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How Did Women’s Clothing Sizes Get So Complicated?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Washington chapter.

I’ve known this experience all too well: meticulously scanning a size guide online, ordering an item of clothing in what I think is the correct size, waiting for it to ship and deliver, and finally trying it on—only to realize it doesn’t fit. 

Given that sizing isn’t consistent across brands, this is a pretty common problem: the waistband of a pair of women’s size 6 jeans can vary by more than five inches, and return rates of online purchases for women’s tops and bottoms are 38% and 42%, respectively—largely due to sizing issues. 

Men’s sizes, by comparison, are much more straightforward: two measurements indicating the waist circumference and inseam length. How did we get stuck with arbitrary numbers on our jeans? 

It used to be that clothes were tailored specifically for the person wearing them — you’d either make them yourself or have them made for you. But by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, technological achievements made it easier to mass-produce clothing, sparking a push for uniform sizes. 

The most comprehensive effort to systematize women’s sizes occurred in the early 1940s, when the federal government undertook a project that involved collecting the measurements of 15,000 women. However, all of the women included in the study were white (although women of color were measured, their data was scrapped) and study participants were also more likely to be impoverished and malnourished. The overall effect was a distorted data set that wasn’t reflective of the US population. One key thing researchers realized, however, was that women didn’t want to share their measurements or weight with store clerks—inspiring the idea for sizing based on an arbitrary standard. 

Although this project was eventually discarded, its data helped create a successful standardization effort in 1958. The other data that was added were the measurements of women who’d served in the Army in WWII (who were likely some of the most physically fit of the entire U.S. female population) further skewing the sample. The final guide included sizes represented by numbers ranging between 8 and 38, combined with letters to signal height and plus or minus signs to indicate hip width. Upon its completion, manufacturers were encouraged to use the guide and initially responded enthusiastically. 

However, in the decades following, these guidelines fell out of favor. They were updated in 1970 and thrown out entirely in 1983, leaving brands more freedom to create their own sizing charts. 

As the century progressed, clothing companies saw a new way to appeal to consumers: vanity sizing. Vanity sizing is the process of artificially marking sizes down with lower numbers, so that larger sizes appear smaller. This is a key part of why clothing sizes haven’t stayed constant over time. One of the most notable examples is Marilyn Monroe, who was a size 12 in the ‘60s and would’ve been around a size 6 today. Nowadays, brands cater their sizing towards their target market, which is why a size 8 at one store won’t be the same as a size 8 at another. 

In recent years, there’s been a push for more inclusive sizing, as well as the invention of new sizing methods like one-size-fits-all, and technologies like virtual try-on. The future of clothing sizes will only continue to change — here’s hoping we’ll eventually have a method that’s less convoluted.