Fashion Course Update: Size matters

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“This week the Department of Agriculture and the WPA in New Jersey set about getting women’s figures taped; they started a WPA project to measure 100,000 women. Later this research will be continued in five other States. Each subject—matron, maid, scrubwoman, show girl—will be taped in 59 different places, special recordings made to check the “sitting spread.” The purpose: to create a new, unified system of sizing women’s clothing.” This is an excerpt from an article published in the TIME magazine in 1939 titled, “Women: No Boondoggling.” It heralded in a new era – an era of uniform sizing in the fashion industry. The drive to develop a standard method of sizing individuals was based on the calculation of American manufacturers that they were losing close to $10 million every year due to a lack of standardised sizing. Before this, sized were usually measured according to age (so a size 16 would mean clothes for a 16 year old) and after a certain age, on the basis of bust size. The underlying assumption behind this lax attitude to sizing was that women were generally supposed to know how to sew. So alteration should not be an issue, that is if they weren’t making their clothes from scratch in the first place. Sizes were also not as important as they are to us because people before us simply did not shop as much as we do. We have gone from having 2 fashion seasons a year to as many as 104 seasons.

The Department of Agriculture and the WPA ended up collecting data from 15,000 samples, but given the fact that mostly white women from lower sections of the economy (to earn the participation fees) volunteered for this exercise, and that the people collecting the data had no computers to analyse the data collected, the results were far from conclusive.

The effort to find a universal method of sizing was undertaken again in the 1940s by the Mail-Order Association of America in conjunction with the National Bureau of Standards. This time they mostly used sample sizes taken from women serving in the Airforce, creating a sizing system that was once again, fairly arbitrary and hugely non-representative of the population at large (given that women serving in the Airforce were arguably some of the fittest women in the country). They came up with sizes on a scale ranging from 8 to 36, with variations for height – represented by T (Tall), R (Regular) and S (Short) – as well as ‘-‘ and ‘+’ signs to show variations in girth.

This was only the beginning though. Government sizing regulations were more or less ignored by manufactures as the average size of the American woman increased – leading to the development of what we now know as ‘vanity sizing’, so much so that the Department of Commerce withdrew its standard sizing regulations altogether after a point. Already based on an inaccurate and underwhelming system of sizing clothes, the fashion industry – at least in terms of sizing – was now in free fall. To attract customers and to keep women happy, sizes were continuously downplayed. In fact, a few quick online searches will show you how a size 8 in the 1950s is nothing like a size 8 in our day and age. It isn’t so much a bad or a good thing, as it is inconvenient. To give you context, Marylin Monroe was a size 12 in the 1960s. Today she would be better suited to finding clothes in size 6. In the end, it boils down to the fact that the sizing system is flawed and outdated, and I honestly don’t know why we still bother with it. Because, you know, like Stanley Tucci says in Devil wears Prada – “2 is the new 4 and 4 is the new 6.” If you’re a size 6? That’s the new 14. Or not. We don’t actually know what we’re doing anymore.

I have 4 pairs of jeans that fit me perfectly. 2 of these are 26-inch waists, 1 is a 27-incher, 4 are  28-inchers and 1 is even a 24-incher. If I measure my waist with an inch tape – I’m a 27 inch waist. So, um, you see my issue. And this is a fairly common issue. I’ve read up on fashion bloggers talking about how they will try on at least 4 versions of the same clothing item in the same size to find the right fit. So, if sizes on clothes aren’t telling us what size to buy…what is the point?

It was bad enough going through the (unnecessarily) embarrassing ordeal of finding clothes that fit you in a store. Now we have to do it for clothes we buy online? Less embarrassing for sure, but way more frustrating. Did you know almost 40% of clothes bought online are returned due to sizing issues? Now, as frustrating as this is for us, I can’t imagine it is any better for the online retailers. They lose a lot of money covering ‘free return and shipping’ expenses. Let us take a step back for a minute. Yes it is a hassle finding something in your size (only if you’re a size 10 or less mind you, finding clothes beyond that range is a whole different nightmare). But do you ever wonder how the economics of all this works out? The companies we shop from (for the most part) manage to not only stay afloat, but also do quite well in the market. Which means they make up for this cost somewhere along the production line / supply chain. If they aren’t compromising on the speed with which they produce clothes, or the convenience their customers so dearly cherish – the cost must be coming out of some other stage. Like it says in the ‘True Cost’ documentary, it is either made up by upping the human cost or the environmental cost (usually both). I’ve spoken a fair bit about the moral, human and environmental implications of the fashion industry, so I won’t repeat myself here. I promise to stick to the sizing issues, but this is still something to think about.

So where do we go from here?

Is it the ‘one-size fits all’ stores akin to Brandy Melville’s? An approach where you simply put out clothes in different sizes but never label them – allowing all your customers to try out clothes in the same size. The marketing strategy behind this being, presumably, that women feel better when they pick out and fit into the ‘small’ label in clothing stores (regardless of how meaningless that ‘S’ on your clothes has truly become nowadays).

Is it technology? You’ll notice a lot of start-ups promising accurate sizing based on advanced body measurements and 3-D printing. This might very well be the future, but I think there is some time in this yet.

Or is it back to the basics for us? Like Tina Sondergaard’s boutique in Rome. A boutique that makes clothes to measure for each and every individual that walks into the store – allowing for alterations in the design as and when you feel like it – for a hefty price of course.

I don’t have a lot of faith in the first option. Mostly because I can see how that might lead to a lot of bad fitting clothes all round. I think it might come down to this – if the second option becomes economically viable at any point then that might work for the masses, with the elite turning to human labour and treating it like an exotic and coveted commodity – kind of like how they did with technology when it first came out.

Sources:

  1. Eliana Dockterman, ‘Inside the fight to take back the Fitting Room’ TIME Magazine
  2. The Bizarre History of Women’s Clothing – TIME Magazine
  3. A Brief History of Sizing Systems – Medium