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 what we can do about it. I reiterate that a comprehensive discussion is controversial; the ideas of which are going to make me very unpopular with everyone from consumers to manufacturers. The fact remains, the issues of poorly fitted apparel are so pervasive and complex that they cannot but include everyone in the user-producer stream.

A rough section outline of what this book would include came to me today. Obviously, my goal is to be burned in effigy before sunset.

Guilty of gaining weight to the extent that humans are falling outside of their natural scale and shape; sizes are so large as to be untenable to manufacture comfortably. The entropy of fit can be attributed to body shapes that are too large to cut anatomically correctly on fabric spreads of currently manufactured widths. If this continues, the industry will need even wider tables, wider spreaders, more handling equipment, and inventory space. Weavers and spinners will need new looms to accommodate the wider fabrics …the list is endless as are the costs. Our tables and looms were designed to accommodate a healthy variation of something approaching the natural weight of what a human should weigh. Expectations of greater design integrity can’t be justified if the costs of product development and facility infrastructure -industry wide, both vertical and horizontal- are incalculable. It’s cheaper to cut boxes.

Failure to respond to what the industry needs, preferring to cave in to the romantic notions of fashion designer wannabes. For-profit franchise schools contribute awkwardly, inflating the growing pool of inappropriately educated graduates. Much of education’s research is self-serving with a stridency reminiscent of self-preservation in an era of drastic apparel program cuts. Much of the cross-spectrum research is either inappropriate or characterized by glaring omissions. While it’s true too few manufacturers provide worthwhile intern possibilities, it’s hard to do so if the schools aren’t listening. Just as often, the schools don’t want to listen. Lastly, education is easily wooed by the latest technology as a cure for making their jobs -in this admittedly complex day- easier.

I wouldn’t know where to start. I think there’s a special hell reserved for institutions charging $20,000 for the results of a tax-payer subsidized sizing study. 68% of U.S. manufacturers are small with fewer than 20 employees. They can’t afford $20,000 and it’s tragic because smaller firms are much faster and more likely to rapidly respond to consumer fitting complaints so it is inappropriate for said institutions to gnash their teeth, complain, and use the trade press to accuse manufacturers of not caring about consumers sufficiently to pony up. Similarly guilty of touting technology as the miracle cure. Lastly, have you ever read any of the published research from leading academics? It’s preposterous, amounting to chest beating reverberating in their self imposed echo chambers while all the while, attempting to license an unoriginal and completely obvious whiz bang size to shape construct to enrich their personal net worth. Here’s an example, they blame us for failing to use Shelton’s racist sizing standards (the methodology was truly appalling) developed in the 1940’s as the basis of sizing and then in another paper by the same author, will decry these same standards as being inadequate to fit the range of today’s consumer.

This may surprise most of you but my quarrel is not over lowered tariffs and import barriers. Rather, I’ve always said that the government protected domestic industry to its own detriment. Being immune to international trade pressures created a pervasive climate of entitlement among manufacturers who were inoculated from the need to innovate. My beef with government is due to gross contradiction. In an era of lowered barriers to trade, Congress reduced educational and research assistance to small manufacturers by 68%. This in spite of the fact that small businesses employ more people than large ones. NIST is but a thin veneer of what it once was.

Retail practices have encouraged and fostered the growth of push manufacturing. Retail likes to stand around with its arms open saying “but I didn’t cut it, I’m innocent”. Retail only wants to sell what sells; their influence subverts the fit feedback loop but they still want their margins and liberal return policies to be subsidized by manufacturing. Their greatest crime is denial of their role in the whole affair.

~sigh~ I don’t know where to start. I have written a book about this. Everything from arrogance, to blaming consumers, to blaming retailers, to blaming politicians. As painful as it is to say, many in the industry are lazy and don’t want to innovate preferring the path of least resistance. They just want to make clothes without a lot of bother and input from anyone and get paid for it. Some companies will thrash around jumping at miracle cures and magic potions. The industry is remarkably unfriendly to new growth and start ups, having forgotten it’s own kitchen table start long ago. The industry is childish for one so mature; innovation is not welcome on the factory floor. The failure to adopt lean -with a core focus on the customer- will continue to leave a lot of dead bodies lying around for others to clear out of the way. Until then, we’re stuck with the stinking morass you see at retail.

I really don’t want to even start with CAD. I’ve developed a complex social theory blaming CAD companies for everything from the Black Death, the bombing of Dresden and teen pregnancy to the hole in the ozone layer. CAD companies in the apparel industry are singularly responsible for the decline of western civilization as we know it. Okay, that’s not true -and I do love my CAD system- but it is true that the CAD templates are the single greatest impetus of fit entropy -in addition to their use in easing the spread of the consequences of push manufacturing. Moreover, the logical outcome of simplifying processes is seductive; operator skills continue to degrade perilously. The latter is obviously not the fault of CAD companies but it is a consequence of them. Perhaps contradictorily, I believe CAD companies are our greatest hope for style and fit regeneration.

Actually, this will surprise you. In my opinion, everybody in the apparel industry should bow down and thank god for the exclusive and even sometimes whacko couturiers. They’re the closest thing to an industry marketing group we’ve got. If it weren’t for couturiers, I think consumers would have given up on fashion long ago. Couturiers are the closest thing to a “got milk” campaign as we’re ever going to get and it doesn’t cost us a dime. We can’t lose. We look more rational and reasonable by comparison.

I’m disturbed by the idea that all other areas of human endeavor continue to improve. Our cars, computers, food products, and medicine are superior to what we had 20 years ago but our clothing is worse. Carrying this to its logical conclusion, in 2132 we won’t be wearing those cool clothes and uniforms you see in science fiction movies because we’ll all be dressed in sweats and tee-shirts. When will this situation begin to reverse itself? A more accurate depiction of Star Trek cast members on the bridge would be the wearing of tee shirts reading “beam me up Scotty!”. I do think there are solutions to our myriad of problems but I’m dissatisfied with the existing parameters of discussion.

…and as I started this discussion, I fully expect to be burned in effigy before sunset. Let the hate mail begin!

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

Get New Posts by Email


  1. Gigi says:

    I know very little about the industry but the proof is in the pudding. Having spent the last two days shopping for clothes I can honestly say that most of what is in the stores is absolute crap: overpriced, ghastly styles executed in horrible fabrics and prints. I did fall in love with a $108 cotton eyelet skirt that fit me perfectly (and what a shock that was). When I pointed out to the sales clerk that the braid trim was all frayed where it met the zipper she replied “oh, it shouldn’t cost you more than $15 or $20 to have that fixed”. :-O Indeed.

  2. Jan d'Heurle says:

    I agree entirely. And I am glad that you praise couturiers because that is what I am. I work hard on fit and I spend countless hours creating a precise garment that is comfortable, beautiful and washable. This is my art. Do I feel understood? No; but I continue because it is meaningful to me and to my mind represents truth. I look around at people and I wonder how they can stand to be so uncomfortable in ill-fitting garments, how they can stand to look so unattractive constantly straightening their clothes, how they can spend such enormous sums to have these same clothes “cleaned.”
    p.s. I wonder what you think of the current fetish for padding garments. I recently compared a photograph of F.D. Roosevelt (signing the Social Security Act) with one of G.W. Bush and Bush’s suit was so padded that he appeared a pin-head while FDR seemed relaxed and comfortable in his wrinkled suit and let’s not forget that back in the 40s there was no air conditioning. My take on this would start with how modern laundering has influenced current clothing manufacturing.

  3. Ashley says:

    You. Rock.
    And i agree with you 100% on CAD. One of the last shows i draped in school was an eighteenth-century farce for which the shop built several very elaborate frock coats, waistcoats, breeches and gowns in some VERY beautiful (and expensive) silks.
    All of we drapers started from the same basic men’s frock coat patterned on CAD by one of our grad students. She did a fine job with the nice, proportional measurements her fellow had, but my actor was not quite as typical in his sizing–a bit short and stout, rather barrel-chested, with long arms. The pattern i was given (after the computer had had its way grading and whatnot) cost me not one, but THREE muslin fittings before i could make sense of it all. You can imagine my nerves going at that silk with ginghers and a pattern that had seen so much action.

  4. Carol says:

    I am a member of PACC (Professional Association of Custom Clothiers), and our discussion list of women and men regularly touches on many of the issues mentioned above.

    With sewing skills no longer taught in the schools where they were learned by most women, personal fit is now only for the compulsive or well-off.

    The folks who previously would have sewn beautifully for themselves now have moved into quilting and art-to-wear. Their tragedy is that they begin with boxy unfitted patterns. They put exquisite work into their jackets and vests, and even non-heavy people finish looking like upholstered baby tractors.

    The protest is that quilters must work flat. Nonsense. With a little care you can quilt or embellish a princess-line, shaped form before closing the underarm/sleeve seams.

    A great need is for patterns and clothing graded for the larger woman with full bust, large stomach, and narrow, sloping shoulders with heavy upper arms. With the increasingly WalMart mentality, not enough will pay the extra bucks for a pattern that fits to justify its development.

  5. Eric H says:

    The first time I came across it, it was called CADD, Computer-Aided Drawing and Design, or CADD/CAM (CADD/Computer-Aided Manufacturing). The primary emphasis was on replacing the repetitive and error-prone *drawing* and reproduction processes. It was only as they were able to add wireframe, then Finite Element Analysis (FEA), and finally texture and lighting, that CAD became a useful tool for architectural and engineering *design*. I think Kathleen has some information about the history of CAD in the textile industry, but I don’t remember the dates.

    I am getting into this for semantic reasons. I think it’s perfectly understandable that aerospace engineers and architects are using computers to help *design* because you can do specific fine-tuning tasks iteratively and without regard to aesthetics (form follows function when building hypersonic aircraft and patch antennae). However, it is frightening to me that a *drawing* or *drafting* tool has become a **design** tool in *fashion*, where form is at least as important as function [1]. If it’s not, then let’s declare victory, go home, and surrender the field to the WOATS and GOATS.

    To tie back to Kathleen’s original point: it’s bad enough that people are using the bad CAD templates to do their patternmaking. It engenders slothful and ignorant patternmakers (computer programmers call it GIGO – garbage in, garbage out). But I am really frightened to think they are using CAD to replace designers. When that happens, it means that the design work was all done by the engineer back at the software company, and all the fashion “designers” can do at that point is pick the material, colors, and buttons. Yuck. That’s one reason why I dislike hip-hop so much: the most productive “musician” in all hip-hop is probably some Japanese engineer at Roland who programmed a handful of 4/4 patterns into an early drum machine or synthesizer, and now every single song is the same 4/4. Some are slower, some are faster, you can fatten or thin it in the mix, you can change the equalization, some may even have an extra or a missing snare beat, but otherwise it’s all the same bland gruel. Notice that Puff Daddy (aka Sean John) is both a hip-hop and a fashion design “artist”?

    [1] I’m willing to concede that for some things, like lingerie, form leads function, whereas for technical applications, such as biking shorts, function is more important than form. In both extremes, though, form and function are very close in importance. However, in strictly engineering applications like antenna, airfoil, or building construction, function trumps form even though we like to have a nicely styled exterior. A good looking antenna that doesn’t receive or a good looking airplane that doesn’t fly is not worth producing.

  6. 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. ——————————…

  7. 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…

  8. Alternatives in women’s sizing

    In my continuing series discussing fit and apparel sizing see #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6; 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…

  9. Cindy says:

    The author’s arguments are compelling, but I must disagree. There is such a thing as vanity sizing, and it’s particularly inconvenient for online shoppers.

    There is some merit in the author’s argument that a Medium for example will necessarily be different across different “genres” of clothing, but the retailer should at least give the accurate measurements that correspond to their Medium.

    When an online retailer says on their online sizing guide that a Medium fits a 28 inch waist and you receive the item and it’s 32 inches at the waist is that not vanity sizing? Now you have to return it, the $16 that you paid for 2nd day shipping will not be refunded and now you have to try to guess how many sizes down you should order. If you want to buy an item for a specific occasion, it’s best to do this at least three months in advance since you can expect a lot of shipping back and forth. I lost a lot of money on shipping charges and time in the back and forth in trying to find what sizes fit what measurements for pretty much every online retailer I shopped with over a two month period. If you are lucky, the customer service rep will tell you something like “I know it says the Medium fits a 28 inch waist but it’s cut big, choose the Extra Small instead”. Common sense would dictate that a woman with a 28″ waist although not large, is not an extra small person by any means but I am actually somewhat swayed by the author’s argument that it’s possible this is the smallest person in the retailer’s target demographic.

    I learnt the costly way that when buying clothes online, the size guide is useless and that it’s best to talk to a person who has actually seen the item, give them your measurements and hope that they will be able to tell you what size to buy.

    The body type argument against standardizing sizing has no merit. The tape measure does not change based on whether you are top or bottom heavy. One should be able to know that an item is so many inches around the waist and so many inches around the fullest part of the bust and so on and if the measurements fit buy it otherwise buy something else.

    An international sizing standard would save everyone a lot of headaches, time and money. Maybe this sizing should not use terms like Small, Medium or Extra Large and just use numbers instead or even simpler just the correct measurements of the vital areas like hips, bust and waist for women and whatever corresponds for men.

  10. kathleen says:

    First of all, “the author” is me, Kathleen. You sound like you’re writing to somebody in remote Siberia. Hello and welcome, we’re informal around here.

    Second, I can see you are extremely distressed with your recent online shopping experiences -justifiably so in my opinion- and I’d like to write a future topic covering precisely your complaints because I agree it’s an egregious problem! I agree that the fees you were compelled to pay were unreasonable. Similarly, I agree that the goods were misrepresented to you; you ordered the goods based on the provided description and had they described their sizing more accurately, you would have ordered another size entirely. Maybe you should bring up that last point with your online retailer. The misrepresentation of goods is fraud. Personally, I think you’re entitled to a refund for shipping.

    However, I do not agree that your online experience was due to “vanity sizing”. While I appreciate that you do not agree, it is inappropriate to make the pronouncement that I am wrong when you have not read the entire fitting series as this issue is so complex. These articles appear as follows:


    Lastly, I reiterate that if we adopt an international fitting standard which manufacturers would be compelled to follow, this would narrow the range of fitting options to anything other than the “average” person, cutting out fitting options for the remaining 49% of the market. I further reiterate the question, why does everyone assume clothing would be sized to fit their unique characteristics? Why does everyone assume they are “the average” representation of their size and figure type? However, I strongly agree with your statement that the correct labeling of the sizing of apparel should be enforced. I agree that accurate inch/cm measures reflecting direct measures is the only way to reduce headaches, time, money and frustrations such that you’ve experienced.

    I am sorry this has happened to you. My retailing DEs won’t like me for saying so, but I haven’t bought clothing online and I’d be very unlikely to do so unless it were something oversized, making accurate fitting less of an issue.

  11. Fredy Tembo says:

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    It is wuth much for me sending you this mail with the hope that I find you well.

    My name is Fredy Tembo. I am a guy aged 24 and I am from Zimbabwe. Currently I am studying for my Advanced Diploma in Creative Art and Design at Chinhoyi Unuserty of Technology.

    As such, I am sending you this mail requesting if you could assist me on how I could join you n your fashion designing company. This is because that I am quite good in the field of visual arts, especially the fashion designing field. Actually, I have always had the passion for designing fashion.

    On that one, I look foward to your assistance.

    Yours Faithfully

    Fredy Tembo

  12. 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…

  13. Talbot’s sizing study

    Joanna sends word of a newly released sizing study commissioned by Talbots. Somehow, 85% of women know if something fits them by looking at the size tag but 62% of them don’t know their body measurements! Moreover, only 16% of…

  14. passing reader says:

    The fundamental root of the problem arises from labelling clothes in reference to the size of the body.

    The obvious solution is to label clothes in reference to the objective size of the item of clothing.

    Example: a pair of trousers has a waist that IS 16″ wide, and a leg that IS 34″ long (ideally, unhemmed to be finished by the customer to their preference), and whatever other relevant measurements ,within reason. These could be labelled as being produced within a tolerance of x inches/ x fractions of an inch to manage consumer expectations of the accuracy of the final measurements.

    Of course that’s not perfect, but it’s a giant step forward in description from small/medium/large.

    I bet designers don’t send patterns to the manufacturers asking for a “size 8” waist, so why do they send them to the shops that way?

    An inch is an inch is an inch.

  15. Lorena Cheri says:

    I found this article in 2009 as a freshman fashion design student and it shaped my entire world view and help my head out of the fashion industry’s willful ignorance kool-aid. Fit Entropy was never mentioned in my textbooks or covered in my CAD classes nor was it discussed by any teacher. THANK YOU for your conscientious objection to the status quo. Now that I am more experienced and am finally in development for my first collection as an independent designer, I am doing research for the development of my products and I remembered your words and found your site again after 10 years because you are still one of the only voices for these issues out there- it’s a climate that many of us can sense even if it’s not being discussed! Thank you thank you thank you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.