But most importantly – don’t let abstract numerical sizes get into your head and make you feel bad. Just read the size charts and see you soon for another video of this kind because i’ve been hyper fixated on this topic for a very long time now. So thanks a lot for watching and see you soon!
2 François Baudot, „Die Mode im 20. Jahrhundert“,1999; p. 171
3 ibid. p. 122
13 https://www.jcrew.com/r/size-charts , https://www2.hm.com/en_us/customer-service/sizeguide/ladies.html, https://www2.hm.com/de_at/customer-service/sizeguide/damen.html, https://www.gucci.com/at/de/st/gucci-clothing-size-chart, https://www.valentino.com/de-at/help/customercare/sizeguide/women-sizes; (01.11.2021)
Marilyn Monroe picture licensed through www.alamy.com
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