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Photo: Kevin Tachman/Trunk Archive

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When Sizes Aren’t Standard, What Do They Mean?

In one store you’re a 4, but in the next you’re an 8. Why vanity sizing is here to stay.

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You might be surprised to learn your standard sewing pattern size. In stores, I’m anywhere from a size 4 to an 8. When I took up sewing as a hobby, I learned that I’m actually a size 12.

Why the discrepancy? Vanity sizing. Sewing patterns don’t have to flatter you into a purchase. Zara does. The Spanish retailer’s hip measurement was two inches larger than the usual US sizing for an 8 in 2014. That stated size can make the difference between a smiling customer who purchases a “small” pair of pants or a disappointed woman who hurls her “large” pants across the dressing room and leaves the mall. Except for the tag, they’re the same pair of pants. In contrast, some sewing pattern companies have stuck with standardized sizing for decades.

Certain brands are worse offenders than others. “Chico’s has their own sizing system that has been highly successful for them,” says Lynn Boorady, professor of fashion textile and technology at the State University of New York, Buffalo State. “Women who are a 10 can say ‘I’m a one or a one-and-a-half!’ And what does that mean? Until women stop worrying about the size number in their clothing... it will continue getting smaller. Women get out of the dressing room saying ‘These size 10 pants are not what’s right for me! No, I’m not a double-digit size.’”

After sewing taught me the truth about sizing, I became frustrated with retailers. Why can’t we use the powers of our technologies to figure out something as seemingly simple as sizing? We have self-driving cars, for chrissakes!

Actually, the US government tried to establish standardized sizing in the 1940s. Before then, we had it much worse. Women’s sizes were based on our ages, like infant clothing is today. Then, the federal government commissioned a study of 15,000 women to regulate sizing. The women who participated for the small fee were poor, malnourished, and white, Boorady says. What’s more, the resulting standards were based on the bust sizes of an hourglass figure. What could possibly go wrong?

Eventually, the government tossed out the troublesome standardized sizing in 1983, and brands were let loose to use fit as a marketing strategy. Today, brands align themselves with body types, some of them very specific, like Shoshanna’s target market of busty women with small frames. However, most brands don’t broadcast the types of bodies they’re catering to because they want to avoid scaring away customers with the bald truth. So we’re left with infographics to decipher which brands might work for us.

As it turns out, sizing is far more complex than just measurements. Factor in age and ethnicity, and our shapes take on a broader spectrum of variety. There’s also ease — the amount of room between body and fabric. Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to looseness or tightness, and even those predilections change depending on the style. You might prefer tight bikinis and slouchy sweaters, for example. Combine all of these data points, and sizing balloons in complexity.

“Just because the measurements are there doesn’t mean we like the fit,” Boorady says. “I had a college roommate who used to wear her clothes so tight, she had to lay down to zip up pants. I like fits that are looser. We could have the same [measurements] and wear different sizes because we like different fits in our clothing.”

Part art, part science, the sizing industry requires an advanced mathematician who reads Vogue. New technology companies recruit for both skill sets as they attempt to solve for this moving target. In the mad rush to find the answer, startups have sprung up with 3D body scanners in tow, such as Acustom Apparel, or virtual fitting rooms, like Stylewhile.

Some companies have tried to address the nuance of proportions with their own systems. — a company that makes custom, unisex jumpsuits — asks for waist, bust, and hip measurements, then assigns you a size that captures your ratio, like “January.” Others compare the fit of different brands, asking the size of your favorite Levi’s jeans in order to find your perfect pair at Lucky Brand.

True Fit claims to be the largest such database, raising $25 million this past summer. The Boston-based company has built relationships with roughly 10,000 brands to compile and compare sizing. It wasn’t easy.

“Brands do use sizing as a form of competitive advantage because they’re catering to whoever their core customer is,” says Jessica Murphy, cofounder of True Fit. “It took years to convince the first set of a hundred brands to give us their data, because if you think about brands like Levi’s and Nike, their fit is everything. It’s like the Coca-Cola recipe, their secret sauce and proprietary information.”

Now that it has recruited enough big brands, True Fit can make personalized fit recommendations to online shoppers. This should reduce the large amount of returns that come through e-commerce. Americans return $260 billion in goods each year, and 80 percent of those are clothes or accessories, according to MarketWatch.

True Fit is also collaborating with IEEE, an organization that sets standards for technology, along with dozens of industry experts to standardize the use of 3D body scanners going forward. Though the effort is still in its early stages, the possibilities are exciting. Could we finally arrive at standardized sizing advanced enough to accommodate our many shapes and desires?

Still, recommending an accurate size doesn’t solve for the emotional shock of learning that you’re a large in a new brand.

The founding story of True Fit begins with cofounder Romney Evan’s wife. “She’s petite, you would think she would never have problems with fit,” Murphy says. “She tried to buy jeans and ended up in tears… Sizing on women has a huge psychological impact on how we feel about ourselves.”

As a result, the team has conducted field research in dressing rooms. “The spectrum of reactions was really fascinating for us,” she says. “It’s amazing, the psychological effect of something that fits well. They smile, they stand up straighter, and have self confidence. When they put on something they don't feel is flattering, they want to rip it off them. [They say], ‘Oh, I can’t buy anything else today, I need to go home and lose ten pounds.’ It’s a reminder of everything that you’re not doing in your life. It’s a very real thing.”

Women should just learn to get over it, Boorady says. Flatter and fit matter more than the number on the tag, anyhow, as True Fit discovered in the dressing room. “People need to worry about the size that fits — the number is just a game!” she says. “Nothing’s wrong with us, it’s the sizing. I’ve told friends to black out the tag sizes or just rip the tags out. I mean, who cares?”

Clearly, we care. Future technology could conceivably 3D scan our bodies, factor in our style and ease preferences, and then custom produce a piece of clothing, no tags necessary. Someday, our most beloved vanity sizing might have no sizes at all.

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