History of women’s sizing pt.3

If you’d thought I’d finished the history of women’s sizing series, no such luck (see pt.1 and pt.2). Really, this is when things really start to get interesting. Consider the last two sets of hard data, ASTM 5585 and 5586 as plotted below:

Frankly, considering the “average” consumer, both of these data sets miss the mark. The “mark” being the “average” woman as designated by the pink square. If you recall, 5585 is the set of measurements that some manufacturers are using as a baseline to develop their sizing systems. As should be expected, mileage will vary based on the specific requirements of a manufacturer’s profile customer. The 5586 is the data set indicating the measures of women over age 55 (yellow line; I corrected two data points). Now, what I find interesting to look at is the data set from the 70’s thrown into the mix, specifically PS 42-70. Perhaps you’re thinking a thirty year old data set is immaterial but hold on…just who’s sizes do you think are included here? Theoretically, we have the same group of women, measured at two points in time. Yes, theoretically, PS42-70 and 5586 are the same group of women, charted 30 years apart! Below you’ll see the size migration.

I don’t think you could find clearer evidence of size evolution than this. Of course, this harkens back to my whole discussion regarding the myth of vanity sizing. Well, months later, here are the proofs.

Now, amongst these plotted sizes, just how do we determine is a size 10? As you can see, sizes fall on the vertical lines. With just these three data sets plotted here, you can see that the different sizes reflect areas on the chart but do not specifically refer to an exact 36-26-36 (for example) nor should they. This is why everyone’s sizes are different. And should be! Says Phil at Millionaire Socialite

Women may whine and carry on about how the high-end designer markets ignore “real women” but, ladies, be careful what you wish for – once the fashion market is dictated by averages and quantitative reasoning things become much worse.

In other words, a woman from the over 55 grouping can still be a size two even tho her measures differ from the size two of the 5585. Is any of this making sense to you? You should also note that there’s a lot of room within the different sizing categories; the variation being two inches (within the same data set) to say nothing of how it varies from one data set to another. In other words, just because a size 10 in the over age 55 measures larger than the size 10 of the 5585, doesn’t mean she’s not a size 10. She is a size 10 in her market. Perhaps now you’ll see why I adamantly oppose any efforts to introduce strict limits on sizing.

Still, we all know there is a problem with communicating sizing differences to consumers. I think the biggest issue is transparency. I think manufacturers could go a long way to reducing sizing confusion if they’d include a size hangtag like this:

…to include the dimensions of the target consumer for whom they are designing and producing apparel. If you want to start a clothing line, I’d consider hang tags like the one above to be very useful information.

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. The hangtag you are describing looks exactly like the one described in BS-EN 13402, except for head, neck, arm length and leg length. This new standard calls for measurements in centimeters, which I have been using since 1983, as you can see in the URL.

  2. Esther says:

    I think it is past time for manufacturers to put finished garment measurements on their tags. Why can’t they put the waist and inseam measures on a pair of pants or the arm length for a shirt. It seems to work well for men’s clothing, why not women?

  3. Jane says:

    RE: Why can’t they put the waist and inseam measures on a pair of pants or the arm length for a shirt. It seems to work well for men’s clothing.

    Because 1) If these measurements are publshed it makes the manufacturer vulnerable when their vendor ships product that is not meeting spec.

    2) Men’s clothing does not have as much style variation as womens’ What good is a sleeve length measurement on a hangtag if the style of the garment is an off-the-shoulder style with a 3/4 length sleeve. That measurement won’t mean much. Sleeve lengths work on basic garments (ie. oxford shirts in the uniform industry), but as far as fashion clothing…..there are many variables to rend that info useless.

    Kathleen ….to bad your charts don’t include HIP measurement info!!! The last 5 years the Junior fit has reigned the bottoms market with low rise and slim thighs. The poor over 40 bracket with dropping derierres and saddle bags are stuck with buying elastic waist pants at Chico’s. This also is a crossover comment to your Camel Toe article…

  4. Esther says:

    Well of course the measurements on the tags should be relevant.

    If the manufacturers can produce a pair of mens pants within spec and tolerance, it can happen with womens. It is just a matter of quality control.

    I am more confident buying online when I know key garment measurements.

  5. Kathleen says:

    I agree that styling differences make it difficult to put measurements on the hang tag, for one thing, you’d need a different tag for each style and I think it should be more universal than that. What I think should be done is that manufacturers should put the measurements of the person the garment is designed to fit. Unfortunately, the measurements of one’s fit model (for the base size) is one of the most tightly held secrets in manufacturing. I think they should just put it out there and everyone should compete on the successful expression of those measurements as defined by quality, styling and pricing.

  6. Evelyn Mitchell says:

    I’d be interested in hearing your comments on:
    It’s the web page for a new book of knitting patterns for size 14 plus. One of the reviews talks about the style guide in the first half of the book as a must-read.

    Thanks for your blog. I originally started reading it because of the kaizen in a non-factory environment articles. I’ve learned a lot about how even small details can improve the functioning of a business, such as your articles on standard work and why to have a standard for identifying pattern pieces.

  7. Julie Knox says:

    I don’t know if you’ve mentioned it yet in this thread (or series of topics), but I’ve always found it curious that we use the size indicators that we do, and where they come from.

    Historically, a Missy/Misses size 6, 8, 10, 12 etc. up to 16 or 18 (I can’t remember how high they went) were intended just like children’s sizes, to be sized by age. Therefore a misses size 16 was supposed to be for a 16 year old girl. (I just recently saw an picture of an ad – can’t remember where, from the 1910’s or so that clearly said ‘misses size Age 12, 14, 16’ etc.)

    Whereas Womens sizes were by measurement. Some examples from http://www.dressmakingresearch.com/:
    a 1904 petticoat pattern “Cut in 7 sizes, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, 32 and 34 inches waist measure.”
    a Pattern from the 1920s “This dress is for ladies 32 to 44 bust.” and then it starts to get blurred between the two size ranges: a 1928 pattern “It is designed for sizes 32 to 35 (15 to 18 years)”

    So before the ‘modern era’ sizes were by actual body measurements, and this whole meaningless or confusing 8, 10, 12 etc. is a relatively recent thing.

    And what kind of spin does that put on the recent trends toward ‘size 0’…

  8. Alison Cummins says:

    In French, you still say “14 ans” (14 years) instead of “taille 14” (14 waist).

    One of those things I still find hard to get my head around: I’m 41, dammit, not 14! Don’t insult me! But I know other women would be pleased to think they still have the figures of their early teens.

  9. B. Durbin says:

    Oh, ay-yi-yi.

    I was just once again ranting about the pain of finding clothes and came across this blog.

    I’ve become very interested in a good fit as it has become increasingly evident that the “clothes that cover my nakedness” don’t do a very good job of it. (I am in a profession where I not only have to dress well but am photographed for test shots often, so I can see how badly I’m failing.)

    I really do need to get into custom clothing, since I am finally starting to figure out what my size is. (Rather than wade through my rant above, I’ll just tell you it’s an 8 around the waist, 10 around the hip, petite hip rise with tall leg length. And that’s the pants. I haven’t quite figured out the shirt yet.)

    Wish I could afford custom clothing. Or had the time and energy to do it myself.

    So… this is the size chart. Mmm-hmm.

  10. 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…

  11. 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…

  12. Sizing by age does not make any sense due to the increase in childhood obesity. There is a great variation between a child of a given age and another of the same age. The only sensible size label is described in BS EN-13402, which calls for actual measurements. This new label will work everywhere except in the USA, which still uses inches. Perhaps an American version of this label might work until the metric system becomes generally accepted here in the USA. As for custom clothing, the new size label will work wonders, especially in areas where many languages are spoken.

  13. Thomas Bailey says:

    I think the reason for discontinuing the use of actual measurements is denial. Since a slim figure became the ideal, women generally did not like to admit having certain measurements. Single-digit sizes were at least easy to deal with. Children’s sizes were originally by age, which is easy to relate to, until the 1980’s, when childhood obesity rendered the sizing scale less applicable. Actual measurements would be better, and BS-EN13402 would be ideal. There might be an ego factor as far as acceptance.
    Boys and men under age 25 might welcome the new label. Girls under age 5 might welcome it, but ages 10 and up might panic at the big numbers

  14. Romy says:

    I came across this particular online discussion only recently, and I’m aware of three aspects of fit/sizing not clearly addressed. While these are not about the changing shape of bodies, nor the way garments fit (or don’t), they have everything to do with what is available in stores.
    (1) When I was a child in the 1960s in the USA, women and girls were typically _prohibited_ from wearing slacks/pants at school, in the workplace, etc. Consequently the growth of the separates market only began after those bans were either lifted or ignored, as the case may be. For women who actually work (physically), separates allow replacing/exchanging the parts of an “outfit” as they are worn out, damaged, outgrown, etc. The same would be true for “sportswear” and athletic clothing.
    (2) Huge changes have occurred in the manufacture of fabrics, and in the commercial fiber industry. Most probably, anyone under age 50 does not remember when virtually all of our clothing was woven (except for undies and possibly cotton t-shirts). The prevalence of knits today (and spandex as a component of cotton denim, wool gab, etc.), has meant that it isn’t _really_ necessary for there to be quite so many sizing steps (in some kinds of garments). We expect our clothing to have “give” to it, and also, that it snaps back without unsightly bagginess. Twenty years of low demand for natural fibers and high demand for synthetics contributed to the “death” of commercial options.
    (3) Twenty-five years ago, the American garment-making industry (and its unions) had not yet been _totally_ decimated by the moves of industry to outsourcing, off-shoring, union-busting, etc. There used to be local/regional companies that made fabrics, notions, clothing, etc. Now there are mostly huge corporations or conglomerates. There’s almost no such thing anymore as a “local” manufacturer.” By grading and cutting fewer sizes, and by making those sizes closer together, manufacturers increase profits. Remember, most clothing is cut from flat cloth yardage, and those widths have been pretty standard for fifty years. The style of “skinny-fit” clothing and XL that measures like a medium is a way of getting more pieces cut from fewer yards of fabric.

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