The Pros and Cons of Standardized Sizing

pros cons standardized sizing

If you’ve ever gone clothes shopping – and I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume you have  – you are likely aware that a size 12 at the Gap fits differently from a size 12 at J.Crew. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking Gap jeans versus J.Crew jeans, which should be a fairly apples-to-apples comparison: There WILL be some variation in sizing. One may be loose in the hips and tight in the waist, while another fits snugly everywhere. And sizing within brands even shifts over time. You may still be wearing that size 4 dress from LOFT that you snagged five years ago, but if you walk in now you could be a 2. Or an 8. Who knows?

Most mall brands are using some form of vanity sizing by now, and they are loathe to abandon this tactic since it’s been proven to boost customer self-esteem and bolster positive feelings about vanity-sized brands. So unless you’re sewing your own clothes, you’re bound to find some sizing variation at just about every shop and in just about every brand.

And this makes you want to pull our hair out in large handfuls, right? Especially when it comes to online shopping – the hassle of paying for shipping, finding out that the size you normally wear is FAR too big/small, having to get the item back to the merchant, awaiting exchanges and refunds. Such a waste of time, money, and energy. Because of this, many people have declared that a system of standardized women’s sizing is needed. Which I completely understand. But unfortunately, I am yet to see a suggestion for such a system that would completely and finally fix the fit issues we experience.

Use inch/centimeter measurements instead of sizes

PROS: Here in the U.S., most women’s clothing is sized by numbers (0 -34) or descriptors (Small, Large, Extra Small, etc.). These sizes offer only a rough idea of what might fit our bodies. If we were given actual measurements for the garments – as is the case for some menswear items – we could measure ourselves and make more informed choices. Removing imprecise words like “large” from clothing descriptors might be beneficial, too, as straight numbers can feel more scientific.

CONS: While this system works relatively well for men’s clothing, many women’s bodies have more curves that need to be accounted for, so determining which inch measurements to use could be tricky. Although the bust-waist-hips set is fairly standard, what about shoulders? Underbust? And what about women whose natural waist is hard to locate? Also, anyone else out there ever ordered a custom garment using your own measurements and had it fit wonky? I know I have. And I follow measurement instructions VERY CAREFULLY. Furthermore some vendors include inch measurements in their sizing charts, but they’re often wrong. Just straight-up wrong. And since men’s clothing is subject to vanity sizing now, too, even their garment measurements can vary. Inches are far from foolproof, unfortunately.

Create a set of women’s sizes that can be implemented across the board

PROS: If designers and brands put their heads together and created a set of sizes – which would likely be linked to inch/centimeter measurements in some way – and agreed to use them across the board, we could buy with considerably more confidence. If a Marc Jacobs 10 was the same as a JC Penney 10, online ordering would be a snap. In-person shopping could be done with less trying-on. We’d save time and shipping fees.

CONS: Saying that all size 8 pants need a waist circumference of X inches might work, but what about dresses? Blazers? Cardigans? Any garment that has a waistline that may fall high or low on the body (empire versus dropwaist), or that comes in a huge variety of lengths and styles (cropped versus boyfriend cardigans), or that would need more than three points of measurement (shoulders, sleeves, bust, waist, length, stance)? A size 22 blouse that is fitted may have some measurements in common with a size 22 blouse that is loose, but they will never be identical. Some fit variation is due to design, and cannot be avoided.

Label clothing based on figure shape

PROS: This one doesn’t get as many votes as its friends above, but a company called Fitlogic proposed this tactic after doing some extensive research. Since measurements don’t seem to be enough in many cases, offering clothes that have been labeled with information about the body shapes they will best fit could be beneficial.

CONS: Manufacturers balked at the idea, and we might end up with clothing tags featuring pears, apples, and string beans on them. Womens bodies ≠ fruit.

Feeling utterly unable to locate clothing that fits you can be demoralizing, and many of us leave the fitting room feeling like our bodies are strange or broken or wrong. So, please remember the refrain: It’s not you, it’s the clothes. None of those clothes in a pile on the dressing room floor fit you properly? Those must be someone else’s clothes. Which won’t help you figure out which size 4s will actually fit you, but will hopefully help you feel less upset if none of them do.

I may be alone in this, but I find the bizarre hodgepodge of sizing info to be rather freeing. Our weight-obsessed culture can get us really hung up on the sizes we wear, and vanity sizing became popular to cash in on that anxiety. Many people, especially women, will refuse to buy a size up that fits properly, opting instead for a size down that fits poorly but aligns with the size-number they’ve come to accept as their own. Clothing sizes have an awful lot of power over our collective body image … and yet, they are utterly, completely, 100% arbitrary. Especially now. Just hit up your local thrift store for proof: Contemporary clothing will fit you in a handful of sizes, but vintage stuff will fit in a completely different range. I have thrifted everything from size 4 to size 16, no lie, and that experience reinforces my knowledge that bodies defy measurement. The stats and the story are never in complete alignment.

I’m not sure that standardized sizing would fix the issues we experience with clothing and fit. There have been several attempts to create and implement a system in the past, and all have failed. This Slate article outlines studies conducted, systems devised, and complaints registered from the 1920s onward. I keep trying to dream up a system that would be helpful and easy and all I can come up with is: Bespoke. Which most of us can’t afford, money-wise or time-wise. Hate to be a downer, but I don’t see an easy solution to this one.

Do you? Do you feel that any of the ideas listed here have more merit than I’m seeing? Any alternatives? I know that many of you will say, “This is why I sew,” but if you have any fitting and sizing suggestions for those of us who don’t, we’d love to hear them!

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Originally posted 2014-09-29 06:36:33.

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  • Maybe it’s just on my body and with the general style of clothes I wear that this works, but I just go by garment measurements, not by body measurements. I know if I measure armpit to armpit on a dress or top and the measurement is correct, then it’s more than likely to fit the way I want it to. I can take a tape measure shopping with me and know right away what not to bother trying on. I’ve noticed more stores listing clothes this way too — Boden does, for instance.

    • Susan Ashworth

      I think that measuring the garment is brilliant. I’m stealing this idea.

    • jan.4987

      Yes, I do that too. Knowing the measurement I need plus using a tape measure is so, so much easier than taking who knows how many items to try on, having none of them fit let alone suit and ending up tired, overheated and feeling low. I am very body confident and yet that experience still always managed to end with me feeling like it was me that was made wrong rather than the clothes, so cutting it out has helped enormously psychologically.

  • Stephanie Lewis Horman

    Well first off I do sew and while it is a great way to get clothes that fit I still have to play with sizing and wear different sizes in different brands so that is not even a perfect solution. Mostly I think we just need to accept that we need to try things on and not be too attached to the size tag. I would be much more interested in getting stores to expand their size ranges so that more women could fit into standard stores.

  • ballewal

    ” So unless you’re sewing your own clothes, you’re bound to find some sizing variation at just about every shop and in just about every brand.”

    There’s size variation across pattern brands too.

  • Ginger

    It just occurred to me while reading that if sizes were magically to be standardized, would that result in fit standardization, too? What if Gap jeans fit like J.Crew? Those who really like the Gap fit would be out of luck. Lack of standardization is very frustrating, especially for online shopping, but perhaps a side benefit is the array of options available.

  • If a garment is the right shape for my body, a small will fit. If it’s the wrong shape, no size will.

  • Gloria

    I don’t know about mall brands, but I think maybe catalog brands are not to blame for their vanity sizing. People probably order clothing in the size they used to be or think they should be, and then send it back with the return form marked “too small.” If that happens a lot, the catalog companies probably decide it would be cheaper for them and more convenient to customers just to make each size bigger.

  • Kathleen M

    I think the answer lies in getting more and more women thinking about and rejecting their attachment to the numbers on their clothing labels and on the scale. Until then, I agree that standardization is probably not possible, given the vast array of bodies that clothes have to fit. I would LOVE to see more brands/websites listing the measurements of garments. Length of tops and jackets as well as sleeve length, inseam length, yes, but also rise etc. etc. One of the reasons I love Twice, for instance, and don’t bother with ThredUp is because the former lists top length and the latter doesn’t.

  • “When in doubt, try it out” is pretty much my sizing mantra.

  • NewFarm

    Another sewist here, and although others have said that various pattern brands fit differently (they do), expecting the product of any sewing pattern to perfectly fit a body roughly in its size range is just as silly as expecting off-the-rack clothes to fit. What works, and what sewing gives you* if you persist in learning how to adjust patterns, is **the ability to notice body proportion, and how it is flattered or harmed by the construction details of the garment**. To notice that I am short-waisted, but the distance from shoulder to bust point is long for that bodice height, and THAT’S why none of Target’s darted tops fit. To notice that I am technically long-legged, but the distance from knee to ankle is shorter than from knee to hip, and THAT’S why skinny jeans look funny without platform shoes. Look up “full bust adjustment”, and the corresponding alteration for “junk in the trunk”. When one has done this work, it’s obvious that no “standard” can be determined for all points of variance, for all bodies, for all garment styles. No harm, no foul.

    *One can also get this eye by doing a LOT of shopping instead of sewing. But I think sewing exposes the points of variance more clearly by naming them. Also the benefit of making test garments where one deliberately theorizes that “maybe I need an extra half inch in the upper back” is empowerment.

  • livi

    I’m also find the lack of standardization to be somewhat freeing mentally. It makes ordering online difficult, but I usually prefer to try things on anyway. I typically wear a 2x or 3x in shirts depending on the store/brand. But, the other day I tried on three 3x tops at Target and they were all skin tight. Knowing that sizing differs so much I was able to blame Target’s wacky sizing and not my body.

    • jan.4987

      I find that too. It reminds me that the size is just a label and not a real “thing”, if that makes sense.

    • Jennifer

      I can almost always fit into a XXL or 2X in Old Navy, but I almost always have to have a 3X at Target. Ironically, at the junior plus site Torrid I take a 3X as well, which is understandable, because it’s junior plus. I think Target just cuts really small. Too bad, because I like their asthetic and would spend mucho dinero if I could fit their XXLs. (Target’s plus line is kind of meh, and almost online only.) But again, it’s not me, it’s the clothes. *Shrugs*

  • rmstanek

    Regarding labeling clothing based on figure shape, many brands already do this for their pants. Gap doesn’t call it their “apple” or “pear” or “inverse triangle” jeans, but the style descriptions will indicate what sort of waist-to-hip ratio or hip-to-thigh ratio the style is designed for. Unfortunately, I have noticed that for many brands (including Gap, Old Navy, and LOFT) you have to go to the store to see the full explanation of how each style fits, which isn’t helpful when you’re shopping for a brand online for the first time….

  • belanus5

    The online merchant QVC lists every conceivable measurement of every garment. I have never had to return things for fit. Sadly the quality of some items hasn’t been great but you have to give them credit for providing clothing measurements. I know that J Jill and Lands End will also provide you with almost any measurement you ask for.

    I find it much more helpful to have garment measurements than to have size charts. I have narrow shoulders and a wide waist relative to my bust and hips. Garment measurements let me know how much ease the garment has. I prefer a closer fit than some manufacturers do. This has helped me when shopping online.

  • Rachel

    I rarely shop for clothes online because of this very issue – the only places I’ve bought from are ones that provide measurements for their sizes, and have a comments section that includes people saying “fits small” etc. I was thrilled with the custom measurements of eShakti, I have to say – the dress I bought fit me perfectly, even with my short torso and sway back. My vote would definitely be for sizes to disappear in favour of measurements!