Why are women's clothing sizes so hard to figure out?

Molly: And Cristen, I was thinking of an anecdote today. One time at Christmas, my family was sitting around playing this card game where you draw a card and it's got like a deep question. And it helps you learn things about other people.

Cristen: Nice.

Molly: It was very meaningful, except my family's a little sarcastic, so when the question what do you like least about your gender came up, my brother responded that he liked least about being male was that he always had to walk to the back of department stores to get to the men's department. That was his biggest complaint.

Cristen: Wow.

Molly: Yeah.

Cristen: Life must be good for the Edmunds brothers.

Molly: But I have to say when he said it, there were these like nods of recognition from all the guys in the room, like yeah, it is kind of a bummer to have to walk to the back of the department store.

Cristen: Uh-huh.

Molly: But I was thinking at least when he gets there, shopping is easy.

Cristen: Oh, yeah. They know - they just have to know their whatever inch - inch size, waist size, leg length.

Molly: It seems like two numbers, like 32 by 36.

Cristen: Uh-huh.

Molly: You know. I don't know what those mean, but it seems very standardized.

Cristen: Yeah. Whereas, if we were to walk into a department store right now, pick out five different brands of jeans the same size, guarantee you right now, maybe one of those would fit well.

Molly: Yeah. Oh, maybe.

Cristen: Maybe.

Molly: It takes a long time for girls to shop.

Cristen: Yeah. Men and women can both relate to this. Women who obviously are buying clothes for themselves and men who have valiantly made the attempt to buy clothes for women, it is - it is hard. It is a strange and confusing world of numbers and sizes that just really don't add up.

Molly: They don't add up. You might be a size 6 in one store, a size 8 from another store, maybe even in the same store. You have to buy like three different sizes.

Cristen: Yeah. I don't know what size I am anymore. I just - I just try to get into a Zen state before I walk into a store and just let it take me.

Molly: Just go in there with as many clothes as you can handle.

Cristen: Uh-huh.

Molly: And interestingly enough, Cristen and I when we were researching women's clothing sizes both took a survey that kind of questioned like what kind of fits we liked, what kind of styles we liked.



Molly: And Cristen, you got like 65 possible jean styles would fit you?

Cristen: Yeah, 65 jeans. It was defined like - it's like, oh, yeah, answer all these questions. We'll find the perfect pair or 65 pairs of jeans.

Molly: Yeah. I got 72 jean results. There's no way I'm trying on 72 jeans.

Cristen: No. Huh-uh, not gonna happen. So let's get to the bottom of this. Why are women's clothing sizes so hard to decipher?

Molly: Why are they? Why are they so hard to figure out? Why can't it be like the good ole days, by which I mean, the pre-Civil War days?

Cristen: Yes. I don't know if I called them the good old days, but - but yes, the Civil War does have a lot to do with the standardization of clothing sizes. Before then, a lot of clothes were either made in the home or if you were wealthy enough you could have a tailor make clothes for you. But with the Civil War, soldiers needed uniforms, obviously, and home production couldn't' exactly keep up with demand. And so, then you start having the mass production of uniforms, which then led to standardization of men's sizes because they were like, well, this would be a lot easier if we could just kind of stamp out different sizes of men's uniforms and send them off.

Molly: Yeah. They took all that data. After the Civil War, men could buy readymade clothes. Women didn't follow until about the 1920s, and that's when industrialization, excuse me, was picking up. And companies started trying to appeal to women, being like buy this dress. It's already made for you.

Cristen: Yeah. You've got the growing urban middle class that's able to afford more of these clothes, just advertising is starting to take off, all of these forces combining to - to kick off the whole retail industry.

Molly: But they were making all these readymade clothes with absolutely no data about women's bodies, so you would send off for your dress. They'd mail it back. It would - it would look like a burlap sack.

Cristen: Uh-huh.

Molly: On you. No necessarily in - in texture.

Cristen: Which is kind of how a lot of clothes that I put on now that I think are my size look on me, but I digress.

Molly: Burn.

Cristen: Burn clothes. So between 1949 and 1952, the Mail Order Association of America, in conjunction with the National Bureau of Standards organized this massive survey of women's measurements.

Molly: Uh-huh.

Cristen: And they collected all of this data. I think it was 16,000 women that participated in this study to figure out what exactly women's clothing sizes were.

Molly: Yeah. And they also took some data during World War II from the Women's Army Corps that used the volunteers from that organization to also feed into the data. But regardless of where the data came from, it was mostly from young Caucasian women, not very ethnically diverse results, not taking into account how your body changes as you age. It was sort of these very small subsets of women who determined the original standard sizes.

Cristen: Right. But nevertheless, they would take - they took 59 measurements from each volunteer. And the studies were published by the USDA under the title, Women's Measurements for Garments and Pattern Construction.

Molly: And those are still used today if you're a sewer. Patterns that you buy in the store still use those original sizes, which go from eight to 38.

Cristen: But one thing that you'll notice if - and I - I can - I can speak personally to this. My mom was a seamstress, still is a seamstress, and she would make dresses for me. And I remember we - a couple years ago, I wanted - I wanted a dress, and we decided that we would - we would work on one together. And so, we went to the store, and picking out the pattern, finding the right size pattern, was slightly traumatic because since it's based on these old body measurements, I - I had to go up a few sizes than I normally would.

Molly: You were wearing a 38?

Cristen: Yeah. I wasn't - I wasn't very - I honestly wasn't very happy about it, but it's because, like you said, it - it's really just patterns that are - that follow these standards now. Because if you walk into a store, an eight back in 1950 certainly isn't the eight that you'll find today.

Molly: And the very reason that happened is probably because of how you felt when you bought that pattern for your dress is it made you feel bad about a number.

Cristen: Uh-huh.

Molly: And so, brands figured out that women don't wanna buy clothing that's really high up on the scale. So as Cristen said, what was a size eight may now be a size zero, simply because people figured out that women are vain about what size they are.

Cristen: Right. And I think what you are referring to is vanity sizing.

Molly: Vanity sizing, and it's - it's sort of a hot topic of debate in the fashion world. I've read some arguments this week that people who say it doesn't exist, other people who say there's no way it doesn't exist when there are stores that are selling size zeros, size like zero zero, extra extra small.

Cristen: Yeah. There - there's a definite trend. According to an article on msnbc.com, a size eight in 1950 translated to a size four in the 1970s, and today that same size eight is a double zero.

Molly: Which is kind of hard to believe when you consider a statistic from the US Department of Health and Human Services, as reported in Real Simple Magazine. Looked at women from 1962 to 2002, and their height had gone up one inch, and their weight had gone up more than 24 pounds. So we're somehow getting bigger and our clothes are getting smaller.

Cristen: Right. I think the average woman's size today is a 14.

Molly: Yeah.

Cristen: Whereas, it used to be the - the eight was the - was considered the average - average size. But I guarantee you if you tried to go vintage shopping and you put on an eight, it's gonna be tight.

Molly: But it's interesting you mention the size of eight, Cristen, because we were reading about how clothes are sized today, and manufacturers work off the assumption that eight is sort of the midpoint, despite the fact that, as you say, it's probably closer to 14.

Cristen: Right, Molly. According to Tim Gun of Project Runway Fame, the process for even designing a woman's garment starts with the designer making a sketch of the idea and then they enlist a, quote, unquote, fit model, who is a person who represents the companies ideal midpoint size, which is, like you said, that size eight. But this is where it might get tricky, because different designers might use a different silhouette. Some fit models might have broader shoulders or narrower hips or larger thighs, whatever - whatever it is, because each designer has an idea of how they want their garments to look on our bodies. So that's why you - you still get variations even among the - the fit size eight.

Molly: Right. And because these women, their job is to be a size eight, they may not be a size eight like a real world women - a real world woman is a size eight.

Cristen: Right. Because you could walk into any number of stores and the size eight could actually fit all different sizes of women.

Molly: But as you say, the designers do care how their clothes look, which is why I'm guessing - I mean, I don't wanna po int any fingers, but I think the - the designers seem to care more about how the clothes look for the smaller sizes and then they just kind of multiply up for the heavier sizes.

Cristen: Uh-huh. Yeah. They try to do everything in - in proportion, like as the - as the waist gets larger, then the arms get longer, but as -

Molly: That's really not how a body works.

Cristen: - as most women know, yeah, that's not how our - our bodies grow. So now, today, we have this situation where sizes are just all over the place. And some governments wanna do something about it.

Molly: Yeah. This is a time when we should be modeling Spain.

Cristen: Yeah. Spain has really taken - taken the lead in this women's clothing size standardization, because if you remember, I believe it was in 2007, Spain actually banned extremely thin models from walking the catwalk in their - in their fashion week. And the Minister of Health then took it one step further by calling for the standardization of women's clothing sizes based on these real world female measurements because he thought that it reflected poorly on - or promoted poor body image for younger consumers, especially. And he was calling for this not only from mass market retailers, but also for the smaller designers as well so that an eight is an eight is an eight no matter where you shop. So it will be interesting to see how - how that actually plays out. And there have also been efforts in the US and the UK, as well, Molly, to kind of revamp the - the initial survey that we were talking about that took place in the mid century to update those clothing sizes. Because like you said, it was mostly Caucasian women, which is not representative of the population.

Molly: Yeah. And you know what's cool about this, Cristen?

Cristen: What?

Molly: They used scanners.

Cristen: Scanners?

Molly: Yes, full body scanners, like there's this company - they have - what's it called, the T2?

Cristen: TC2, I believe.

Molly: TC2 - T2 is the terminator sequel. So you'd walk into this scanner and all this like technology bursts of white light that I don't quite understand -

Cristen: Maybe Tech Stuff can cover this for us.

Molly: Yeah. Cristen's just looking at me blankly when I started talking about white light, but white light would capture your body, and it would make your body into like a series of dots, essentially. And then, the manufacturers would know how two dots were related, and that would be the measurement as opposed to just putting a tape measure around your waist and calling that your measurement. They would look at ratios. They would look at where things were located and which things were higher and lower on some people. And that was how they would do measurements. So the vision some of these people had was that you could get a scan, have it put on a hard drive, and you could walk around to stores and put it into their scanner complimentary device, I guess, and say this is my body. Find clothes that fit me.

Cristen: Uh-huh. Yeah. You could find the exact fit clothes. But that isn't - that's not exactly how things have happened.

Molly: That does not sound cheap, so I'm guessing that was one factor in scanning technology not really getting off the ground.

Cristen: But one thing that did come out of this, I believe it was Size USA was the name of this survey including the - the white light, high tech scanners that we obviously know a lot about, was that it intentionally included more minority women.

Molly: Uh-huh.

Cri sten: They actively sought out African American women and Latino women who now make up a much larger percentage of the population that they did in the 1950s to actually get a representative look at what a woman's body in the US looks like.

Molly: And they're finding that women are like snowflakes. There really are no two alike. I don't know if we'll ever get to the point where a size eight is a size eight is a size eight. But I think the important thing that could come out of this is that we learn that size eight is not the midpoint. The study found that only 10 percent - or less than 10 percent of women met an ideal size eight, so this should not be the standard for which we base all our clothing sizes.

Cristen: Right. And there was an article on this in The Atlantic by Virginia Postural, and there was an interesting quote that she - that she made, which said that clothing creates the illusion that bodies fit an aesthetically pleasing form, that clothes actually cover up the - the natural shape of our bodies. And I think that's important to keep in mind. Like you said, bodies - it's kind of cheesy as it sounds bodies are like snowflakes. There's not an actual standard size of a woman's body. With a man it might be easier to - to break it down into a waist and inseam, but there - we just got a lot more curves to work with, Molly. Let's face it.

Molly: We do. So it's - it's kind of an unfortunate end to the podcast because we don't have any sort of grand solution for this. You really do have to basically try on all these sizes and - and find one that fits.

Cristen: Right. And if you feel crazy that you're walking into a store and you put on the size eight and maybe the fact of the matter is it might be bigger than it used to be because as Americans are growing larger, companies are trying to cater to that by - by downsizing their sizes. You're not - you're not crazy.

Molly: No.

Cristen: You're not crazy. It's just women's clothing sizes are not standard. Going back to that initial standardizing effort that we were talking about that started really in the early 20th century that was thrown out completely in 1983.

Molly: Yeah. It just wasn't - it wasn't accurate.

Cristen: Yeah. So we might see - I don't know, maybe in the next few years with the Size USA survey and all these fantastic scanners we have, we might see maybe a little more standardization, but I gotta say don't hold your breath for - for a while.

Molly: We can move to Spain.

Cristen: We could move to Spain. I'd love to move to Spain.

Molly: They have afternoon naps.

Cristen: Uh-huh.

Molly: Siestas.

Cristen: Siesta. And well, Molly, before we - before we go head out and try to sneak a siesta in the howstuffworks offices, I gotta say something to men because the idea for this podcast came from a male listener who was asking about women's clothing sizes. And you know what? Take all of this - take all of this to - to heart when you're thinking about whether or not you want to buy a lady in your life a piece of clothing. Maybe you should just stick with perfume or shoes. Shoe sizes, those are easy to figure out.

Molly: Yeah.

Cristen: Or just take her with you.

Molly: Take her with you maybe to a tailor.

Cristen: Yeah.

Molly: So you can get -

Cristen: Th at's so romantic.

Molly: Honey, we're gonna go to a tailor so your clothes fit perfectly.

Cristen: [Inaudible] Well, if you want to learn more about clothing style and just good ole fashioned anatomy, you can head over to howstuffworks.com, and as always, if you have a question or a comment for me and Molly, please send us an email at momstuff@howstuffworks.com. And finally, if you want to read even more stuff that is on mine and Molly's minds, you should check out our new blog, called How To Stuff, and of course, you can find that at howstuffworks.com. Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com. Want more howstuffworks? Check out our blogs on the howstuffworks.com homepage.