February Challenge – Why Size Does Not Matter

So this is about clothing sizes. Just in case you were thinking about something else. 

The thing about clothing sizes is that there is no consistency whatsoever in fashion – every single brand, every line, every item, every store has a different set of criteria. In some of them, the sizes are not even consistent in the store! There are so many factors that go into this. 

We associate SO MUCH with clothing sizes – here are the fashion industry reasons why that is neither logical nor rational. 

Fashion Industry Considerations

There are so many factors that are a problem in the fashion industry, I am not going to mention them all. I am going to focus on some of the ones that affect clothing sizes. 



A sketch model is generally about the height of “9 heads” while the average model is about 7.5 (and the average person is even shorter than that). These illustrations show: 

  1. the differences between the “average” model and a sketch coqui (that is what they call the form for the sketch)
  2. what a normal height person looks like for men and women (the kids in there are just kind of cute)
  3. What an “8 heads” coqui looks like versus the ones that some designers use, which can be up to 13 “heads” tall! 

You might notice that despite the height differences, the widths are the same for each of these sketches. 

This is kind of like the issue with Barbie – for illustration, here is another example:

That person would not even be able to breathe or walk! Here’s some more info on Barbie: “Get Real Barbie” Fact Sheet

There was much more info on Barbie than on the fashion industry – do they have really good lobbyists or something? In any case, it’s pretty clear how much this skews the fashion industry from the start. 

Fit Models & Patterns, Fitting, and Grading

This is another whole set of issues. For every single clothing item that is produced, there is a fit model. That model is simply the person the designer chooses to be their fit model – there are no set measurements to define size. Then the clothes are draped, and then a pattern is made and graded (meaning the different sizes are made from the original pattern). All of this means that there are significant discrepancies based on designer and draper and pattern maker preferences, none of which are standardized in any way. 

Here are some more facts: (source, Clothing Confidential)

  • Because there is no uniformity in the industry with regard to sizing, each brand uses it’s own standard. 
  • When clothing is mass produced, the top cut of 1,000 pieces (for example) is going to differ than the bottom cut
  • Out of 59 jeans brands, 32% ran at least a quarter inch larger around the waist than the average measurement for the label size (a.k.a.- vanity sizing) and 41% ran at least a quarter of an inch smaller (ThreadUP, 2018)
  • Some brands run up to 3.5” different from the average measurement for that size label within themselves (ThreadUP, 2018).

Sewing Patterns

I used to sew a lot – for myself, for friends, 4H, and costumes for drama club. I noticed, at that time, that the sewing pattern sizes and clothing sizes you bought in stores were very different. Here is an article about the differences between pattern and ready to wear sizes. The article goes into it more, but the gist is that pattern sizes have not changed all that much since they came out (in the 1870’s) and have been consistent, whereas ready to wear sizes have shifted a great deal over the last 75 years or so (since WW2). 

I have done my own, completely unscientific, research by looking at patterns I have from my mother and grandmother and comparing them to ones I have bought – the measurements are consistent! I even found one sheath dress pattern with the same neckline from all three generations (for those who feel a need to know, that is the “greatest”, the “silent” and “gen-x”) – the only significant difference was in the size of the armholes (weird, but whatever). I went and looked for a similar pattern recently, and it remains the same. 

If you have ever bought a bridesmaid or wedding dress, you know that the sizing for those is very different from what you buy in a regular store. That is because it is based on the same sizing as sewing patterns, and has not changed too much in a long time. So whatever size you are now would be the one that you were in 1950. 

Vanity Sizing

Which leads me to “vanity sizing.” Here is an article from Time Magazine that explains it more, called “One Size Fits None” and one from SELF magazine about clothing sizes and body positivity.  Again, I will give you the gist – 

  • Vanity sizing refers to the practice of changing clothing sizes to make women feel better about what they are buying – it is purely a marketing tool, nothing to do with actual measurements or standards!
  • Most clothing was made for us (by ourselves, family members, seamstresses or modistes and tailors) prior to the Industrial Revolution.
  • Women did not want to share their measurements with strangers, and starting around WW2, the fashion industry started setting its own arbitrary systems. 
  • In 1958, the National Institute of Standards and Technology put forth universal sizing for the US – but by the 80’s, no one used it any more. 
  • It doesn’t work that way in other countries – in China, they do have a universal sizing system.
  • We spend more on clothes now than ever before.
  • We return 40% of the stuff we buy – and FYI, it ends up in a landfill.
  • Brands charge more for “Plus size” fashion – and 70% of American women are a size 14 or above, so they charge more for those items than they do “Misses” or “Petite” sizing. They also typically charge more for “Tall.”
  • Men’s sizing has not undergone much change – they still have waist and length measurements for pants, for example – and those are fairly consistent. A “Mens” size t-shirt has not changed its general sizing in this same period of time (excepting issues with fabrics, like shrinking). 
  • Though bra (band and cup) sizes are more consistent, the patterns still have a great deal of difference – you can buy three bras in three different sizes from the same brand and they will all be different. 

So… What Does This Mean?

Why is fashion so arbitrary? Well, honestly, in all my research, the only consistency I have come up with is marketing – the fashion industry (and the diet industry) sell us hundreds of billions of dollars of merchandise every year. And if it is working, why would they stop?

There are some celebrities (like Melissa McCarthy, Rachel Bloom, Octavia Spencer, Christina Hendricks, Leslie Jones, Ashley Graham, Bryce Dallas Howard) who have spoken out about their negative experiences with fashion designers on the red carpet. There are celebs and influencers speaking out, or starting more inclusive, or more sustainable fashion brands. But the ones who really need to speak out are consumers.  Until we start speaking with our wallets, there will be no reason for the industry to change. 

In the realm of eating disorders and treatment, we need to talk about this more! I have lost count of the times someone has said “I never really thought about it” when I ask if they know where their preoccupation with size comes from, or where those standards came from. I know, part of the eating disorder is body image distortion and unrealistic expectations of one’s body (amongst many, many other factors). Whenever someone says “I need to be a size ##” I ask why. It usually comes from family and media perceptions of what is good. And I see it everywhere! Not just on TV, social media, movies, in catalogs, online, or in my clients. We all do it – we have rules and grievances against the fashion industry. But until we all start talking about it (and maybe sewing our own clothes, or challenging our perceptions of what is reasonable and acceptable as far as size), there cannot be meaningful change. 

So…What Can We Do?

Look for part 2, where I will share some advocacy, cultural, and philosophical ideas that may be helpful – What Can We Do?

In part three, we’ll focus on body image specific concerns and tasks – Body (Image) is Not a Straight Line

Also, check out this post on Creating and Anti-Diet Culture.