Stake out the dressing rooms at any local clothing store, and you’ll see women enter the stalls with armloads of pants—all the same style, all different sizes. Listen closely and you’ll hear the women, their backs pressed against the dressing room walls, grunting as they struggle to shimmy the waistband up over their hips. “But I’m always an 8,” someone whines to a patient shopping companion. “I don’t understand why this doesn’t fit!” Other times you may hear a surprised gasp as a customer exits the dressing room and tells the saleswomen gleefully, “This size is too big. Do you have something smaller?” These scenes happen every day in dressing rooms across the country. This is because nothing fits.
There are three secret rules by which women shop. One, always bring three sizes of pants—the size you normally wear, and then one bigger and one smaller—into the dressing room, because you have no idea which pair is going to fit you. Two, the more expensive the store, the bigger the clothes will be. Three, vintage outfits will all have enormous numbers on the labels. Let’s face it: a size 8 is not always a size 8. Sometimes it is a 12; it’s often a 10 or a 6; and if you’re really lucky, once in a while it says it’s a 4.
So what is a size 8 anyway? What do the numbers mean? Where did they come from? Why must they taunt us so? Let’s start from the beginning.
Each ready-to-wear label has its own size chart. “Size 8 is always the middle size,” explains Mary Kawenski, the apparel design department head and a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. When you design a piece of clothing, you usually design it to size 8 specifications first. “Then you do what we call ‘grading.’ You take that size 8 and reduce the measurements by one inch. Then you have a size 6. Reduce it another inch, and it’s a size 4. When you grade up, you usually increase the measurements by one-and-a-half inches, and then you have a 10 and a 12 and so on.” There is no universally accepted definition of a size 8, so labels create their charts semi-arbitrarily, with the result that a lot of different body types end up wearing the same size.
Today’s clothing sizes are based partly upon measurements taken before World War II. The United States government created an official sizing chart in the 1940s when it wanted to make uniforms for nurses and other female-dominated positions in the war effort. People then were shorter and smaller, and the American population was not as diverse. After World War II, the size chart was used for a while, but as the decades passed, designers increasingly ignored it and created their own sizes. The chart was officially abandoned in 1983 because it was too outdated. Today, we have no legal standard for sizing.
So why don’t designers just size their clothing according to inches, like men’s clothing designers do? “When ready-to-wear started to be developed,” says Kawenski, “it was a practice or belief that women didn’t want to reveal their body dimensions when they shopped.” Ready-made clothing gained popularity in the early 20th century, when Western culture was still recovering from the prudish Victorian era, and meaningless size numbers helped shield the demure nature of the more sensitive sex. This belief still holds true today, as most fashion designers claim that women just don’t want to know their size in inches. If Americans balked at the metric system back in the ’70s, there is no way they’re going to voluntarily let their size numbers jump from single digits up to something in the 30s. Or so we are told.
All right, so we have these meaningless numbers, and we know how to differentiate between them. But the fact remains that a size 8 from the 1950s is nowhere near a size 8 today. Both women and men have grown taller and bigger within the past century. Vitamins, changes in dietary habits, fewer diseases and a more sedate, TV-remote-friendly lifestyle have made us larger. Unfortunately, we are widening faster than we are lengthening. If a size 8 is supposed to be the median size, but the median keeps getting bigger, so will the size 8. Designers know that people are more likely to buy clothing with small sizes, so they’re going to keep the number 8 and simply make it larger. And consumers will never be the wiser.
Occasionally, you will hear the fact that Marilyn Monroe wore a size 14 presented as proof that America’s beauty standards have shifted so drastically that a woman who was once the ultimate sex symbol could, by today’s standards, be considered fat. Sure, Marilyn was bigger than some of our more emaciated stars today, but her size 14 was probably more like today’s 8 or 10. And of course, Marilyn experienced weight fluctuations as she aged, dieted and gave up those diets. So even the assertion that she always wore a size 14 may not be accurate.
Even women who don’t wear vintage clothing have trouble finding the right size; measurements change from label to label. Calvin Klein has a completely different sizing chart from Ralph Lauren. A size 8 in Gap jeans might be a 6 or 4 in Banana Republic, and Abercrombie is notorious for its enormous sizes. In fact, while the size 8 is traditionally something similar to the 36-24-36 hourglass figure, the Anthropologie catalog defines a size 8 as 37-29-39. Kawenski says this is an example of size exaggeration. “Women are becoming more pear-shaped.”
Labels pick their size charts based on many different factors. First, they analyze their target audience. Stores like Talbots and L.L. Bean cater to adult customers, and their size charts will probably be bigger than the size charts at Gap or American Eagle. Expensive stores and designer labels also have bigger sizes to give their customers incentive to pay the inflated prices. Someone who wears a 4 in Prada might wear an 8 at Old Navy.
Theoretically, customers should be the same size number—whatever it is—in every article of clothing created by the same label. If you’re a 6 in one style of pants, you should be a 6 in all other styles by that brand. Of course, this doesn’t always happen. Once a clothing designer decides on its sizing chart, it creates each piece of clothing according to those specifications while also taking into consideration the desired amount of what people in the industry call “wearing ease.” “Rigid fabric would need more wearing ease,” says Kawenski. “Knits you can make smaller than the measurements because you know they’re going to stretch. Other fabrics, you make a little bigger. But the goal is to make sure that the same person can wear the same size.” That may be the goal, but it never seems to turn out that way.
In the end, your butt is bigger than your grandmother’s. You’re taller, heavier and probably a little bit wider. But look on the bright side: you’re younger, allowed to vote and hold a decent job, and your pantyhose don’t have those unsightly seams running up the back. Sure, the fashion industry has made our lives difficult with its arbitrary and senseless sizing, but things could be worse. We could be men.