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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  1. Leslie says:

    I think sites like Shopbop.com are moving in the right direction, they now include the model’s dimensions along with the size she’s wearing in the product info. Like this. http://www.shopbop.com/long-mirabelle-tank-dress-alice/vp/v=1/845524441901574.htm?folderID=2534374302029428&fm=whatsnew-shopbysize&colorId=12867
    I think the most helpful info (for me) from a manufacturer would be what the dimensions of their fit model are. Then I could compare the proportions to my own to see if a particular line would work for me.

  2. isidore says:

    Just to play devil’s advocate, here’s a picture of a fat girl looking pretty awesome in a mini skirt and crop top:

    While I don’t think most fat women would look good in the same outfit, I don’t think a lot of thin women would either. Thin women have cellulite and lumps and bumps too. Still, I wonder how much of fat women wanting these clothes is them wanting to try it on once rather than actually wearing it. *shrug*

  3. Kai Jones says:

    You know, it’s not impossible to add one piece of information that makes all the difference. I know this because I knit, and a lot of sweater patterns include that extra piece–it’s ease, the amount of ease intended by the designer of the knitting pattern. And some of them even give the model’s dimensions, what size she is wearing, and whether it’s with negative ease or positive ease (modified by “a small amount of” or sometimes given in inches).

  4. Well, you could knock me over with a feather! Thanks,
    Kathleen, for your kind words and helpful suggestion. My clothes fit a ramge of sizes, but I can see how much more helpful measurements are instead of the range of sizes (especially when the size number is so subjective).


  5. Doris W. in TN says:

    Kai Jones mentions ease, and the IMO industry could take it a step further.

    From a consumer viewpoint here (I only sew for myself and never worked in the garment industry), putting actual garment dimensions on clothing would be more helpful than body dimensions.

    When I order from LandsEnd/LLBean/EddieBauer, I call them first and ask for “actual garment dimensions” in key areas–waist, hip, bust, sleeve length. When I fail to do that and make the mistake of following their printed size chart, the item often gets returned, all because of ease that is not disclosed. Some products give it, under the guise of ‘classic’, ‘relaxed’, ‘fitted’, or whatever, and that helps, but interpretations vary.

    These retailers (above) print their own size charts, but that does not disclose three inches (3″) of ease added to the waist of pants. Three inches? Seriously? Can anyone explain 3″ of ease in a waist? But I digress…
    Here, or on another forum, I recently read that a man’s size 36W pant can actually have a 39″ waist.

    Published body size charts mean nothing to this humble consumer, whether in a catalog or on a hang-tag. Information about the garment dimensions itself would be useful for some, or all, of us. I also recognize the negative marketing impact that could have at the point-of-purchase level for the masses. Perhaps it’s a lose-lose situation.

  6. Leslie says:

    Personally I don’t think telling customers how much ease a garment has is helpful. I sew for myself and prefer a variety of numbers depending on the location and fabrication, but that is hard-earned knowledge only gained after several years of experience. I’d guess the general population has no idea they like 1.5″ of hip ease in a pant pattern with 25% stretch. It’s even pushing it to assume they know their real measurements, as Kathleen pointed out.

  7. H. says:

    Wonderful article Kathleen! Thanks for breaking this down so clearly, I now have some understanding of what is going on here.

    I’m getting the feeling that a large part of the problem is that the customer is not able to easily articulate what they *actually* want. When plus sized customers say the want “silky nothings”, it seems to me that they want the FEELING of wearing a “silky nothing” while still retaining the basic need of bra support, etc. Also, when plus sized women say they want mini skirts and crop tops, it is probably another way of saying they want more modern/contemporary & youthful styles than the typical matronly styles they are offered.

    Consumer complaints are widespread in our society, and I think it is a symptom of a larger problem, with so much of our lives dictated by corporate interests that are not responsive to the needs of their own customers.

    In addition, we have been force-fed alluring and unattainable marketing images of overly thin women for decades. This is bound to create a backlash of frustration and general dissatisfaction of larger women in relation to clothing sizes, among other things.

    I have come to the conclusion for myself that the kinds of styles and fabrics I want to wear are just not available anywhere in the mass produced fashion industry, and this would be the case if I was either a larger or smaller size than I am now. And still, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s harder in every way when you are “large” in our society. I have found many people equate being overweight with being greedy without even considering the possible underlying health issues that can cause the condition. So I can understand why this issue is such a hot-button for so many.

    As for how designers can better communicate the intended fit of their line, I can see that this is where good (old-fashioned?) customer service comes in. If I, as a customer, can see the fit explained in multiple ways- measurements, descriptive copy, multiple pictures of the item on a model and also details of the garment off the model, then I am more confident that a given size and style will fit. I’d like to see that kind of info on the hang tag when I’m in the store, and right next to the product “buy” button when online. How many times have I looked at a hang tag, and can’t even find a style name or obvious style number, let alone any really useful info about anything? (yes,I am a serious label-reader, haha)

    As a designer I do not want to make anything more complicated than it already is, so i am inclined to stick to S/M/L sizing even with it’s limitations, especially considering the fact that I am not making jeans or tailored clothing. I consider my primary goal as designer to identify the fit and feel I want to create, make sure this fit and feel is actually manifested in the final product, and then market it to my customers in a way that they can understand it on the sales floor at a glance. I know I will only be able to serve a segment of the market with my designs and products, although I know if I can do this well, then I can sustain a small line successfully over time.

  8. Reader says:

    Very informative article. There are so many people I’d like to send this to. Except they wouldn’t read it because they’re invested in believing that clothing manufacturers and designers have it in for larger-size women. (Like I can find anything that fits, and I’m a smaller-size woman.)

    “She said that the plus sized women she interviewed wanted regular clothes, styles that could not possibly look good on them, only cut larger.”

    A related point, and also a searingly hot button issue: I think that if a designer does not want to cut a style in a large size because the design simply won’t look good, that is her or his prerogative.

  9. Reader, I clicked through to the site, the most recent entry is about bikinis. You’re right, she’s a very pretty girl. She says if others don’t like her in a swimsuit, that’s their problem and she’s got 131 comments in affirmation. I tend to agree with her, wearing a bikini is her own business but affirming one’s individual choices is also (as you said) very different from being expected to take a proactive role by designing and producing those items. It can be very risky (as I said before). I do think she is attractive but these ladies… not so much. I looked very similar to the woman on the left 30 years ago but would never have had the panache to carry it off. Still don’t.

    Btw, notice the bicep girth and thigh shaping differences between the two of them. I can’t tell but they probably weigh about the same but the woman on the left couldn’t wear a top made to fit the woman on the right and the woman on the right couldn’t wear pants that fit the woman on the left.

    The thinner bodies are, the fewer differences between them with respect to shaping. It’s only as we gain weight that differences become magnified and increasingly difficult -and necessary- to shape for. That’s one thing we didn’t mention, that percentages of obesity is higher in women than men. One would expect that because even being hgt/wgt proportionate, women need more body fat. Prolly has an evolutionary basis in having to wait who knows how long for our hunter to get back to the cave with food, yet we still need to sustain ourselves and our young in the meantime.

  10. Kai Jones says:

    Reader wrote: “I think that if a designer does not want to cut a style in a large size because the design simply won’t look good, that is her or his prerogative.”

    Of course it’s their prerogative. It’s also consumers’ prerogative to complain that they can’t find what they want in their size/price/color etc. There’s an unmet demand in the market; if designers don’t want to meet it because it is outside their aesthetic comfort zone, that’s their decision. (And of course, Kathleen, the unmet demand may not be large enough, or willing to spend enough, to justify a business supplying their needs.)

  11. This is so complicated. I happen to think the YFF woman looks just delightful in her crop top and miniskirt. The very large pair in the bikinis are huge and nothing they wear will change that. They can be huge and assert that they are part of normal society by wearing the clothes that people in normal society wear, or they can be huge and hide themselves in undesirable clothes, thereby labeling themselves as undesirable. (In their position I would just go skinny-dipping.) Wearing flattering clothes only gets you so far, and at a certain point clothes may take on a different significance. The point may simply be to be treated the same way as everyone else – to be “allowed” to wear the same jeans, for instance. Whether one looks as attractive in the same jeans is a different kind of question at 400 lbs.

    I mentioned “cheap silky nothings” as my example of something that doesn’t work in larger sizes and gave the reason as not looking good. I wasn’t thinking about revealing flesh so much as function. A bra designed for a B-cup can be scaled up to a DD but the breasts will droop and the bra band will either be riding up between the shoulder blades, uncomfortably tight, or both.

  12. Quincunx says:

    And the silly lower price point bras -are- being scaled up from Bs to Ds, now–in response to consumer demand, remember, we did say we wanted D cups in cute’n’cheap styles–and they’re not fitting well because more powerful powernet isn’t available at that price point. :/ It’s starting to feel like the eyeglasses battle all over again. Deviate enough from the norm and you -must- pay more in raw materials for equivalent ‘support’. (And not a single “Myopia is Beautiful” campaign in sight. Pun fully intended.)

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