Why isn’t women’s clothing sized like men’s? pt.2

This is the follow up to part one, Why isn’t women’s clothing sized like men’s?. I’ll open by saying I was hoping visitors would more fully develop the idea of why men’s clothing is sold by number (mentioned indirectly by Chris, Nowaks, Alison, Matthew and Helena) so we could see why it is more challenging to do the same for women.

Many believe men have it easier because numbers are used to indicate their sizing. This is true and false but because is the operative word here. Men’s pants can be sold by numbers (waist and inseam) because the hip dimensions of men’s bodies (relative to waist size), is more easily predicted. It is because of their anatomy that numbers indicating hip measure is not needed to sell their pants.

This is not true for women. Women’s waist to hip difference can range from 12″ difference to the waist being several inches larger than the hips. So, the plea for women’s sizes to be sold like men’s is only similar if men’s pants were also sold by waist, inseam and hip. Since they are not, you can multiply the proverbial 99 sizes to get on the order of 300 sizes -duly noted are objections by Alison and others that makers aren’t required to produce all sizes.

This is likewise true of men’s shirts (nod to Alison, Matthew). Men’s shirts can be sold by neck size and sleeve length because there is a more predictable relationship between men’s neck sizes and their chest girth. Like pants, these characteristics are also not true of women’s bodies.

I’ll cut to the chase because being argumentative isn’t helping matters; we all know that something must be done and we intuit that something can be done. Manufacturers should be more descriptive. To illustrate some possibilities, I’m using Marguerite’s line as an example, I have one of her outfits, not the one shown but I love it. I made up these dimensions so I’m responsible for certain errors and omissions!:

Website copy would list the information in the left side of the panel. A suggested retail hang tag is shown at right. You have my permission to use the icon I drew if you want to do something like this.

If that’s all you want to know, you can stop reading at this point. However, I’ll go on with the content and responses from part one to flesh out this debate.

On the question of how women’s bras are like men’s slacks, Helena made some very good points saying:

– To find the first pair may take a lot of fitting and trying on different sizes, sometimes with a fitter from the store as help.
– A lot of people do not have an idea how the system works, and even if they do know, the size they’re “supposed to wear” still does not necessarily fit.
– When the first well fitting bra/slacks is found, many people tend to stick to that size and that model.

I don’t want to get too far off track but sticking with one brand and size is how most men shop. More women have realized they also need to shop this way but too many do not. Among women who know they must shop this way, they risk unpleasant surprise and annoyance if the manufacturer changes their sizing structure, removing certainty.

On the same question, Matthew said the similarities amounted to less change, less need to follow trends and lastly, no need for customers to coordinate the bra with other items. In other words, bra shopping for women and pant shopping for men, lends itself to cherry picking.

Cherry picking is something I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time. Cherry picking is usually discussed in terms of wholesale relationships and refers to buyers who will pick only one piece of a coordinated outfit but not both. It is usually used in a derogatory way. These same buyers will buy a pant or other coordinating piece from another line to pair with the first one. I understand why a designer wouldn’t like this but this is one of those changes that has come to bear. Retailers are only cherry picking because their customers are. If their customers are cherry picking, it is unreasonable for producers to get bent out of shape about it when buyers do it. Rather, this speaks to an opportunity to solidify or streamline a product line. If buyers aren’t buying your pants, drop them and concentrate on tops. In the comments to the first entry, quite a few people alluded to this. Several people mentioned they were less interested in full trendy outfits, that they wanted more wardrobe basics that would transcend trends. The opportunity for smaller manufacturers could be producing fewer styles in more sizes. It is quite risky so I understand the hesitation to do so -particularly when sales reps are constantly exhorting manufacturers to increase the number of styles they offer.

But back to similarities between bras and men’s pants. My point is that the labeling of men’s pants and women’s bras sizing is preferred precisely because these items only have two sizing constraints (variables) but adding a third sizing variable overwhelms with complexity. Forget manufacturing, each additional variable adds another order of magnitude in buying, managing and displaying inventory. I don’t think people really understand how significant these limitations (to include retail display) are. To be able to label sizes and display them according to three variables (waist, hip and inseam for women) is more difficult than people imagine. And again, I know that some producers can do this but these are very large companies -remember I said that women’s wear manufacturers tended to be small? 68% have 20 employees or less. Point is, if sizes can’t be displayed to full effect, you can’t find them to purchase them. With two variables only, men’s pants neatly fit in labeled cubbies and women’s bras are (often) neatly sorted into drawers.

Alison said:

Why don’t manufacturers label what they make in a way that makes it easier to choose something that will fit?

I do think we could do a better job of this (as I illustrated above), particularly with consumer direct web sales because your customer is not being confused by a competing line hanging next to yours on a rack. Dana brought up some issues that many designers face saying:

[…] women’s wear styling means that not everything has meaning if sized by a body measurement and there are lots of styles that kind of defy really specific numbers. Something like a very oversized top that technically fits several sizes of body measurements. Our design intent in a piece like that can be one thing and giving a body bust measurement might just confuse consumers. That just adds another point of confusion in the sizing conversation – design intent vs fit and consumer’s using “fit” to describe both or to communicate that “I don’t like how that extra fullness looks on me”. We as designer’s have to know the difference in this too.

I don’t know the solution for this. Several people have suggested that the actual pattern dimensions should be listed but I think that is a move in the wrong direction. One reason I used an example from Marguerite’s line is because her pieces have a loose and flowing silhouette. Many times I’ve been frustrated with web copy because I can’t picture the item on my body because I don’t know what size the model is wearing or what her dimensions are to know which size I should buy. Every consumer has a fitting preference. My SIL and I wear the same size although she’s 2″ shorter and 30 lbs heavier than me. I prefer looser clothing and she prefers tighter clothing. That reminds me, Alison said

Large-breasted women complain that they can’t find cheap silky nothings in their size. Well, there’s a reason for that. That type of garment can’t offer support and would look terrible on a large-breasted woman if it did exist. When they can’t find it women think they want it but are disappointed if they do find it. So retailers don’t carry it. They carry cheap silky nothings in small cup sizes and maybe pricier lacy bras with structure in larger sizes depending on whether their market will pay for a more expensive bra.

You’d be surprised at how many people would want it anyway. They don’t realize the limitations of structure, the underpinnings of stability that a garment must provide to retain its shape.

A woman we mutually and greatly admire was once entertaining the idea of a plus sized line, what she learned was shocking (to her). She said that the plus sized women she interviewed wanted regular clothes, styles that could not possibly look good on them, only cut larger. Like mini skirts and crop tops to fit women weighing 250 to 300 pounds. She concludes that the perception of their appearance is vastly different from others. By the same token (playing devil’s advocate), it shouldn’t be up to us to say what people should wear but it does represent a design blindness in that we don’t make those items. We can’t say we won’t make it because people would be disappointed so retailers don’t carry it if our bias of what looks good conflicts with some consumers expressed wishes.

In conclusion, I do think we can do a better job of communicating fit attributes to consumers. I’m not suggesting it is not challenging -the least of which being that consumers know their dimensions because they mostly do not or they misrepresent them. I was talking to one designer the other day; she will custom make some styles to measure (at twice the price). The garment was cut to the measurements the customer provided by phone. However, the customer called to complain the item did not fit when she received it. Incredible as it is, the customer admitted she didn’t give the right dimensions because her husband was listening to the phone call, yet she still expected the garment would fit her. Many people are not rational. There are reasons why many designers go happily into wholesale and never look back.

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