Vanity sizing: generational edition

And now, an occasional update to my perseveration with what many consumers describe as “vanity sizing” this being the generational edition. For those new to these parts, you may be unaware that I think “vanity sizing” is either non-existent or attributable to myriad causes (links to arguments at close). I’ll briefly summarize my objections as size increases are closer to sizing evolution; a rational response to a given manufacturer’s target customer that has nothing to do with vanity. My favorite and most simplistic example being that of ballerina dancers versus western wear consumers. A ballerina shopping at Shepler’s would be erroneous in believing western apparel is vanity sized if it’s larger than the average dancer’s leotard because he/she is not the profile customer. Et Cetera.

An idea that occurred to me after looking over the Japanese sizing surveys is that if vanity sizing existed, then older Japanese could likewise claim that apparel today is vanity sized -owing to their frame of reference. However, this would be untrue because (as I’ve said before), sizing is designed for the median consumer buying clothes. Here in the U.S. as in Japan, that’s mostly younger people; older people spend less on clothes. As the average person has gotten larger, as will the measures that constitute the sizes across the size spread. Therefore, as younger people in the US are heavier than we were twenty or thirty years ago when we were their age, it only stands to reason that the measures than constitute median sizes will increase. That’s why if your weight has remained static and you’re in your forties, you’ll wear a size or two smaller than you did twenty years ago. And it’s only going to get worse (hence the creation of size 0); obesity in the young is at an all time high. As sizes reflect the median of the average clothes purchaser, it only makes sense that size dimensions will continue to evolve.

These generational differences are illustrated in the extreme in Japan. Older people alive today, endured severe food shortages during World War 2, the nutritional deficiencies stunting their growth. The average heights of men aged 65-79 is 5’4.5″ – 5’3.75″. For women aged 65-79, their heights are 4’10” to just under 5′. However, owing to improved nutrition in the post war era, average Japanese height increased by three inches. Note that is “average” height increase. Average includes the height measures of older people too, dragging down the dramatic height gains among the young. Examining the data of only young people under the age of eighteen, height increases are closer to 5″, not the “average” 3″. Japan is also interesting for examination because it is a homogeneous society. We’re comparing apples to apples rather than the apples to oranges of a population characterized by immigration.

So, I don’t have the opportunity to interview an older Japanese woman but I wonder, would she -pondering it thoughtfully- say that current clothing sizes are a matter of vanity or evolution? Think about it. A rational grandma wouldn’t expect clothing sizes to remain static from when she was buying a lot of clothes. Here in the U.S., if grandma wants clothing sizes to remain static, her efforts might be better spent getting her grandkids to go on a diet because it is their increasing body sizes that are upping the median sizes for everyone else. Either that or she should buy expensive designer clothing which, as wealthier people are thinner, these lines run “truer” to size. Exactly the opposite of what everyone thinks. It’s inexpensive commodity items with the highest rate of size inflation.

Likewise, as I’ve also mentioned with regard to infrastructure changes required by sizing evolution, fixtures in Japanese homes have also evolved. I don’t see how one could call counter tops evidence of vanity sizing; sounds more like sizing to the market to me.

If changes in lifestyle and housing have contributed to improvement of physique, there are also examples of the opposite effect: better physiques changing the design of Japanese houses. For example, most Japanese cooking stoves of 20 years ago were 80 centimeters high apparently the ideal countertop height for a person who is 150 centimeters tall, but now their standard height is 85 centimeters. Door height too has risen from 182 centimeters in the 1980s to two meters now, and bathtubs are about 50 centimeters longer than they used to be.

One odd blip though. The Japanese are getting thinner while they’re getting taller. Actually, Japanese women are. Japanese men are gaining weight.

The survey showed that for women in their 40s, the average weight had declined to 52.8 kilograms, down 1.3 kg from the previous survey covering fiscal 1992-1994, while the average height had increased by 2.6 centimeters to 157.1 cm.

For men in their 40s, the average weight had increased to 69.8 kg, up 4.0 kg, while the average height had increased by 2.8 cm to 170.1 cm. Following the trend, there was a decrease in average weight and an increase in average height for women in their 20s, 30s and 50s.

Amended 6/13/08
A slide show feature from this morning’s NYT says the Japanese Health Ministry is so concerned with the nation’s increasing girth, they’ve instituted a nation-wide campaign to combat it. Apparently, there as here, there’s concern over increasing obesity in the young. I suppose it won’t be long before the Japanese also start complaining about “vanity sizing”.

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. teijo says:

    A few supplementary comments…

    Grandmothers in Japan grew up wearing traditional clothes, which were made using a cloth woven to dimensions that were sufficient to make a kimono sized for the average body. The kimono themselves were sewed to fit the wearer. It was only after the World War II that Western clothing became common with women. Even then mass manufacturing only took off during the economical growth period.

    I just spoke with a grandmother (70 years old) last week whose daily clothes (and bedclothes in her bethrothal package) had been woven at her home. This was still the norm in the farming community. Weaving the cloth for work clothes was winter work, as was weaving the straw covers for rice bales.

    The 182 cm door height common until recently was a remnant of the old Japanese measurement and module system. Houses were built using sun, shaku and ken units. One ken was about 1818.18mm. A Kyoto size straw mat (tatami) was 909mm x 1818 mm, and floor space was indicated by the number of mats that the floor consisted of. When Japan adopted the metric system, carpenters and building material manufacturers rounded the standard module to 182 cm, but tatami sizes were shrunk by the real estate people who wanted apartment to sound larger.

    While the Japanese population is fairly homogenous, it is a mixture of several immigration waves over the millenia. The centuries and occasional conscious efforts by the government have by now resulted in a fairly even hair color and height distributione. While e.g. the people of the Sendai area still average taller than those native to Tokyo, and regional eye tint, body hair and bone structure variations are still common, the overall size distribution is even enough that a meaningful sizing standard is possible. The JIS (Japanese Industrial Standards) sizes are commonly adhered to.

    If anyone is interested, these are the size reference pages of three different Japanese catalogue companies.

    However, standard sizing doesn’t prevent people from buying wrong sized clothing. A Shizuoka University study conducted sixteen years ago showed that the actual sizes of women attending the school did center nicely around the official M category, while male student sizes were mostly in the M-L range. Even so, over half of the students didn’t know what size or body type they were and even fewer knew how to interpret sizing labels correctly. ( ) Other studies have shown similar results. ( )

    …but this is getting long and not quite on topic, so I really should stop before I start to bore anyone.

  2. Dana says:

    I’m fascinated by the subject of fit and sizing. There are so many challenges and opportunities for DE to stand out here, particularly in women’s wear. The range of body sizes and shapes seems to be broadening (no pun intended). Yes women are getting larger and many companies need to re-evaluate fit. But there are also a number of us who haven’t and as Kathleen pointed out are wearing sizes smaller than we did 15 years ago. I was in a Club Monaco recently (I’m a pretty regular customer) and they’ve add size 00 to the mix. Think about that in terms of the whole “size shift” discussion. How far can you shift before it seems silly?

    The range is too broad and brands can’t be all things to all people yet women complain that nothing fits. Isn’t the answer we DE’s defining our niche with fit, being targeted and consistent, and then finding ways to communicate our “fit philosophy”? Seems rare that a company talks about or defines what “fit” means to them, what segment of the market they’re going after. No wonder we women get frustrated by all the trial and error. Maybe what is needed is some kind of common language to describe where we fall on the sizing spectrum?

  3. Curious says:

    I always wonder, why don’t they just use measurements for the sizes? I have a 27 waist which really is not all that small, but I have a harder time finding clothes that fit me now then I did when I was 14 and had a 22 waist. Back then I bought “22”, now I have to buy a 1 and they usually don’t have a small enough size for me or I have to buy a zero which I have to say makes me feel extremely self concious and I usually just leave the store

  4. teijo says:

    Curious, the new European sizing standard EN 13402 aims to do just that. It shows sizing in actual body dimensions appropriate for the garment, so if one knows one’s measurements one can easily tell whether the item should fit.

    Wikipedia has an article on this system at:

  5. Pocket Venus says:

    What is this “better physiques” nonsense? People come in all shapes and sizes. Some are petite and proud of it. I am 4 feet 10 inches tall and have a proportionate figure. I’m incredibly proud to be petite, and I sew all my own clothes because there’s nowhere here in England where I can buy clothes that fit.

  6. teijo says:

    Yes, individual beauty is irrelevant to height.

    Traditionally in Japan a “good physique” meant sheer strength. A strongly built person was considered to have a “good physique” regardless of height or shape. In fact, a kimono looks quite pleasing on a man with a belly, or on a plump woman. This is more difficult to achieve with Western clothes.

    The pursuit of “better” – as in taller – physique here comes in part from being steered by the U.S.A. ever since World War II. (The term “country that lost the war” is invoked often when referring to servility to America or just pursuing its trends and ideals in general.)

    One concrete change is that as people have grown taller their limb length has increased disproportionately. This is generally perceived as aesthetically pleasing, but whether it is “better” in other ways is another question. (A Korean study found proportionately shorter limb length to be correlated to increased dementia, but those with proportionately shorter limbs were also less educated.)

    Weight increase has become a somewhat sensitive matter. While people can be healthy and heavy, the human frame has limits. Sumo wrestlers are a good example of pushing these limits. Their training makes them very fast, strong, agile and heavy. Their weight makes them suffer injuries and health problems, and to die young. The current campaign,..

    – but here I am rambling off subject once again…

  7. sfriedberg says:

    Teijo, just a note of reassurance. I find the sort of information you have provided fascinating. Please don’t restrain yourself too rigidly from “rambling”.

  8. Bo says:

    I have a vaguely related interest and am putting it out there for comments. Am doing research on the history of the dress form. Have looked at a bunch of stuff on the web but want more definitive info. Any ideas where I should start looking?

  9. Kathleen says:

    I don’t know how much work you’ve already done, how much off web hard copy data you have (to include product samples) or what you’re willing to invest in the project (time and money). What do you intend to do with it?

    I’d planned to do some research on related topics at the Smithsonian’s museum of Science & Technology last year but it is closed due to lack of funds for repairs. I had to settle for what could be gleaned on drafting systems from the Library of Congress. There is no word on when the museum will reopen but I plan on being there when (if, at this rate) it does.

  10. Thomas Bailey says:

    Throughout history, the best physiques belonged to people who were well-off. This standard has changed many times, but people who appeared to be either rich or at least having enough resources to live comfortably are considered attractive. When food was scarce, obesity was attractive. When food became plentiful and cheap, obesity became less attractive, eventually ugly. When people worked long hours at sedentary jobs, muscular people were attractive, as they have time to work out. Construction workers are lucky, as their jobs are physically demanding.

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