Interview: Why have retailers changed clothing sizes?

What follows is a portion of an email conversation I’m having with a reporter from a national radio program who is interviewing me for a story about the issues of clothing size changes in the US. I have only selected tiny portions of her emails because I don’t have permission. What I’ve copied/pasted won’t do her any injury.
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National Radio Program Reporter (hereafter NRP) wrote:

Why have retailers changed the actual sizes?

First, technically speaking, retailers don’t change sizes. I realize consumers often use retailer and manufacturer interchangeably and it didn’t use to be a problem because it was easy to sort the functions of each. However, now there is a lot of blurring between the two so it is not so simple. These days retailers also manufacture (or private label or push manufacture like GAP etc) and some manufacturers have gone into retailing. Point is, retail isn’t technically “the boss” of sizing changes but they have sufficient influence to persuade their supplier manufacturers to do it. The buck stops with the manufacturer. So, in a simpler age, the better question may have been, “why have manufacturers changed the actual sizes”. And I’ll answer that, promise.

Retailers do have a lot of influence over sizing -and even garment fit. I think they’re entitled to dictate the parameters of product they’ll accept in their stores but then I would never sell to a department store and I don’t recommend that a start up manufacturer does. It’s really getting ugly -and people wonder why selection is getting worse in stores? Now that is a story that needs to be told. I tell all my designers to stick with independents or boutiques or to sell it themselves.

Keeping in mind that sizing is a social phenomenon and not a mathematical one, retailers are vested in consistency and marketing and at the end of WW2, the advent of suburbs and baby boomers, retail had a lot more pull. More once consolidation was underway. Prior to that, the designation of sizes was mathematical and rested entirely within the purvey of pattern makers at the manufacturer. For example, before retail wrested control of sizing designation, a size number meant something very very specific -and its meaning did not evolve no matter how fat anyone got.

Sizes used to run from 12 to 24 based on drafting rules. A system called the “divisional scale” or just “scale” for short was how everything was drafted. The human body (provided it is height and weight proportionate) readily lends itself to this. Pattern makers used a chart of aliquot parts to draft proportionally. This chart is printed on the back of every L-square (although almost no one knows what it means anymore, it’s just a jumble of numbers, a logarithmic table). A size 15 (for example) was a woman who was 5 feet tall. Each vertical landmark of measure (these are: crown, C7/nape, full bust, waist, hip, etc) fell in 8 even increments of 7.5″ apart. The equation is hgt divided by 8= 7.5″x2=15 (hence size 15) as contrasted to menswear which was actual full measures.

This sizing system was great for pattern makers and manufacturers but it meant nothing to consumers, there was no way for them to identify the proportions as relating to their body size. For example, you couldn’t divide your bust measure in half and get your size (a size 15 had a 34″ bust). This system worked pretty well for people who were height and weight proportionate. If you weren’t, you had what was called “half sizes”. I didn’t study those but scale can also be used to draft those but the equation and commensurate aliquot parts are different.

Anyway, as retail became king after ww2 and the determination of sizes didn’t make sense to them, they came up with this other weird system that has no basis at all. In my opinion, the old system was better because at least it made sense to somebody. This new constantly evolving one makes no sense to anyone. The old system was static. If people gained weight, they’d need to go up a size. Truth be told tho, I think retailers would not have liked that because it messed up their planning. One day they’d need 100 size 16s, the next season, they’d need 17’s instead. Besides, think of all those retail size display hangers based on size numbers. They’d have to be buying new ones all the time. I can understand not wanting to have to buy new store fixtures just because all the shoppers gained weight.

Now, the (static) sizes worked in an age when we were mostly height and weight proportionate and fabrics were actually woven to compliment the system. Additionally, these scale divisions made the calculation of needed fabric purchases very simple. Consider the standard widths fabric is woven in, or had primarily been woven in (that is also evolving). A woman’s blouse took about 2 yards of 44-45″ wide fabric. Most 44″-45″ fabric was for women’s attire. Men’s wear was 55″ to 58″. The average man’s coat took 2 yards of goods. See how neat, simple and clean all this was? Okay, my point being that various aspects of the manufacturing system were tied together in ways most people didn’t understand. That is related to a recent change today and I don’t think it necessarily bodes well and it have everything to do with shipping containers.

The dimensions of products (all kinds) and packaging is slowly being impacted by the confines of the shape and dimensions of shipping containers. Point is, clothing is now being designed (the pattern) in such a way as to facilitate its being folded for store displays. So that it looks neat and even while folded up and placed in cubbyholes or counter tops. The pattern is cut in such a way that there are fewer lumps or shaping that can affect a smooth fold. Unfortunately, clothing that is designed to look at its best when folded is a far cry from clothes that look good on the body.

NRP wrote:

Why tinker with the sizes?

If you go to a store and are shopping for pants or jackets or whatever and you’re in front of the size 10 or size 6 rack, as a consumer, you have the expectation that all the size 6’s from various designers are going to be somewhat proportional to each other. Not exactly the same of course but similar. Retailers know that, they have to have a modicum of consistency. It simply would not do for a size 6 of one brand to be three inches larger in the waist as compared to another brand size 6 that is hanging on the same rack.

So, the store can go to the manufacturer and say, “you really need to reconsider your sizing. As compared to other lines ‘you hang with’, your sizing is way off the mark”. So, the manufacturer will modify their sizing or labels if it’s only that to comply with their competitors in the marketplace (see links to the series entitled “Who do you hang with?” further down).

If one company’s size 10 remains static and in effect is two sizes smaller than competing lines, a retailer can’t hang those together. It creates a merchandising problem. Sales people will have to know each line intimately enough (as if that will happen) to tell the customer that “X” line runs small or very small in comparison to other lines. Therefore, buyers are always sending feedback to manufacturers on their sizing because retailers need it to be somewhat similar to what’s being put out by competing lines.

If you had to blame somebody, I suppose you could start with Sears because while they may not have been the impetus, they certainly had the heft to bring the trend to bear because they sell more kids clothes than anybody else. They published sizing charts listing target dimensions that products would have to meet in order to sell to them. And really, this was okay because they knew the market pretty well (they backed the commercial standard sizing study) although due to price points, were only hitting the 50th percentile and besides, children’s growth is fairly predictable along the continuum. That Sears hit the midpoint of the market (lower income kids whose parents shopped at sears tend to be smaller in size than well to do kids) is what created the impetus for the specialty market to cover outliers. Now, once other retailers and manufacturers saw how well this worked, a lot of other retailers devised sizing parameters for products in other categories -and not just in kidswear which is also what Sears started to increasingly do.

The influence of JC Penney’s must be weighed too. Penney’s has an incredible reputation for quality (that always surprises consumers, they have established criteria per price point category and are very strict so if you are accepted by Penney’s, anyone will buy from you) but in the beginning, they only certified you on the basis that you followed your own internal sizing specs closely. Meaning, you were compared onto yourself but not as compared to other vendors. But once Penney’s went into private label, they began to gravitate those sizing specs as sizing requisites for other vendors who were selling products in the same space as their private label goods. The only way a vendor could avoid that was if their label was well known and a strong seller having its own identity off the department store floor space.

Now, switching gears back to fiddling with sizes on the part of manufacturers, let’s talk about the size medium or size 10. The function of the size 10/M is really arcane, its value is not obvious to consumers because 10/M is a standard yardstick that manufacturers use to calculate costing and allocation (amount of fabric needed) for all the other sizes. Necessarily, the medium is the midpoint of the size range. So if you sell five sizes, the middle size is a M (or 10, same thing). You have two smaller sizes and two larger ones off to either side of it. When we lay out our fabric to cut it, the smaller sizes are paired with larger sizes so you don’t waste so much fabric. This means that for every large, you need a small to prevent waste. For every XS, you need an XL, mediums cancel each other out.

This means that for costing purposes, the sale of mediums tells you how much fabric you need to buy and what it will cost.

Now, suppose one day you discover that you’re not selling as many mediums anymore, you have more demand for larger sizes… your yardstick is out of whack now and you have a lot more waste because you have less demand for the smalls that take up space the larges leave behind in the fabric spread. With all these larges and not enough smalls selling, You don’t know how much fabric you need, not as readily as you once did. So what manufacturers do is grow that medium to be a little larger than it was. When you do this, that increase in larges falls back again so they will be evenly balanced by the smalls (and you’re selling more mediums). I described all of this in two entries called Analyzing sales by size and Analyzing sales by size pt.2

Here is an illustration that shows how pattern pieces from the various sizes are grouped together to reduce waste. There is some explanatory text too. Mediums even out neatly (theoretically, that’s why you buy fabrics of given widths which is why loom sizes matter and why we’re in deep dog doo-doo if people get any bigger). The smalls are a little smaller and induce waste. The larges are too big and hang off the fabric width edge. That’s why we group small and large pattern pieces together because they cancel each other out.

So, from a manufacturer’s perspective, you have to fiddle with the sizes so that a medium (whatever that measures out to be) is the middle of the size spread (again, see analyzing sales by size) so you have a better idea of how much fabric you need to buy. Making clothes is not like making dinner. If you run out of garlic, you can run to the store to buy it, you can’t do that with fabric. If you run short, your whole production run is toast. Your choices are to remake the marker (the layout of pattern pieces you use as a map to cut by) which isn’t such a big deal as compared to the “design of the lay”. I don’t think you want me to talk about “design of the lay” but a production run is not x layers of fabric, x plies deep, all even-steven. We often have stepped spreads (more layers in different parts) and lengths of the different color ways. If you find out that you’re short on fabric and you’ve already spread it… you’re talking losses in the thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars and that’s only direct cost. That doesn’t include having to throw it all away, sending people home because you have no sewing work for them or even the cost and time to get more fabric in the door -and that’s if you can even get it in four to eight weeks.

From a retailer’s perspective, they fiddle with sizes so that consumers have a modicum of sizing predictability between the sizes of various manufacturers hanging on the same rack. [Speaking of, here’s why they need to on some level:]
Who do you hang with pt. 1
Who do you hang with pt.2
Who do you hang with pt.3

…in addition to the pressures they have in the interests of promoting their own private label products which compete but also compliment the lines they buy. I know it sounds crazy but a lot of this stuff is “cross merchandised”. Meaning, you’ll buy JC Penney’s private label black slacks (a staple or commodity item) because it’s just as serviceable as a designer black pant that is made to match the designer top you really are buying the pants to match. This is what a merchandising plan is all about. Department stores figure out what stuff they’ll have made for themselves to match stuff they buy from other vendors…. and people persist in believing that fashion industry people are stupid. When it’s all said and done, managing and balancing this complexity as well as they do, takes quite a bit of brain power. Just my opinion of course.

Point is, if one company’s size 10 remains static and in effect is two sizes smaller than competing lines, a retailer can’t hang those together. It creates a merchandising problem. Sales people will not tell customers “X” line runs small or very small in comparison to other lines unless it’s a boutique. Buyers send feedback to manufacturers on their sizing as it compares to what is being produced by competing lines and between them all, which sizes and their respective dimensions, sell the best.

NRP wrote:

Why make it look like those who have gained weight haven’t by downsizing the sizes?

Consumers are narcissistic -that’s shorthand, not an insult. Sizes aren’t massaged for the convenience of anyone other than the retailers and manufacturers (for retailers, it’s merchandising consistency; for manufacturers, it’s costing and resource planning). The end result at retail is the ends but not the means and most certainly not the intent! Nobody planned that outcome. Nobody planned Machiavellian sizing strategies with the goal of messing with people’s heads to massage their egos. Frankly, with everything else we have to do, that is just way too much for us to figure out.

NRP wrote:

Why introduce new numbers to the scale (ie, 00)?

Because we need to. The logical consequence of the other sizes getting larger because the average person is larger, means we still need sizing to cover those people who have maintained their proper weights.

Do I think this is great or a solution? No. You didn’t ask me that. I think it’s all insane but the solution to the root of the problem does not lie within my industry. It lies within the hands (or on the plates) of consumers. The aggregate. What you are seeing is a reactionary adhoc response and a tenuous one at that. It also does not help that we don’t know who our customers are anymore. Before, you sized according to your demography. A rich medium was significantly smaller than a poor medium but now with credit cards, people can finance their apparel aspirations to buy products that were never intended for them. And they (plus sizes especially) get mad if you don’t sell clothes in their sizes and say we’re discriminating against them and they get really nasty.

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12 Responses to Interview: Why have retailers changed clothing sizes?

  1. Alaina Zulli says:

    Can you explain why/how early misses sizes were described a “size 14 years”? surely that was not a coincidence with the sizing system you describe in paragraph 5 (which, I agree, sounds completely plausible)

  2. Helena says:

    People just don’t seem to realise how important it is to match sizewise to the main alternatives for the consumer…

    As an example, bra band sizes. As with most sizes, there is a European standard, where the size is supposed to be the under bust measurment. However, to get a correct fit, that doesn’t work in almost any case. A 70 (32) band is supposed to fit a 70 cm (27,5″) ribcage, but today it seems to be more appropriate for a 4″ larger rib cage. What first seems as an easy solution is to just make the bands tighter, but, that is not what the consumer expects, and even if the bra will match the standard, it won’t match other similar brands sizewise. A polish brand actually made their bras a lot tighter than the average, so that they would fit the way they “should”, but actually went back to just doing about the same thing as everyone else…

    This also shows an issue with standards, sizes will still evolve…

  3. Pingback: Why retailers changed clothing sizes pt.2 | The Myth of Vanity Sizing

  4. kathleen says:

    My response became so lengthy that I decided to publish it as a separate entry.

  5. Rachel says:

    I just pulled out a pair of shorts (St. John’s Bay from J. C. Penney’s) that I’ve had since the late 90s. I’m intending to take them to GoodWill. They are a size 8 and are slightly snug on me. I’m now slightly heavier (maybe 10 pounds) but wear a size 4 in St. John’s Bay pants and shorts. It’s shocking, really, how much the sizes have changed in just 10-15 years.

  6. Pingback: Stop Lying to yourself: A Guide to Vanity Sizing | MOVE MASS, RUN FAST

  7. Adele says:

    This is why I am hanging on to a pair of jeans from the ’90s. That way I am not fooling myself that I am the same size or smaller than I was back then.

    Thanks for the explanation; I thought the changing sizes was either because manufacturers/retailers intended to fool the buyer into thinking she is still tiny or because of the increasing statistical “average size”.

  8. Bryan says:

    I’m sorry if I’m a few years too late… I only saw this site when I, as an average sized man, where in the past, a Medium size is what it is from the late 1980’s/early 1990’s up to now. But now all the sizes are measured with an XL size mind, where every size is literally 2 sizes too big. This is unfair, and all retailers seem to have changed their sizing charts. Why can’t there be ONE standard and make that a size 10/M, not a size 14/M!

  9. Alexx says:

    Well then, why don’t we just use number sizes that correlate to actual measurements again? With those sizes, it is easier for people to tell their size AND all those sizes are standard, so EVERY manufacturer’s size XX can be placed alongside size XX of ALL others. Less confusion, which is a winner for both retailer and customer.

    Reading your description of the way manufacturing works, I come to the conclusion that manufacturers can “simply” make less clothes of size XX and more of size YY to match the average customer demand, by changing the median fabric width they use. You say that it is necessary to change sizes according to this, but I believe that this can be done without changing the size the customer has to buy. This means that the change of the “median size” and the following shift in sizing should be an IN-HOUSE affair within the factory (and perhaps line of production) of the manufacturer, but not outside. I could say: manufacture size names may vary, as long as they correlate to a standard size, but the sizes sold in stores remain static.

    Then it is no problem if the manufacturer uses size YY rather than XX as their new M fabric width, because the number sizes stay the same and thus it doesn’t matter to customers and retailers; except that retailers or even the manufacturers themselves need to keep in mind that manufacturer Z’s size M correlates to size YY and not XX, which should be easy with mathematical conversion charts. This also means that clothes should never be sold in the manufacturers’ sizes XS/S/M/L/XL because these sizes vary, rather they should be converted before ending up in stores.

    Perhaps my writing is a bit dense, so I will lighten it up with an example. Imagine sizes 8, 10, 12 and 14 are standard sizes. Manufacturer A produces size 8/S; 10/M; 12/L; 14/XL, manufacturer B produces 10/S; 12/M; 14/L. Customer Mary has standard size 10 but she doesn’t know. She goes to the store and she sees two racks with T-shirts from both A and B, one with size S and one with size M. Now you can imagine the trouble: she can’t tell the difference between A and B just by looking at the rack and she has to get both T-shirts in 2 sizes, which already means 4 T-shirts to try on. Alternatively she assumes she has size M and takes both A and B in size M. To her dismay, she finds that only A fits appropriately.

    Now, imagine that there is a huge demand for size 16 for shirt A and 14 for shirt B. Manufacturers A and B decide that size 16, respectively, 14 should become the new M according to their production system and they want to sell it as M and not 16 and 14. Sarah is a friend of Mary’s and she wears size 14 or two sizes up from Mary. Mary told her that she wears size M in A and S in B. Sarah thus thinks that she has XL in A and L in B. Mistakenly so, she has to wear size S in A and M in B. A frustrating trip to the mall reveals this and she tells Mary. Now Mary has no clue any more as to what size she should buy the next time she goes to the store. This completes the vicious cycle of chaos.

    Again, if the store were to sell a uniform size. 14 for Sarah and 10 for Mary in this case, life would be a lot easier. This is a very simple example, in reality there are hundreds of different manufacturers and brands both on and off line that add to the complexity. Having to remember that size X in store A is size Y in store B and size Z in store C and that D, E and F do not adhere to standard sizes at all and do without a measurement conversion table is just plain exhausting and makes shopping for clothes unnecessarily complex. In a store this won’t be too much of a problem because you can just try on a different size, although it is annoying, but when buying online it is a huge pain in the backside, especially if you have to pay for the return fees yourself.

    Say, Mary returns to the store a month after Sarah told her the unfortunate tale about the sizes. She finds that the store has switched to static sizing. Had they used the manufacturers’ sizes, Mary would find shirt A in size M hanging next to shirt B in size S. Obviously not an ideal situation. No, they used the number sizes. In this case Mary finds that size 10 fits her best. The next time she has/wants to buy clothes, all she has to do is look for size 10 and try it on. Now she only has to take two T-shirts to the fitting room and she can be 99.9% sure that it fits. In the worst case she doesn’t like the style or the way it drapes on her body. Way easier and the store employees just have to hang size 10 on the rack with no. 10 and 14 on the one with no. 14.

    I live in Europe and this is the way sizes 32 to about 46 are supposed to work, but some brands tend to use the S/M/L sizing system, which is utterly confusing. With a Dutch size 38 I usually have an S (used to be M 2 years ago) but sometimes an M and in rare cases even L. I recently bought clothes in M online because the conversion table told me so, but it was way too large, so I had to return and swap for S instead. Inconsistent sizing, the biggest killjoy of shopping. Some brands even have the nerve to make the measurements that ought to mean 38 correspond to 36 instead and do not sell below that. What about the people who had 36 in the first place? Or they widen the chest or waist area, which makes it an extremely poor fit for me. There was even a brand who sells size XS with a waist size of 33.5 inches, ridiculous, right?

    I genuinely look forward to the day that we have EU standardized sizing and I don’t care if I with my medium-tall but skinny hourglass figure have to wear a size XL or an S as long as I can find my size.

  10. LilithG says:

    Thanks for this. I was especially intrigued by your focus on the vagaries of Misses size 10. I’d love to see you write a follow-up post/article on what I call the “disappearing Misses 10-12/M.” As a 5’6″ 44 year-old who has never been pregnant or given birth, I weigh the same as I did when I was 17: namely between 140 and 145 lbs., depending on the time of the month. At 17, I wore Misses size 10s or Misses M 10-12s for a looser fit. At 44, true Misses size 10 clothing still fits, as does the increasingly rare Misses M 10-12, and I can regularly wear vintage items that I initially purchased in high school and college. Yet, I’ve noticed that many of my favorite clothing manufacturers — e.g. Lole, Mountain Hardwear, and Horny Toad/Toad&Co. — have essentially created a new Misses M that is an “8-10,” not a “10-12,” and is labeled as such. The result? Sizing that I can fit, but that fits me more snugly than both the usual size 10 and the old-school Misses M 10-12. Never one to let vanity stop me from buying clothes that fit properly, I’ve tried “sizing up” in the clothing of manufacturers who offer these strange new Misses M sizes, shrugging and placing orders for their equally funky newfangled Misses L 12-14. The result? Clothes that hang off of me because they’re 1-2 sizes too large. WTF? I think that this new reckoning of what constitutes a Misses M screws over both those who fit true size 8s — which are supposed to be part of the Misses S 6-8 range, yes? — and folks like me who fit true size 10. In other words, while all of the talk about “vanity sizing” I’ve seen in the press focuses on larger people who allegedly benefit from having their old sizes given lower numbers while consisting of the same amount of material, my true size seems to have flat-out disappeared from the lines of the aforementioned manufacturers. Their Misses L 12-14s are way too big for me, while their Misses M 8-10 sizes are often fit me too snugly to look good, with some notable exceptions (e.g. Mountain Hardwear’s Butter Dress in M 8-10 and Toad&Co’s Bellflower Dress in M 8-10, both of which I snapped up in virtually all of the colors available when I discovered that they fit me almost as well as the Misses M 10-12s of my youth). With Misses size 10 at one point touted as the size of the average U.S. woman, I find it fascinating that a Misses M that truly fits this size appears to be vanishing — and that no one seems to be discussing this publicly.

  11. Rusty says:

    Anyone who doesn’t think that vanity has always played a part is fooling themselves. Why else would men’s pants be sold as 34 waist, 32 inseam, which gives a man the perfect ability to find clothes that fit. At most, I used to have to go up or down one size, because some manufacturers seemed to make a slightly different shape.

    However, there is a great deal of variation in a woman’s lower body compared to men. Some women have no butt, and thin thighs, while a woman with an identical waist measurement can have very different measurements in her hips, thighs and inseam. You would think that what would have worked best would be to literally have 4 numbers for women. Just tossing numbers out here, but a label for women’s pants should have looked like this: 27:30:36:18 meaning, waist:inseam:hips:thighs. Why wouldn’t they do this? Because women don’t want to be reminded that they have fat thighs, or butts, every time they buy pants.

    Same for dresses. It would have made sense to have 5 measurements. Shoulders:bust:waist:hips:length. I don’t think that every measurement had to be in inches. For height, it could have been things like Junior (J), petite (P), Average (A), Tall (T), and Extra Tall (X). To an extent I think they do this, but to have just one number for a dress size is crazy. Especially in these times when some women are tiny but have fairly large breasts, and some women are robust and have very little bosom. Not to mention the ability to get this surgically altered, which many women do.

    This is why a dress can look stylish on one woman, but look horrible on another woman. Some women have to get every dress they buy, altered to look like it fits properly.

    But once again, women don’t want to be reminded that they have a big butt, or small bosom, or large waistline, etc…

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