Alternatives in women’s sizing

In my continuing series discussing fit and apparel sizing (see links at close); I’ve failed to explain how sizing determinations are made, how standards are drawn followed by industry application. In this post I’ll explain how survey data is aggregated from which standard grade rules are drawn and perhaps, a potential solution to the biggest problems.

First of all, while surveys of human anthropometry may vary in method ranging from the measuring of young unmarried women typical of the Shelton study in the forties to the Sizing USA study conducted with body scanners under the auspices of TC2, the data is summarized into aggregates and applied in identical ways. For example, consumers have the expectation that if they gain weight, they should be able to grab the next largest size in the sequence and obtain a good fit. Unfortunately, that is an unreasonable expectation due to summarizing of study results.

When mass-marketer manufacturers design their sizing specs, they’re looking at the mid-range of any given size. For example, the average size 2 woman is shorter than the average size 8. Manufacturers design grade rules that encompass those height changes. I think this is an issue of misplaced expectations. Manufacturers don’t take a woman of a given size and grade up or down to fit that particular woman as she’d go through the various sizing changes. That would mean they’d only be making clothes to fit someone of a specific height but it wouldn’t make sense to do that as people also get taller in the larger size ranges. It’s an issue of proportion. Most people who are heavier, are also taller. If manufacturers are not highly targeted (such as Lane Bryant) they’re going to shoot for the best sizing bets of the market.

The reason is that sizes are weighted according to aggregates of all measures including height. In other words, a general pattern emerges that the average size 10 is taller than the average size 2; that’s just the reality. Accordingly, when manufacturers apply sizing standards, they incorporate height changes into each size too, not just width. Unfortunately, grabbing the next largest size will not only be greater in girth but in height as well. For this reason, it’s an unreasonable expectation to expect identical proportionates across sizing. This is a problem in mass manufacturing which is why I feel product lines should be much smaller (as should companies) to fit a more specialized target demography.

I’ve received many comments from women who feel sizes should fit them specifically, often justifying this expectation with a comparison of men’s sizing. The latter is an inappropriate comparative (as is shoe sizing; your feet don’t gain weight commensurately) owing mostly to anatomical differences between the sexes. Men have their center of gravity in the chest and their sizing standard largely reflects these differences well. Men’s height changes are generally satisfied in selling pants according to inseam although shirts and jackets have similar height changes according to increasing size. Women have their center of gravity in the hip hence the disparity and diversity of sizing -owing to our unique biology of reproduction and the dramatic morphing of which our bodies designed to endure the rigors of pregnancy and lactation -the sizing variations present in women’s trunks are far more dramatic in differences than are men’s. Still, there has got to be a better solution and I believe there is. Similarly, it is insufficient to mention solutions without discussing the difficulties associated with implementation.

Specifically I’ve always felt that women’s dresses and blouses should be sized like bras -on a cartographic scale as opposed to the drafting standard of an x-y coordinate to which we’ve all been trained and acclimated. Drafting on an x-y coordinate is a simplistic strategy birthed of measuring a fixed inanimate object, in this case literally car seats. Yes, the “father” of CAD systems was initially developed by Gerber to develop interiors for automobiles and from there it spread to apparel. On the other hand, cartographic drafting relies on triangulation from one variant -one fixed point- to another which is more aligned with how someone like Vionnet developed styles as opposed to how it’s done today.

I believe sizing women’s blouses and dresses according to bra size would be a better solution. While small busted women may fail to appreciate the difference, there’s an enormous body sizing difference between a woman who wears a 32DD and who’s full bust measure is 38 than that of a woman who wears a 36B bra and also measures a full 38″. The difference being minimally 40 if not 50 lbs of total body weight. In other words, not all inches are created equally; the blouse sized to fit a 38″ chest has a much larger back than the woman wearing the DD cup needs; she needs extra inches up front, not in the back. Similarly, she doesn’t need the larger shoulders, upper arm girth or increased waist typically needed by the woman wearing a 36B bra. I realize that sizing blouses and dresses according to bra size won’t solve the issues of height incorporation but further differentiations between short, average and tall could be made by those companies who have the infrastructure in their product development departments to manage these size ranges.

Considering that the “average” woman wears a 36C bra, weighs 144 lbs and is just under 5’4″, I think sizing of this structure would make a dramatic difference in the fit of women’s apparel. Still, all the considerations of implementing such a sizing strategy aside -from consumer education to the development of entirely new grade rules there is still one enormous hurdle to adopting this strategy, namely, we don’t know how to do it. By “we” I mean the average pattern maker in the apparel industry. Implementing this sizing strategy would mean learning to draft according to cartographic coordinates and other than via a process of iteration and general rules of thumb (namely correctly identifying coordinate points), even I don’t know how to do it. I’ve never even seen a book that discusses cartographic drafting. In my case, I’ve had to use texts used by surveyors and map makers. Still, new sizes could be developed through iteration readily; the only question is whether apparel manufacturers would consider the effort to be worthy of investment. I have doubts whether larger established companies would feel the need to evolve their sizing to be more accurate anatomically but that’s why we need greater specialization in manufacturing which is most likely to come from smaller companies who are targeting a given proportion and demography. Large companies can’t do that job. Specialized apparel producers targeting specific lifestyle interests and practices can. Entrepreneurs like you, can. Consider the option, will you?

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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  1. says:

    A fitting solution

    Questions of aesthetics aside, it’s probably easier for men than women when it comes to buying clothing: we specify a bunch of numbers and we get something that might actually…

  2. C. Clark says:


    I’m sort of the opposite of the little woman with the DD bra size.

    without getting too detailed, I put weight up-front last, and across my back and waist, first it seems. They don’t make bras for women like me, 38 A or 40 B if I’m fatter like I am now.

    I curious about the blouse for a woman who is a size 2 and DD. I have a friend who used to be almost this size and complained about all the extra fabric across the back of clothes, fortunately she is a brilliant pattern designer herself, and sewed for herself quite a bit when she was younger (she’s 55 or so).

    Would you have to have major darts in a shirtwaist type pattern to accomodate such a body?

    My custom blouse would be pretty close to a man’s shirt, I think.

    Clothes as they are in stores are not made for me (except sweatshirts and sweatpants). I’m one of those statistical outliers. :-)

    What do you think of the custom made clothes like “land’s end” has?

    How about if we all move to wearing saris and togas?


  3. Camille,

    Not that I think I can single-handedly take back the word “custom,” but Land’s End has “made to measure” clothes, not custom. Custom clothiers consider you from the design inception stage. For “outliers” like yourself, you’ll get a MUCH more thoughtful and flattering result than from Land’s End. For real “custom clothiers,” (which I now call “collaborative clothiers”
    because “custom” has been so co-opted), check out

  4. Carol says:

    Until my mid-30’s, I was a 32D and barely 5′ tall. Yes, Camille, darts or princess lines are what are needed. Most commercial stuff is far too broad across the shoulders and back, which is why I got into custom/collaborative clothing.

    I’ll bet you need a bra with more space between the breasts. There’s an unfilled niche – women with this body type are coming to me all the time (for other things). Have you tried splitting the front and adding something strong and non-stretch, like a piece of twill tape?

  5. Leah says:

    Coming from Asia, I find myself annoyed with the fit of clothes over here, although I have trouble finding clothes there because I’m too big! Over there, however, tailoring is cheap enough that anyone middle-class or so are just as well off getting clothes custom-made.

    I am 36(B)-27/8-33/4 — my weight varies — and so everything billows on my back as if I’m a curtain rod and strains across my shoulders (AND I’m short). I need clingy shirts in order to have better hip fit. I haven’t heard of any term referring to this kind of body shape, but I call it “scarecrow”; those complaining about upper shirt breadth, I’m the one who it’s fitting. Generally, I fit into size 8/M, except when it comes to underwear, where I’m usually XS-S.

    Camille: they have extenders (extra hook & eyes) one can buy that extends the band size of bras. Some ‘full-figure’ lines might have 38+ B (Sears catalogue for one), and I’ve seen regular lines that go up to 38 in those cup sizes.

  6. Patently arrogant

    Jinjer sent me a link to a company called Rebecca and Drew. She knew it’d interest me because they’re making blouses sizing by bra size and she knows I have long advocated sizing women’s blouses and dresses by bra size…

  7. Ladygodiva says:

    There is a company in the UK that makes shirts by bra size, primarily for the larger busted woman. They specialize in large cup bras through a J-cup. The shirts are only up to size 16 but are great ( I wear a 14-16 but have an H cup).

    The site is

  8. donna says:

    I am a true size 2 or was. until the sizing begain to change. Where can a women size 2, 5 feet 1 inch tall,weight 97lb to 100lb. Buy anything that will fit? I am so frustrated as to why anyone would think a size 14 is a petite size. Dose any one have any Ideals on where to buy clothes that realy fit a petite person?

  9. SB says:

    Donna, I’m a size zero, and have NO advice for you, unfortunately. Just wanted to commiserate. My last ditch effort at finding jeans that fit is that I just ordered some me jeans ( I took about 15 measurements of my lower half, so I have my fingers crossed!

    What’s strange to me in this conversation, though, is that height and weight seem to be disconnected even in size 0. I’m 5’4″ and 100 lbs. ALL of the pants I try on are about 3 inches too long. And 2 inches too big in the waist. The hips and thighs are fine. I’m not that short, for my weight. I really don’t know what 5′ tall women are doing! Skirts?


  10. Barbara says:

    Hello. I am 5 10 and wear a 10-12 in pants but cannot find blouses to fit my 38 DD bust. The only tops I own are knits and stretchy. Also because my legs arent long but my torso is, these shirts of mine barely make it over my waist. Does anyone know a store or website or particular brand that might fit me? This is ridiculous!!

  11. Karen says:

    Regarding Jinger’s comment “I’ll bet you need a bra with more space between the breasts” I found it easier to buy a larger width size bra and then sew up part of the band in the back to make it smaller- heavenly! I kept hopping between different bra sizes until I came to that exact same “space between” conclusion. Also, there is another aspect to clothing: maturity. I am an unusual size (5’2.5″, 99lbs, 33-25-33) for my age (early 50’s) so while I may sometimes be able to find a tricky item like pants in Old Navy, I really want something more upscale and classic in style and manufacturing like Ralph Lauren or others. But they usually start their sizing at 4 or 6. And petites don’t happen to fit me very well, being long-limbed. It’s so frustrating. Why should customers with plenty of money to spend have to have so much trouble finding that ONE line of clothing that will fit them? Will someone please write a book that lists them all with their current size charts (and oh, historical ones would be priceless, too).

  12. 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…

  13. 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…

  14. jj says:

    I very much appreciate the idea of bra sizing for tops. I’m 5’1″, a size 2 or 0 in bottoms, but wear a size 34D or 32DD bra. A trend focused line with that sizing concept would be impractical, but a line of classic tops and business jackets seems quite marketable. Then the consumer would have the option of going for a full classic outfit or putting together a trendier look by mixing accessories, skirts and pants.

  15. Thomas Bailey says:

    The British Standards Institute is attempting to correct this with BS-EN13402, which calls for a pictogram with actual measurements in centimeters. Work on this standard began in 1996, and has the basic draft in 2003. Parts 1 and 2, which identify body parts to be measured, and which measurements are applicable to the garment, are established. Part 3, which specifies the sizing intervals, is still being worked on, and part 4, which calls for a 4-digit code, is in the planning stage. I have been ready for the new standard since 1983, when my measurements “went metric”.

  16. Kristen says:

    Someone above was wondering about people that are very small with a large bust as if they hypothetically exist. As a totally natural 30-32 F-G (depending on brand/style) I find extreme resonance in the argument for shirts by bra size. America doesn’t even accommodate my bra size, and I am forced to buy extremely expensive bra’s from Europe that have essentially the same amount of fabric and boning as a 36D that is very easy to find (or at least comparatively). Unfortunately I am not as handy seamstress as I would’ve hoped but have found a lovely dressmaker that will do alterations for me. glad to see someone else out there advocating what I’ve been saying for years

  17. Grace says:

    Do you know if anyone has done a regression analysis of body measurements on a large sample set?

    Suppose you measure 10,000 or so women and put them into a program that lets you slice and dice data, say my favorite, Interactive Data Language (IDL). Then you can do simple regression analysis between measurements (say bust and back width). The slope would give a linear constant to improve grading.

    I like to do a scatter plot of things that should be related. Often, clusters would appear. If you plot hips vs. waist, clusters might appear representing apples and pears. Do the regression analysis for each set of figure types separately. That gives you grading guidelines for different figure types.

    Surely, someone has thought of this before. Has anyone done it?

  18. Stephen says:

    For statistical based range of size measurements, see the previous EN-13402 mention.

    This European standard is based on labelling garments not with arbitrary sizes (size “2” … what does a “2” mean? different things depending on the target demographic), but with actual measurements on a language-neutral pictogram.

    e.g. A garment would be labelled with:
    Bust 94-98 (37-39 inches)
    Hips 102-106 (40-42 inches)
    Height 158-174 (5’2″-5’9″)

    Note the measurements are in metric (which, incidentally, were initially adopted by the USA in the 1800’s).

    There is also a short form of codes using the middle of the range for the primary measurement and letter codes for the others, e.g. 084DH would be a slender but tall size.

    The use of actual measurements makes mail order and Internet ordering much easier, and using multiple measurements allows a much wider range of body types to be accommodated.

    The publications also include common size ranges (based on statistical studies), so for example a man with chest 104 (cm) might usually have a waist of 92 (a drop of -12 cm), but a range of other drop sizes (between -20 to +8) are also seen.

  19. Kathleen says:

    Hi Stephen
    Actually, I did an analysis of the EN-13402. I believe the value of the system is actually the promulgation of the pictograph (I include a copy of my rendition, free) which one can use regardless of whether one chooses to adopt the EN strategy. I don’t believe the latter is a total solution; statistical surveys only report the mean leaving the other 50% of the population without redress. Regardless of which system one uses, I think the issue is one of transparency. Manufacturers must be more proactive about disclosing the parameters of measures that constitute any given size.

    The publications also include common size ranges (based on statistical studies), so for example a man with chest 104 (cm) might usually have a waist of 92 (a drop of -12 cm), but a range of other drop sizes (between -20 to +8) are also seen.

    Not to quibble with your example but there is much less variation btwn men’s sizes than women’s. Men’s sizing has always more readily lent itself to standardization.

  20. criss says:

    I’m not sure where this idea comes from that fatter people are taller. I’m 5’4″ and a size 22-24, and I can almost never put on a pair of pants that doesn’t drag the ground or a jacket that doesn’t cover my hands completely.

    At least there are quick fixes for those problems–for fitted tops, I am just SOL, because they’re always cut for DDs and I am a B cup. Sure, I may be an outlier, but I have met a number of women with similar issues. In fact, among people I know (not statistically significant, I realize, but still), I would say there’s approximately zero correlation between height and size.

  21. Elizabeth says:

    I am currently working on a line of sleepwear/ lounge wear for larger cup sizes with built in support (a-line dress w/ shelf bra for this year, underwire later). it will be sized by band, cup and hip. For example Size A will fit a 32D-E/34C-D and Size A will come in Small, Med, Large depending on you hip measurement. I am hoping this approach works. It has taken months to get the fit right with my pattern maker but we are close to final prototypes. I am looking for places to do samples now and wanted to find a place that did samples that could also do the grading. I am hoping to find a place that has grading expertise with bras. Does anyone know of such a place?

  22. I am currently doing doctoral research into improving the fit of knitwear for larger sized women. Using a small group of women of different body type I originally measured, and have subsequently body scanned their bodies to make the garment prototypes and use their feedback to samples establish comfort and wearability of future garments. I use a Shima Seiki CAD/CAM system for prototyping and as I don’t have access to a Wholegarment machine, I use an SES machine to knit garments, but the principles of knit to fit hold true for the newer technology.

    Some of the above comments are so true, as part of my research I have run an online body shape /clothing preference survey and these are so similar to the responses. My interest ultimately is custom made knitwear, either on a small scale, or in mass made to measure in some way.

  23. Marcia says:

    Criss– I have a similar problem but on the other end of the scale. I’m tall-ish, 5’8″. I am at exactly 25 BMI; so, not skinny but not overweight. Unfortunately, I cannot find fashionable jeans that fit. Basically, a size 32 is too tight and the next option is plus-sized which is way too big even in the brands that make 10′ s and 12’s for their “plus” lines. If a woman is 5’5″ or under she can be a BMI of 28 or more and still buy jeans in the regular department but if you’re tall, or even tall-ish you’re SOL unless you’re quite thin. I’ve written to several manufacturers about this black hole in jeans for tall-ish women. They respond by telling me they make inseams up to 36″ now but the inseam isn’t the problem. The problem is regular sizes are too small and plus sizes are too big. I have a friend who has the same problem. I think as the population gets taller this problem will only increase. On another note, I too have the cup-size issue in tops. I’m a 36DD who cannot afford to pay Rebecca and Drew $200 for one shirt. So, like someone else said I stick to knits but I think I’d look a lot more professional if I could wear a button up top.

  24. Kathleen says:

    You’re right Marcia, inseam is but one part of the problem; the body is longer too.

    Rather than lobbying existing manufacturers, have you tried buying jeans and clothes from companies that specialize in tall women? There’s quite a few of them out there. Height Goddess is one I know of personally, started by one of my designers -Lameka Weeks.

  25. Laura Haney says:

    If manufacturers provided size ranges based on stated measurements, it would help a great deal. They can call the sizes anything they like, as long as they provide a range of measurements. The current system is not useful, and seems to be based on way too small a sampling.

  26. Carl Harstrup says:

    We are producing simple school uniforms in Tanzania. To assist our tailors we would like to find some simple charts with regard to the basic measurement according to EU sizes; 30, 32 …….40, 42, 44 etc. for men , women, boys and girls.
    Could somebody please advice on where we can find such charts? Have looked at EN 13402 but these looks a bit complicated.
    Thanks a lot.

  27. Are you sure you want to use EU sizes? When I lived in Nigeria in the 1970s/80s, schoolchildren’s uniforms didn’t fit them, especially not the girls’. They appeared to have been made based on European measurements but Nigerian kids did a lot of manual work and had very broad shoulders. Girls typically were unable to do their dresses up in the back. Boys had well-developed thighs and pants tended to ride low.

    You can find European measurements in home-sewing charts. Here are Burda’s, which I think are similar to European RTW. I would expect you would want to adapt them for your local market.

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