19 July 2017




The tags on all their pants say "SMALL". Source.
We have all been there. Walk into any clothing store, try on 6 pairs of pants, find your size, go to another store, try on another 6 pairs, find your size there, and it’s [sometimes] 4 sizes different from the first pair. Strangely, men don’t often seem to struggle with this problem of ever-shifting-clothing-sizes, something which has plagued North American women for over 50 years.

Before standard sizing, everyone’s clothes were tailor-made. Clothes were made to fit the person, not the person fitting into the clothes. What changed this was, surprisingly, war.

The Napoleonic War (1803-1815) demanded hundreds of soldier’s uniforms to be mass produced. To keep up with this demand, standard sized clothing patterns were necessary. By the War of 1812, the army held stocks of uniforms in standardized sizing.

A standard sizing system was created based on a man’s chest measurements, and the rest was calculated accordingly. This was done assuming their bodies were in perfect proportion.

The potential for mass producing clothing for business was discovered, and mass-produced clothing, called “ready-made-clothes”, became very popular. 

Early 20th century fashion producers tried to reproduce this method by using women's busts as the starting point, but as all women know, busts come in all shapes and sizes. In 1939, the Works Progress Administration, an American government body, funded two researchers to collect the height, weight, and 58 measurements of 15,000 women, to standardize women’s garment manufacturing sizing. 

The problem was, the measurements of only white women were included in the final calculations, despite collecting measurements from women of colour. 

The women measured were also likely to be poor, because they would be paid, and likely malnourished, because the measurements were also taken at the end of The Great Depression.

This means, the foundation for garment sizing in North America, released in 1942, is based off measurements of malnourished, white women.
Another issue with these size charts is that statisticians were looking for predictable, measurable, parts of the body, that could be used to calculate other parts of women’s bodies in the same way they calculated men’s. The problem is, with varying and unpredictable breast and hip sizes, this was much more difficult to calculate.

Museum clothing collections, and the common misconceptions of how small men and women were prior to the 20th century, exacerbate these non-objective calculations. Many people believe men and women of the past were much smaller than they are now.

This gold slipper boot in Fashion Victims, at the Bata
Shoe Museum, is likely a size 6 women's, is in good
condition, and was likely never worn, but was instead
advertising for it's cobbler. Source. 
At the Bata Shoe Museum, for example, many of the shoes in their collection that are older than 40 years old, will be as small as a 5 or 6 women's shoe size. Many of the clothing on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum will also often be a size 4-00. Museum collections consist of smaller shoe and dress sizes because these were less likely to be purchased or worn; much like in today's retail stores, thus surviving into present day exhibitions. It was also common practice for tailors, dressmakers, and cobblers to make samples of their work as advertising, which would be made smaller than normal to save materials, and never worn.

In 1958, National Bureau of Standards published "Body Measurements for the Sizing of Women's Patterns and Apparel" which used arbitrary numbers, between 8 and 32, to calculate women’s sizes, based on a plus minus system depending on your body type: (-) for slender; for for average, and (+) for a full body. You would also be assigned a letter, T for Tall, R for regular, and S for short.

This was so unpopular that, despite making updates in 1970's to include non-white individuals in the calculations, it was completely withdrawn in 1983. It was at this time clothing companies began creating their own, lower, sizing charts.

The Washington Post published a chart in 2015, showing the shifts in women’s sizing. A waist size 32 in 1958 would be a size 33 in the 70's, and close to a size 20 now. These numbers have changed so much, that sizes 0 and 00 had to be created. Lowering sizes, meant to make women feel better about their bodies, is called vanity sizing.

Clothing companies now look at wide the variety of women’s body types, target a specific buying group, and tailor their sizes to those women. In 1986, The New York Times reported that companies like Calvin Klein, Laura Ashley, and Liz Claiborne, intentionally all have different sizing standards to fit the women they are targeting, so that only a certain type of women can fit with that brand. The author of that article quoted a designer who said, "fit is a type of identity." If fashion is an expression of identity, than brands can identify with the people who they want to buy their clothing, and create buyers loyalty.

This is why brands approach specific celebrities for publicized events to wear their designs, and why some celebrities can't wear some designers outfits, if their body shape doesn't fit the body type model the brand is targeting.

Stranger still, companies like Gap Inc., who owns Intermix, Gap, Old Navy, Athleta, and Banana Republic, has different sizing charts depending who each clothing line is targeting. A hip size 8 at Banana Republic will be a size 2 at Gap.

If there is one thing women should take away from this – clothing sizes mean nothing. If something doesn’t fit, it’s probably because the pants are just not made for your body shape. If you are happy in your body, but don’t like the number in your clothes, just cut it out, because it literally means nothing.


2016, August 03). Retrieved July 16, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QwlT5f7H1c&index=43&list=PLMPT1ea2-YxBGXosZtkRC9OhkF5AoUkrn

American Federal Government. (1958). Body Measurements for the Sizing of Women's Patterns and Apparel [PDF]. American Federal Government.

Crazy American Obesity in Four Graphics. (2017, February 18). Retrieved July 16, 2017, from http://metrocosm.com/crazy-american-obesity-in-three-graphics/

Felsenthal, J. (2012, January 25). Why Clothing Sizes Make No Sense. Retrieved July 16, 2017, from http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/design/2012/01/clothing_sizes_getting_bigger_why_our_sizing_system_makes_no_sense_.html

Hunter, A. (2010, September 21). Christina Hendricks' Measurements - Too Big for Hollywood? Retrieved July 16, 2017, from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/christina-hendricks-measurements-too-big-for-hollywood/

Ingraham, C. (2015, August 11). The absurdity of women’s clothing sizes, in one chart. Retrieved July 16, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/08/11/the-absurdity-of-womens-clothing-sizes-in-one-chart/?utm_term=.510d11e6fe52

Nguyen, D. (2015, August 18). Your Dressing Room Frustrations Have Just Been Validated. Retrieved July 16, 2017, from http://www.eonline.com/news/687475/a-brief-history-of-women-s-clothing-sizes-and-why-you-just-went-up-a-size

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