Why clothes don’t fit


Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Clothing sizes make no sense. PERIOD. Guess what? They never have!

I recently discussed the history of sizing with Mitchell Hartman for NPR’s Marketplace. You may listen to the segment that aired earlier this month here.

While the radio segment provides a brief overview of the development of women’s clothing sizes, I want to provide you with more details on the government’s first attempt to construct a standardized system of sizing.

Prior to the 1940s, standard clothing sizes did not exist. Lavish ladies from high society had clothing made to measure, while everybody else made do with a system based on approximation. Clothing sizes for children were based on age; those for women were based on the bust measurement. The assumption behind this sizing practice was that any woman at home had the requisite skills to alter garments to fit the intended body. In contrast, a ready-to-wear sizing system existed for men since the Revolutionary War. Men’s uniforms were sized according to chest measurements.

2e7ac650719eec91cad30fb43b3556e2The quest for size standardization did not begin until the 1940s. As the catalogue industry began to grow, they estimated a lack of set sizes was costing manufacturers $10 million a year. The U.S. government was also interested in standardizing sizes as a means to conserve fabric during the war. This motivated the Works Progress Administration and Department of Agriculture to ask statisticians Ruth O’Brien and William Shelton to measure 15,000 women in 59(!) different places and analyze the data to come up with a sizing system.

The data the duo collected, however, was problematic for a number of reasons. The sample of measured women was not a true cross-section of the population. Since the study was done on a volunteer basis and paid participants, it attracted women of a lower socioeconomic background who, due to malnutrition, tended to be on the small side. These women were also predominantly white, as the measurements from women of color were often discarded. Additionally, the statisticians assumed women had an hourglass figure (in reality, only 8 percent do) and based their measurements on bust size (again!). So, no, Meghan Trainor, it’s all ‘bout that bust.

From the collected measurements, O’Brien and Shelton devised a system based on height and weight but, in their wisdom, realized that women would not be too happy to disclose their weights to sales clerks. Instead, they formulated an alternative system based on an upper body measurement, height index, and lower body girth index. This resulted in a system comprised of 27 different sizes, and, no, size 0 was not one of them.

To their merit, while sizing, itself, has dramatically changed since their study, O’Brien and Shelton used numbers to indicate women’s sizes that were not, themselves, direct measurements of women’s bodies (as we commonly see in men’s clothing). This may be their one lasting legacy to modern sizing.


Illustration by Jenna Josepher for Racked

Since O’Brien and Shelton’s landmark study, sizing standards have been reanalyzed, tweaked, infected by vanity sizing, and abandoned. Ultimately, that number on the tag that seems to matter to many American women does not mean much at all. It is, after all, just a number that does not reflect the reality of women’s bodies. For example, when Textile Clothing Technology conducted their SizeUSA study in the early 2000s, utilizing body scanners to collect measurements from almost 11,000 women, they found up to 7 distinct body shapes and a huge disparity within these shapes, e.g., there is a 12-inch spread for hip girth associated with a 28-inch waist.


Image source via Getty Images

So, please, stop worrying about your size, and, if you are really concerned by the fit of a garment, learn how to sew or hire a tailor. Don’t change your body to fit the clothes. Change the clothes to fit your body.


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