Size Ain’t Nothing But A Number

You’re wrong about vanity sizing

Conversations around vanity sizing frequently perpetuate harmful ideas linking health, body size, and shame. Outside of niche academic sources, writing on the topic tends to lean into these tropes and obscure what has and hasn’t happened over the last 150 years of garment sizing history.

Writers generally credit the invention of vanity sizing to the decades following World War II, though considering sizing has never been consistent between brands, I would argue it’s moot point entirely. Depending on who you ask, it started in the 70’s, or maybe it was the 80’s, but it was definitely happening in the 90’s. And it was extremely bad in the 2000’s! Hand wringing over vanity sizing reached a fever pitch in the fall of 2006. Susana Schrobsdorff warned readers, “There is now a size smaller than nil. A negative size if you will. Next fall, designer Nicole Miller will introduce something tentatively called the “subzero” for women with 23½-inch waists and 35-inch hips. And this spring, Banana Republic began offering an equally tiny “00” on its Web site.”

Vanity sizing is frequently told as an us-vs-them story, where everyday women are fighting against the fashion industry to get Their Size. Outside of the concerns of plus size customers, this has always struck me as a stange view. Companies really want to sell you clothes and patterns. It’s in their interest to make something you will like.

The conversations around Vanity sizing are rarely helpful to anyone. They distract from useful and necessary conversations about the needs of plus size customers, and about making patterns and ready-to-wear (RTW) clothing more inclusive. Instead, we get stuck discussing what any given size “should” be, and what we call them. And in the interest of simplifying the story for a general audience, writers often end up rewriting or distorting the history of printed patterns and off-the-rack clothing. 

McCall’s size chart from 1905, Via

What is vanity sizing?

Vanity sizing is many things to different people. The accusation usually comes with one or more of the following explanations:

  • The apparel industry is lying to you about your “actual” size and trying to trick you into buying clothing through flattery.
  • Garment sizes used to be standardized across the industry, but now they are meaningless.
  • It’s a symptom of the so-called obesity crisis in countries like the US. 
    • Sizes are larger across the board and businesses are trying to spare our ego.
    • Manufacturers are adding smaller sizes back in because sizing has gotten so large, generally.

Size codes (the numbers and letters used to identify a size) and customer classifications (junior, missy, plus, etc.) have shifted significantly, particularly in the middle of the 20th century. Far from being a nefarious ploy, this shift shows companies responding to the needs of their customers and the cultural shifts in how women move through the world. 

1930s mail order catalogs, Via

Standard sizing is not as standard as you think

In 1958 The US government first introduced CS215-58, standardized measurements for women’s clothing. However, this wasn’t some brief, magical moment when women’s sizing was more consistent or made more sense. The use of this chart has always been voluntary. The National Beaurau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) published CS215-58 based in part on the data gathered by Ruth O’Brien and William Shelton in the 1940s. To this day, the O’Brien-Shelton study is the largest anthropometric survey done to date in the United States. Unfortunately the sample was heavily biased towards young, thin, white women. The resulting charts were reviewed by industry leaders so they would meet the needs of apparel manufacturers. As such, the standard mirrored common elements already in use by the industry. 

People had been buying RTW clothing and printed patterns for over 100 years by the time CS215-58 was published. In fact, it was so popular, by the 1920s, more clothing was being purchased than made in the home. Some people would have you believe it took an official government standard to whip the apparel industry into shape and get people to size things in a similar way, but that’s incorrect. A quick peek at popular catalogs from any era will show you companies used similar measurements and size codes as their competitors. 

While official industry standards may be used as a starting point, most companies prefer to modify them and use their own set of measurements which resonate with their customer. Even if a company is selling to a similar customer, there will likely be some variation in how they size their garments. Standardization means internal consistency within a brand.

This variation can be frustrating but it’s beneficial

If every company that was using the exact same size chart, with all of the same proportions, a lot of people wouldn’t be able to buy clothing off the racks. Though it can be frustrating from a customer perspective to not fit into your usual size, or to find that your favorite brand has changed the fit on a style you loved, there’s usually a good reason for this.

Changes to sizing are not casual decisions

Fit is a signature selling point for any company selling finished garments or patterns. When changes are made, it’s usually in response to customer feedback, sales data, and market trends. There’s nothing worse for a company than being stuck with a bunch of unsold garments because your fit was wrong. And making changes to your pattern block is the quickest way to fill your in-box with complaints from loyal customers.

1905 pattern catalog, Via

Leave Marilyn alone

It’s not her fault that size codes have shifted. Comparing marked sizes on older garments to new ones is like comparing apples to oranges. Not only have the dominant size codes changed, the customer classifications commonly used in the industry have shifted significantly. During my research, what was most surprising to me is how little the range of sizes offered to women has shifted in the last 150 years. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Before adopting our current size code system, women’s sizes were broken up into 3 categories: girls, misses, and ladies. Girls and misses’ sizes were identified by age, ladies’ sizes used bust and waist measurements. If you’re a parent or have ever tried to buy clothing for an infant, you have an idea of how inaccurate age alone correlates to body size.

These catalogs for The Delineator, published by Ebenezer Butterick in the early 1900s, show “ladies” shirts sized for a chest between 32-40 inches in 5 sizes. About the same as a modern day size 0/2-12/14. Just like today, larger sizes for ladies were available (usually up to a 50 inch chest, approximately a modern day 20/22) but there were significantly less options than smaller women had and designs tended to be matronly. And despite being from a time when corsets were still in use, the figure presented in these charts is definitely not hourglass shaped.

As part of their research, O’brien and Shelton suggested identifying women’s sizes with arbitrary numbers like shoes are, setting the template for the even number system we know today. Considering what came before it, the distinction feels like a lateral move. When CS215-58 was published, it suggested labeling women’s sizes from 8-22. The industry adopted this new labeling standard, but the size range wasn’t much of a departure from what had been available on the market in earlier decades.

Illustrations from CS215-58

For all the time spent hand wringing over how much larger the population has gotten, there isn’t much evidence to support the claim that the clothing sizes, overall, have gotten bigger over time. They have been relabeled and the average size range has been marginally expanded upward, but smaller women have not been excluded in favor of offering larger sizes. 

Women of the past may have been smaller, on average, than we are now, but they were still adult humans and the shapes of their bodies are not nearly as foreign as some would have you believe. There is much work to be done to create better, more inclusively sized garments, and spending effort obsessing over vanity sizing and “what it means” is a waste of time.

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