Sizing evolution

Judging from continuing comments and emails in reference to my fit and sizing postings here, here and here; I’d have to conclude that I have failed to explain the myth of vanity sizing adequately. This is another attempt.
I usually wear a size zero. The actual measure of my inches around is very close to what it was 20 years ago but back then, I was a size 4. However, I continue to insist that the difference in this accounting is not vanity sizing but sizing evolution. I am not stupid; I know that the relative dimensions of what is designated as a size 0 today is what constituted a size 4, twenty years ago but that doesn’t mean clothing is sized for vanity. People are missing my point which is: sizes evolve, just like people do. If sizes did not evolve -normalizing to the population- then we’d still be making clothes to fit people from the 1500’s. A friend puts it this way:

Let’s look at an extreme illustration: Think of what a size 0 or 2 looked like in the middle ages, and what an average (14?) woman looked like then. Now imagine if they still made clothing that size and using that scale: nobody would buy a size 0, and the *average* woman would fit into a size 40. So, yeah, they scaled a 0 up to fit a 0 woman, and the rest of the sizes scaled upwards as well. They didn’t do it to “make rich women feel good” or whatever the usual justification is, they did it to sell clothes profitably!

Just because you happen to notice the change within the span of your lifetime doesn’t mean clothing is vanity sized. Change these days is rapid, why would clothing be any different from computers? If you notice that the average person is larger, why would you ever be surprised that average sized clothing is larger too? If clothing sizes didn’t evolve, people younger and bigger than you would complain that clothing is too small. They are average for the era and they buy more clothes.

Where you buy your clothes matters. Are you shopping at a retailer or a push manufacturer cum retailer? Size comparisons between retailers is usually inappropriate because it’s unlikely you were shopping at the Gap twenty years ago so you can hardly claim a fair comparison. Retailers like Land’s End sells to baby-boomers with thickening waistlines and it’s highly unlikely you were attracted to those sorts of styles in your youth. Weight-wise, it may be that you haven’t kept up with the curve so you’re buying clothes a size or two smaller than you did twenty years ago and that’s great. My congratulations on maintaining your figure but the average person hasn’t.

No one denies that there is relative size inflation as sizes evolve to fit the population but it’s not vanity. It’s evolution. If you’ve kept your figure and are buying clothing that’s labeled 2 sizes smaller than twenty years ago. that is something to be proud of so enjoy it. Besides, this whole discussion is irrelevant. The real issue is why clothing fits so badly but everybody’s so busy talking about myths of vanity sizing that we’ll never get anywhere. If we can’t define our problems, we’re unlikely to solve them.

Please refer to the other articles in this series which offer substantive supporting material. Add to the discussion rather than backtracking to topics discussed elsewhere. It is likely that the exceptions you’ve thought of have been dissected in depth. For your convenience, links open in a new window or tab.

The Myth of Vanity Sizing
Fit and Sizing Entropy
Push manufacturing; subverting the fit feedback loop
Sizing evolution
Shrinkage and fit
Alternatives in Women’s sizing
Tyranny of tiny sizes?
The history of women’s sizing pt 1
The history of women’s sizing pt 2
The history of women’s sizing pt 3
Sizing is a variety problem
The birth of size 10?
Vanity sizing shoes
Tyranny of tiny sizes pt.2
Vanity sizing: generational edition
Vanity sizing: generational edition pt.2
Vanity sizing: the consumer spending edition


  1. Susan McElroy says:

    From what I infer from my reading about the history of fashion and fashion production, the whole idea of “sizes” is probably a modern phenomenon anyway. At least until the Victorian age, women bought fabric (“dry goods”?) and either sewed their own clothes or had their seamstress or tailor cut it according to their measurements. In my idea of truly “lean” manufacturing, we might actually get back to a high-tech version of that, though I’ve been disappointed by what I’ve read of mass-customization.

  2. Alex says:

    I guess the problem I have then is not that evolution exists but why it exists. If I know that the average woman were a size 20, I wouldn’t mind wearing size 20 clothing. I mean, I completely understand the reasoning behind S, M and L and how the average customer is always going to be M. Fine. But why bother changing actual number sizes? You say that manufacturers will scale a 0 size to a 0 woman, so does that mean that if you find that a 0 woman has gotten smaller, the sizes will scale down again? All this is telling me that after a couple of years I won’t really be able to start from a certain number and work out if that piece of clothing doesn’t fit me. It’s already starting to be like a crap shoot.

    Sorry, don’t mean to kvetch. Just had a long day. I have learned a lot from these posts and do appreciate them!

  3. Walter says:


    Why don’t they use a objective standard, like inches or cetimeters? That way, instead of trying on lots of different items looking to the one that fits, you could just get measured when you start and pick from the items that fit.

    This would make mail order much easier (no more having to guess if the 1X or 2X shirt is the right size).

  4. The myth of vanity sizing

    I’ve been avoiding the topic of fit and sizing -which aren’t the same thing- for a very long time. I haven’t written about it because a truly comprehensive discussion is very controversial and guaranteed to piss off everyone from consumers…

  5. Fit and sizing entropy

    When I said I could write an entire book about why vanity sizing was a myth, I was exaggerating only slightly. What I should have said was I could write an entire book about why clothing fits so poorly and…

  6. Push manufacturing; subverting the fit feedback loop

    “Push” manufacturing can be described as producing an entire line of products without pre-selling and taking orders for it. This means making up a bunch of stuff without knowing if anybody wants it beforehand. In my opinion, push manufacturing is…

  7. jj says:

    Walter, if you think that inches or centimeters is an objective standard in women’s wear, please re-read the article on “Alternatives in Women’s Sizing”. Two women with a 38″ bust may have very, very different figures.

  8. olivia says:

    I understand that sizes should evolve with the evolution of the population – but what is wrong with adding sizes? Leave a zero as a zero. I have clothes of my mother’s that were a four when she wore them, and they fit me now, as a zero… and maybe that’s fine. But I went shopping at Banana Republic recently, and even the zeros were too large! Besides, I know girls smaller than I am. My old clothes still fit — I think that maybe if sizes didn’t change, people would realize that they were gaining weight, and they might do something about it. Changing sizes is certainly a more profitable venture… but that doesn’t mean it is a good one.

  9. Thomas Bailey says:

    Walter is right about using objective standards using actual measurements. The British Standards Institute has drafted just such a standard, and is due sometime after 2007. The release date has been delayed repeatedly. First I read that the new labels will be released in 2004, then at the end of 2006, and now after 2007. Designers know people do not want big size numbers, which BS-EN13402 will have, with 3-digit sizes being common. This is the primary measurement in centimeters. This is likely to be a big obstacle, as few people would admit to being a size 105, as I happen to be.

  10. Susan says:

    The interesting thing for me here is that, so far as I know, baby sizing has not really either evolved or changed. At least not the base biology. There are slightly different growth curves between formula and breast feed babies, but the difference between the two groups is smaller, so far as I know, than the difference within each group itself.

  11. kaga says:

    “Besides, this whole discussion is irrelevant.” Why is it irrelevant? For ladies who are on the small side, it definitely IS relevant. I’ve always been the same size (currently a UK size 2 / US 00) and years ago I could comfortably find fitting clothes but now shopping is such a headache because hardly anything fits anymore! Sooner or later, nothing at all will fit so pray tell, what shall ladies like us do for clothes?

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