Why isn’t women’s clothing sized like men’s?

pantsondisplaySeriously think about it, why isn’t women’s clothing sized like men’s? I don’t want arguments saying we should, I want you to ponder thoughtfully why we are not. Consider the ramifications of it through the whole chain -from your design conceptualization- to display at retail.

There is a now obscure school of (economic) thought called functionalism. It holds that a condition or situation can only exist if it is functional for someone. How has failing to size women’s clothing like men’s been functional? Here are some suggestions for thought:

Idea #1: Women’s clothing manufacturers tend to be much smaller than men’s wear producers. Why would this matter?

  • It matters because women’s producers do not have the resources to make pants (for example) in the variety of sizes (minimally 90, yes, 90 sizes) that would be required in accordance with the expectations there are for men’s clothing.

Idea #2: Women’s clothing is trendier. Why does this matter?

  • It matters because styles change more often and trends age quickly. Meaning you could have a lot of inventory aging on the shelf that is returned (most department stores require an 85% sell through or you have to take it back) if the buyer chooses the wrong size mix. Men’s wear changes very slowly; the same style Dockers on the shelf is replenished, not changed from season to season 4 to 8 times a year like women’s clothing.
  • It matters because trendy women’s clothing is riskier. Men’s firms have less risk so they can grow larger (to attain those economies of scale to make all those sizes).

Idea #3: Retail display and merchandizing, why does this matter?

  • It matters because tops and bottoms in women’s styles are coordinated to match. If you size like menswear there is no neat way to display 5- 9 sizes (for example) of bottoms for every style of top, they will have to be separated. This means the way you design will have to change, no more coordinated style or color stories because you’ll be making separates that will have to cross merchandize with other product lines in the market place.
  • It matters because production and purchasing of women’s clothing lots are smaller per style, there isn’t enough product of a given style to fill retail display cubbies (you’ll have to go to cubbies for all those sizes). You will have to share cubby space with other brands -an anathema. When have you ever seen Levi’s and Dockers sharing the same space? And they’re owned by the same company.
  • It matters because shoppers will now be annoyed if you don’t produce tops and bottoms in their size. They will say you’re myopic, blind, stupid or whatever because every given individual knows they are an appreciable slice of the market and you’re either ignoring or discriminating against them.

An alternative strategy to get your thinking going: women’s bras are sized by measurements and it seems to work fine (or not?). How is the market for women’s non-intimate apparel different from bras? The only hint I will give you is that there are similarities between bras and men’s slacks. What are those?

Please seriously think about this with your designer -not consumer- hat on. Think of all the limitations this would impose on your bottom line, the costs associated with producing a much larger line, its distribution, display at retail et cetera. It is only through teasing out the problem that we can arrive at tentative solutions -ideas for which I’ll include in my next post. Thanks everybody! And be nice and look smart. The NPR crowd will be heading over here soon.

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  1. Chris says:

    The similarity I would say between bras and slacks is that they’re usually sized with just two measurements – width & cup size for bras, and waist/leg length for mens trousers . It works for underwear because of the limited area that it covers . But if you were to apply that to a dress for example, you would have to show cup size, chest/back width, waist, hip, as well as body lengths. It would be a major headache producing and labelling dresses this way. As you mentioned it means making more sizes and running the risk of losing or alienating customers who have been left out.

  2. Theresa in Tucson says:

    After reading this and your other postings on the Vanity blog I am even more glad I can sew. Age and weight have moved me out of the relative ease of fitting “off the rack” to a); try several brands, styles and sizes and b); say “T’ell widdum” to finally c); just make my own. I do not, however, sew for others. I’m looking forward to the comparison of the similarities between bra sizes and mens slacks.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Chris: I had been thinking along the lines of the variety problem and the difficulty it presents in retail (if you can’t display it, you can’t sell it so you may as well track backwards from there) but your ideas are intriguing and worth fleshing out (if you or someone else is of the inclination).

  4. Reader says:

    I look forward to the discussion. I’ve often thought that the idea of constantly changing styles and themes and color stories was stupid.

  5. I posit that men are generally less interested in changing wardrobes and styles, so pants and shirts in many sizes about covers it. I, for one, like changing styles, themes, and color stories, but then I’m into clothes. I like it personally as well as for my line. And, no, I wouldn’t want to cover all those sizes. I have my target customer, and I size for her.

    Please note I said “generally”….I know there are men who have variety in their wardrobes and go for style & unique clothing. None of those men are in my life!


  6. Laura Haney says:

    Have manufacturers considered that the human can only wear so many artricles of clothing at once, and that a good many of us might prefer styles and colors that changed infrequently and clothing that had some chance of fitting without major alteration?

  7. clp says:

    Did you mean to have a “not” in the second part of this sentence? “It holds that a condition or situation does not exist, cannot exist if it is functional for someone. ”
    Thanks for all the interesting information.

  8. Kathleen says:

    clp: I agree the wording is awkward, thanks for pointing it out. Hopefully the edit makes the point more clearly. If not (or I missed your point, I’m still asleep!), let me know.

  9. I don’t see all the problems that you do, Kathleen. Just because a sizing system could include 90 different sizes doesn’t mean that any given line has to include all 90. Bras go from cup sizes AA to O, and from band sizes 26 to 58. That makes 272 theoretical sizes. There is no style of bra that exists in 272 sizes and nobody would expect there to be. That doesn’t make the cup-and-band sizing system wrong; on the contrary, it means that any given style of bra can be made in the specific range of sizes it is suited to and be labelled with a meaningful size so that women can find the one they need.

    It’s kind of like the Nordstrom’s/FitLogic thingy. They made the same pant three times in three shapes in the full range of sizes. Why? Why not just label pants with the shape they fit best so that women don’t have to waste their time trying on pants that are never going to fit in any size anyway?

    I don’t get the thought process that jumps immediately from “I can describe a range of shapes and sizes” to “everything I make must be available in all possible shapes and sizes I can describe.”

  10. Theresa in Tucson says:

    We as consumers are at fault as well by choosing quantity over quality. Who doesn’t know of someone, maybe even ourselves, that doesn’t have a closet full of clothes and nothing to wear.

  11. (It doesn’t work for bras. It works for some, like all other clothes, who have the “right” proportions. For the rest… Just ask how many women prefer one specific brand or type because that “fits best”. If the sizing would work this should not be the case. Or how many women don’t like underwire bras because they are uncomfortable – until they get one that is made to measure and find out not the wire was the problem but the shape of the wire. Not taking into account that I have read surveys that state that up to 80 percent of all women wear the wrong bra size.)

  12. Quincunx says:

    Of course they’re not in our lives, Marguerite–they’re busy in fitting rooms complaining they cannot find anything to wear. ;)

    Idea #4: Introduce a little deliberate confusion and hope that the variable reward rate -> greater commitment to (shopping) attempts effect kicks in. I suppose that’s less of a designer’s perspective, though, than that of a store that relies on a jumble of merchandise and the shoppers sorting through it and making impulse purchases. Artificial thrill of the hunt. Such a store would cut away labels that were specific as menswear’s size labels.

  13. Kathleen says:

    Alison: You say people won’t have the expectation a maker should produce all the sizes and I said they will. I don’t think either of us are wrong altho respectively, we each have our own confirmation bias thing going. Minimally I should qualify what I said.

    People don’t care about other people’s sizes or whether a producer makes clothes to fit other people. They only care if the clothes are made in their size. So no, they won’t expect the theoretical 272 sizes, just the one that fits them. Many segments of the market are hypercritical and claim they’re being discriminated against etc. In the interests of keeping my pulse on consumers, I read a lot of this stuff. Much of it is gratuitously unkind and selfish.

    Not everyone is as reasonable as you are (or nearly always are) so you’d think people would have reasonable expectations. On the other hand, all I get are complaints from people who are dissatisfied with size ranges so it only stands to reason I have the opinion I do. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

    I follow you on the Nordstrom’s 3 pant fitting profiles thing. I sincerely hope this doesn’t come off as argumentative but I have to look at it from the DE perspective. The challenges to doing this from my perspective is the tripling of cost to getting a line out. I do think this is tenable for larger companies or an agreement like Nordstrom had but it’s different in that there was some serious backing for it. The retailer backed it financially which is much different in both product development and sales potential for the average DE. Nordstroms is going to push this thing because they have serious money riding on it. They don’t have as much skin in the game if they’re buying it from a vendor to the extent they’d push the line or back the product development the way they are for themselves. At best they’d consider cooperative advertising but they are still going to hold that supplier to an 85% sell through. I suppose they could negotiate on that but they have policies that don’t leave much wiggle room.

    The second challenge for a DE is that few (who are in a position to be more innovative with respect to sizing), are selling to department stores. Selling to department stores is a whole other level of complexity (as I know you know). It’s kind of a chicken and egg problem.

    I would appreciate clarification of the below because I’m not following you. Thanks

    I don’t get the thought process that jumps immediately from “I can describe a range of shapes and sizes” to “everything I make must be available in all possible shapes and sizes I can describe.”

  14. Kathleen,

    You’re right, I know people complain. 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.

    I didn’t think the question was whether size labels would stop people from wishing for things that don’t exist, though. Just whether size labels could be more helpful (and why they aren’t).

    Nordstrom’s made three versions of the same very boring pant, which I thought was odd. It would have made more sense to me if they had gone through their existing styles and slapped stickers on them identifying them as “high round bum” vs “flat saggy bum” or “small trim waist” vs “thick poochy waist” fits. As you are constantly reiterating, diversity in manufacturers means that someone, somewhere is making something that fits you. You just have to find them.

    We already have that to some degree with “petites,” “tall girl” and “plus size” clothing which we typically get by going to a store that caters to a particular body type. Land’s End offers clothes by body type (women’s clothes are offered in six size ranges plus maternity).

    It might be nice if I could go to a store and get, say, a cotton t-shirt and choose by bust, waist, hip, neck, back length and bicep. Oh, and colour and style. I would pay through the nose for that, and it doesn’t make sense for people who are close to a standard size anyway (so have an abundance of choice in other) to pay a premium for something that fits if they can get something that fits easily and cheaply almost anywhere. It would only make sense for people in odd sizes to pay that premium and it’s unlikely that all the odd sizes look equally good in the same styles. A style that looks good on someone tall and thin with wide hips is not necessarily going to be nice for someone who is short and round and full-breasted. So as soon as you get out of the standard sizes you break off into different styles anyway. You aren’t making/buying the same clothes in different sizes, you’re making/buying different clothes in different sizes.

    I’m starting from the assumption that you are never going to have a manufacturer producing the entire range of sizes in a single style and that nobody would want them to. So my interpretation of the question is, Why don’t manufacturers label what they make in a way that makes it easier to choose something that will fit?

    *** *** ***
    Wrt to menswear, it’s possible that if you go to an expensive suit store for a crisp white shirt that you’ll be able to buy it by chest, length and neck. I don’t know, I don’t do that sort of thing. But I did go shopping for less expensive/ more casual menswear two weeks ago and it was labelled by neck (neatly folded on a card) or as SMLX (on a hanger). Prices of the shirts tried on ranged from $30 to $250. Exactly the same situation as for women’s clothes: huge variety in colour; sizing within a line only on one dimension; each line fits differently from every other line but the sizing labels don’t help you with that. So menswear isn’t being labelled like menswear any more either.

  15. Matthew Pius says:

    Isn’t the answer to your question “there are similarities between bras and men’s slacks. What are those?” in your post itself? Don’t your Idea #2 and Idea #3 apply to bras just as much as slacks? While there may be trends in bra styling I imagine they change much less rapidly than trends in outer clothes. And there isn’t necessarily any need to match/display the bra with anything else.

    BTW, Alison, WRT men’s shirts – if you go to the sort of store that sells suits and look through the dress shirts you will see that they are nominally sized by neck and sleeve length (which is measured from the nape to wrist). Those shirts you saw folded on a card probably have a sleeve length on the label. However, I’ve very rarely seen shirts with a sleeve length other than 32/33. Sometimes you will see shirts labeled “athletic fit” or “slim fit” or something else to give you a hint at the sort of chest/waist measurements they have assigned to a given neck size. Jackets also are sized basically just by chest measure (with three choices of length – tall, regular, short). But, at least the sizing relates to an actual body measurement which is less confusing than for womenswear.

    And here’s something else about menswear – the “vanity sizing” is reversed (sort of). I can’t tell you how many stores I’ve seen selling t-shirts (or similar casual clothing) that are supposedly sized S/M/L but they just don’t have any S. They’re not on the shelves. At all. So, Kathleen, how does this relate to sizing the way you describe it? Are they drafting everything in M and just grading up to XXL or XXXL? Or are they drafting to their “average” customer in XL and grading up and down from there without re-labeling it a M?

  16. Clarisse says:

    I’ve also noticed that I don’t see many size S on the rack/shelves in men’s clothing. Possibly because the merchandiser is ordering fewer size S in proportion to M or L so the S sells out of stock faster; possibly because medium-sized women like me have pretty much given up looking for women’s clothing that fits, and have settled for shopping in the men’s department (and youth XL sizes) for their cheap, boxy clothes, so that’s another group of unintended customers buying men’s clothing.

  17. Helena says:

    Some other similaritys between men’s slacks and bras:
    – 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 the’re “supposed to wear” does still not neseccarily fit.
    – When the first wellfitting bra/slacks is found, many people tend to stick to that size and that model.

    When it comes to what men sizes that is available, here (in Sweden) one of the main highstreet mens appearel stores is almost always sold out when it comes to their S-size. However, it does exist. An XS does however not exist, even though both XL an XXL exists. On the other side, here in Europe there actually is a sizing standard.

  18. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Standard population can also affect the sizing mix. I would not want to be a tall European or American buying in the orient or even in some South American countries. A classmate of mine came back from a visit to extended family in Mexico and commented that she couldn’t find anything to fit when she went shopping.

  19. Dana says:

    I’m of the opinion that the huge style variety in women’s wear is the major issue making this kind of sizing financially impossible for anyone without enormously deep pockets and/or basic styling. But it still intrigues me as a communication tool.

    Kathleen you seem to be suggesting that adopting some version of men’s sizing for women’s means customers would expect us to offer all sizing options to everyone. I’m curious about that. Women’s jeans are offered by waist and inseam and often rise is listed as part of the styling reference. This is similar to men’s. There is styling variety in denim. Lots of sku’s in all denim lines, granted but not all denim lines cover all bodies. Or am I misunderstanding what you’re trying to say about customer expectations? Can’t we slice off the sizing range as part of what identifies our lines if we size by waist measurement etc.?

    Obviously 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 think Allison is making a very relevant point about figuring out ways to label what we do and who it works best on whether that is a numbers thing (ie. 27″ waist/34″ inseam) or body shape thing or some other wording. But again this is also a style specific issue in addition to a lines “fit philosophy”.

    And the point here is that as women’s wear designers we all have a fit philosophy for our lines. I’m constantly surprised how often I’m asked at consumer sales events if my clothes fit “true to size”. I don’t think that phrase has a lot of meaning in women’s wear anymore without points of comparison. I always answer that “my fit is similar to labels such as … ” because I don’t know how else to answer that question in a way that will give the consumer something of a reference point. The bottom line here is that the consumer needs a better reference point for fit in women’s wear.

  20. Leslie Hanes says:

    This is why, despite owning a clothing company, towels are what keep me sane. Cut, hem, package. Swim diapers for adults. 9 sizes, unisex. Hot flash pillowcases…just standard and King.
    Our outerwear has a small range of sizes. Making custom outerwear may be one-at-a-time but the size considerations are done at the cut stage, and stock isn’t an issue. At Discovery Trekking, I will never mass produce clothing (at least, not while I still have all my faculties.) My admiration to those of you who do!

  21. Esther says:

    I often encourage new DE’s in the childrenswear industry to NOT be too innovative in their sizing. For some, this is the reason they started and exist. They attempt to solve a fit/sizing issue – usually related to their own children — which does not really exist due to a lack of understanding how sizes have developed over time. I am sure the vanity sizing pundits think it is simple and throw out these suggestions. But to innovate in sizes for women, especially, is very, very risky. A great deal of capital would need to be expended in educating and encouraging their consumer to buy it. To size women’s clothing like men’s is possible but does the ROI make it worth it?

  22. Esther says:

    I should add that if one wanted to size women’s clothing like men’s they would have to offer all the size variations for one simple reason. The development process requires or even demands it. In order to get from point A to point Z you have to offer everything in between. As a pattern maker and grader, the development process would take longer and be almost overwhelming in complexity. Especially as a grader, you can’t skip sizes in the process. Even if you don’t cut every size, you still have to figure it all out as if you did.

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