The myth of vanity sizing

Amended: There is an extensive list of links at close to substantiate the claims I’ve made in this entry, this one being but the first.

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 upset everyone from consumers to manufacturers. The problems associated with issues of poor fit or standard sizes are so complex that they cannot but include everyone in the user-producer stream. This isn’t an issue of spreading blame; it’s more complex than that. The biggest problems are expectations and beliefs.

First of all, there’s no such thing as vanity sizing. Really. I could write an entire book about why there’s no such thing as vanity sizing. That is not to say there are no problems with sizing but vanity is the least of them. It’s best to understand the nature of sizing before we go crazy and adopt national sizing standards. People are so different from one another that it is an unreasonable expectation that our clothes should be sized uniformly. The day that we should only have one size “medium” across all manufacturers is also the day we should only need an identical dose of an identical medicine for an identical medical problem. Humans are unique.

Sizes are not created equally; not all mediums from company to company are identical and nor should they be. Manufacturers necessarily target a given consumer profile -even push manufacturers have target demography- and it is more common for consumers of a given profile to share anthropometric characteristics than it is that they not. A medium simply indicates the middle size of a given manufacturer’s size run; that’s it. The reason is that consumers tend to share body size characteristics that are unique to a given interest or lifestyle. The example I always use is western wear apparel and ballerina tutus. A medium in a demography of horse-riding, outdoor working people is strikingly different from what constitutes a medium from the pool of elfin sized ballerinas. Similar patterns are observed in the population based on income -the wealthier are thinner- and dietary -vegetarians are thinner- and it’s well known that lower income Americans average on the heavier end of the scale. It is only appropriate that a manufacturer of a given market segment establish the median size -a medium- for their product lines. It is an unreasonable expectation that a medium sized barrel-racer is going to wear a medium sized tutu. Just the sleeves in western wear are inordinately long so a mental picture of a ballerina with sleeves to her knees makes me laugh out loud because even a barrel racer won’t buy a riding jacket if the sleeves aren’t “too” long so you can only imagine how they’d hang on a small girl. The sleeves are too long because they need to cover the wrists when the reigns are grasped so their normal range of motion is expanded and they want their sleeves long enough to cover that.

The issue of what constitutes a “medium” is related to arcane production concerns of which consumers know little, how could they? For example, let’s say that everybody had to use the same sizes, can you imagine the number of sizes the western wear company would be forced to carry as compared to the tutu maker? Why should either company be forced to bear the costs of product development of sizes that they’ll rarely sell? Why? Just on the off chance that the barrel-racer has a hankering for a ballerina tutu or vice versa? Similarly, the degree of change in sizing variation is different as people get larger. In other words, as people get larger, they get proportionately larger and the number of inches that constitute one size or another increases. The opposite is also true. As people get smaller, the differences between sizes are also smaller so these two opposing expectations are not compatible. While I agree it’s not “fair” that neither the barrel-racer or the ballerina can wear each other’s clothes, that’s what niche manufacturing is all about. In the meantime, I await with bated breath for someone to tell me they’re launching a line of western wear tutus for horse riding ballerinas.

A medium to a manufacturer is a reference calculation of needed fabric purchases. Since the medium represents -statistically speaking- their average customer based on sales, the quantities of fabrics ordered are based on multiples of those measures and just the issue of marker making is so complex I don’t dare bring it up. For this reason alone a manufacturer will not want to change the sizing of their medium because it directly impacts utilization of all their other sizes. What it really boils down to is consumer expectation that they should be able to walk into any store, anywhere and pick out a medium and expect it to fit them but that’s just not reasonable. Particularly when many consumers are reluctant to pay the customary price points of that market. For example, it’s unreasonable for the average Wal-Mart customer -who only wants to pay Wal-Mart prices- to walk into Talbot’s and expect a Talbot’s medium to fit them and their pricing expectations so it’s unreasonable to expect every manufacturer to fit the full range of human size possibilities too. With companies free to fit “their” customer, you have more possibilities of locating a size that fits you than if sizes were standardized. Why does everybody and his brother assume the standard sizes would mirror their unique characteristics? That baffles me.

Back to vanity sizing, or rather, the myth of it. Hopefully I’ve explained to your satisfaction that the variation between given mediums is not based on vanity sizing but real concerns managing the costs of product development as dictated by a given consumer profile. The next thing I’ll explain is the variation in sizing that exists between different labels of a given manufacturer. For example, everybody says that designers like Ralph Lauren produce vanity sizing but that’s not true either. Just as given manufacturers are sized differently, so are labels within a given design house. The reason is simple. Ralph Lauren produces a range of products across different labels that appeal to different types of consumers. The products that are intended for the vanity market -those who buy a tee-shirt at resort for example- are sized very differently from their core designer customer. The customer with more discretionary income is thinner than the former so if it were true that Ralph Lauren (for example; I have no bone to pick with him) sized for vanity then Ralph’s core customer wouldn’t be able to find a size to fit them. And you know that’s not true.

Another thing people drag out as evidence of vanity sizing is the “inflation” of sizing numbers, that because what’s known now as a size 4 was formerly designated as a size 16 (pre 1960’s) that this is proof of size inflation but that’s not true either. The reason is that old sizes were based on -yet another- arcane principle related to pattern making and sizes were designated based on something known as “scale”. Scale was a pattern maker’s reference to use that given number on the back side of an L-square (a scale of aliquot parts) to generate the proportionate measures appropriate to that size so these numbers were not arbitrary. The sizing system changed as consumers wrested meaning away from scale to what became an arbitrary system of numbers to represent given sizes. So, if the number of the size doesn’t “mean” anything today, don’t blame us. We had sizing numbers and they meant something, namely scale. And lastly, sizing is evolutionary. It evolves just like people do. To suggest that the qualitative measures that constitute any given size should not change over time is idiotic. Were this the case, we should still be using standards from the 1500’s. Nobody with a rational mind considers the archaic and racist data of the Sheldon study in the 1940’s to be valid so they don’t use it either.

Some people drag out vintage samples of old clothing as proof of vanity sizing too but I can’t see that proves anything except that consumers have gotten fatter but I don’t think consumers have gotten quite as fat as some people claim either based on their reference of comparison. Then as now, women have hoarded keep-sake garments. These are usually wedding gowns or fine dresses that one wore in their youth or peak of life and while I’m not saying we weren’t smaller in the past, I am saying that the garments that managed to survive the era were not representative of the population then anymore than the too-small keepsake garments are representative of women today.

I think I’ve just about eliminated vanity sizing as the demon responsible for bad sizing. That done, the real issue is fit which as I said before, is different from sizing. That’s where our concerns should lie.

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

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