The Outdated Sizing System

For a long time, I've had the feeling that clothes are just not made to fit. Why is this?

Lizzie Yockney
21st June 2022
Image: Sophia Ayub

If you’ve ever felt frustrated by clothes that don’t fit, the likelihood is it’s not you, it is the shockingly ill-fitting sizing system.

Earlier this month it was my friend’s birthday, and sick of my current wardrobe, I wanted to buy myself a new dress. Ideally, I was looking for something that I could wear again and again, something that was comfortable and flattering. Alas, this was much harder than I had anticipated. After searching and trying on numerous options, scouring every shop in Eldon Square and surrounding, I settled with something that I didn’t love, but would do. I emerged sweating and demoralised, the approximately three-hour experience of trying on ill-fitting dresses in sizes larger that I usually bought left me with a sense of self-loathing and a bruised self-esteem.

Image: Instagram @littlepencildesign

I emerged sweating and demoralised, the approximately three-hour experience of trying on ill-fitting dresses in sizes larger that I usually bought left me with a sense of self-loathing

I have to be honest, my body confidence is a bit lacking currently, but I was more frustrated than anything. This whole experience, as well as every other shopping experience (especially online shopping), have left me asking, why doesn’t anything fit? Perhaps these issues arise because of the shaky foundations that the ‘standardised’ sizing system is built upon.

Standard sizing was first established for menswear, with several wars such as the Napoleonic Wars (1801-1815) and American Civil War (1861-1865) meaning that uniforms were needed to be produced on a mass scale. Standard sizing in womenswear developed later, as fashion in Europe and America favoured tighter-fitting garments which included corsets and bustles. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that trends in Paris, the fashion capital of the Europe, favoured less form-fitting garments. This gave way for the expansion of ready-to-wear garments for women.

In 1941, Ruth O’Brien and William Shelton conducted a study at the Work Projects Administration in the United States and published Women’s Measurements for Garment and Pattern Construction. For their study, they measured the weight and height of approximately 1500 women and took 59 measurements, with the intention to find some kind of correlation between the different measurements of the body, which could be made into a sizing system. The study found that there was no such proportional relationship between women’s bodies. Not only was no correlation found, but the data collected by O’Brien and Shelton was solely based on the measurements of white women, as the data of the women of colour who attended the study was completely scrapped. Furthermore, a stipend was offered to those who volunteered to be measured, which meant that the data was representative of poor and malnourished women. Though O’Brien and Shelton’s data was briefly used to develop a system in 1958 by the US National Bureau for Standards in 1958, this was revoked in 1983. But these foundations, upon which the standardised system is built, prove that clothes are not made for all women, especially women of colour.

The study found that there was no such proportional relationship between women’s bodies

The standard sizing system has been made even more confusing with the development of vanity sizing, which means that brands label their clothes as smaller than they actually are. This means that brands can pretty much label their clothes as they wish and has led to the myriad of different sizes between brands, hence why you may be a 12 in New Look but a 16 at H&M. Despite the frustration that vanity sizing causes, studies have found that vanity sizing improves self-esteem, thus encouraging people to buy garments that make them feel good. Way to go capitalism!

The standard sizing system has been made even more confusing with the development of vanity sizing

Image: Sophia Ayub

The issue is that by definition, a standardised sizing system is created to fit an entire population, not the individual. Though incredibly problematic, one key conclusion from O’Brien and Shelton’s study is that all bodies are different, and as YouTuber Mina Le notes in her video ‘why don’t clothes fit????’, “clothes are no longer meant to fit us, we are meant to fit the clothes”. It seems that the system is well and truly broken. It has been widely recognised that as well as damaging people’s mental health, the struggle of finding clothes that fit perpetuates over-consumption, as people buy garments, don’t wear them, and often fail to return them. Even if garments are returned, they are likely thrown out by retailers.

It seems that the system is well and truly broken

There is hope for the future, however, as technology has increasingly been used to try to fix this problem, for example 3D body scanning technology and avatars based on these measurements have been developed and introduced onto some online stores. Hopefully such technology will help to solve this frustrating problem and help to make shopping an easier experience.

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