Why It May Be Time To Re-Examine Garment Size Standardization
How Did We Get Here?
Many of us know what it feels like to resent our bodies. From the media and diet industry portraying “perfect” figures to hyper-sexualization and a fashion industry obsessed with youth, women and femme individuals are conditioned to dislike their bodies. Unsurprisingly, this has led many of us to believe that, when our clothes don’t fit, it’s our fault.
“I used to think I hated the idea and ritual of wearing underwear because I wasn’t ‘thin,’” Alyssa Mastromonaco, former Deputy Chief of Staff to President Obama, writes in her second book “So Here’s The Thing.” Her body angst has centered around underwear, and when she recounts a particular shopping trip, she writes about an unfortunately all too familiar feeling: shame.
“When I finally did break down and try on a pair I was certain would be too big, they were too small. I am only 5 feet 2 inches—the idea of needing size-large underwear seemed to condemn me to a terrible and sad fate,” says Mastromonaco.
The numbers and labels on garments have been ruling our lives since we compared shoe sizes on the playground—and it’s all been in the name of modern efficiency. We’re overwhelmed by sizing options as every country, brand, and clothing category has its own system. Today, size charts seem to be less helpful and more confusing—how did we get here?
The History of Standard Sizing
Before ready-to-wear clothing, the Industrial Revolution, and mass consumption, garments were “made-to-measure.” Most clothing items before the 19th century were customized to fit each individual customer. However, as the American Industrial Revolution consumed the country, the military began mass-producing uniforms utilizing new resources such as the power loom, cotton gin, and the spinning jenny. Chest measurements were used to create a standardized size range for the uniforms, which was soon adopted to efficiently build men’s ready-to-wear suits for the first time.
Women were not so lucky. Following World War I, fast fashion found its early origins among those who “wanted access to affordable, on-trend fashion, regardless of their class,” writes Katrina Robinson’s in Seamwork Magazine.
In 1939, the first attempt to create a universal standard for women began with a study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). An article from the same year estimated that U.S. manufacturers were losing about $10 million a year to garment alterations, making it a perfect time to find efficiency within the fashion industry. More than 14,000 women from eight states were measured for what became the ”Women’s Measurements for Garment and Pattern Construction” report. Yet, the study proved ineffective and problematic for a few reasons, not least of which was that only measurements of white women were taken.
Researchers were also taken aback by the “bewildering variety of shapes and sizes” of women, as they believed they could rely heavily on bust measurements and assumed all women had an hourglass figure. An added complication, the survey was conducted using volunteers who received a small stipend, meaning “it was largely made up of women of lower socioeconomic status who needed the participation fee,” a 2014 Time Magazine article explained.
Years later, towards the end of the 1940s, another attempt was made to produce a streamlined sizing system. The Mail-Order Association of America, which represented the catalog business, asked the National Bureau of Standards (now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology) to reassess the 1939 data.
This new study used previous information and new sizing data, which included children and women who had served in the military. (The same 2014 Time Magazine piece pointed out that these women were some of the fittest people in the country, calling into question their inclusion.) The results proved to be much more nuanced than before and became published as “Commercial Standard (CS) 215-58.” While this size standard was adopted for far longer than its predecessor, in 1970, it was updated to reflect women’s bodies of the time (read: sans corset). A decade later, retailers began to create their own sizing charts, causing chaos along the way.
The “Vanity Sizing” Debate
Most accounts of garment sizing history for women will point to 1983 as the year that “vanity sizing” was born. Historians, sewists, and journalists alike bemoan this time as size standards were officially withdrawn. Allegedly, retailers figured out that consumers enjoyed feeling like they were smaller than average. Garment manufacturers began dropping sizes down until a size 4 was the new size 16.
But what if fit was the culprit of all our duress, not sizing? Production patternmaker, manufacturing consultant, and author Kathleen Fasanella argues vanity sizing a myth. She claims we’ve leaned into mass production for convenience and price, losing clothing that fits in the process. She maintains sizing and measurement data used prior to the 1960s meant something to patternmakers but seemed arbitrary to the untrained eye. Therefore the replacement numbers we see today don’t mean anything because they’ve been oversimplified. “Sizes are not created equally; not all mediums from company to company are identical and nor should they be,” writes Fasanella.
Keeping Clothing Personal
It’s ultimately difficult to believe that the issue remains black and white. Consumers often do want to feel small in a culture that celebrates thinness; however, bodies and sizing also evolve. The longtime production patternmaker makes a strong case for brands to customize sizing based on their specific customers, or what Fasanella calls “niche manufacturing.”
She explains that “people are so different from one another that it is an unreasonable expectation that our clothes should be sized uniformly.” This supports the sustainable fashion argument for a customizable clothing future, including bringing back made-to-order and bespoke practices.
Fast fashion and mass consumption are harming our planet, and the resulted clothing doesn’t even fit our bodies properly. Attempts at size standardization and modern efficiency have forced us all to believe we can slip our very different bodies into the same size pants—sorry to spoil “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” but it’s a lie! Just like in the 1940s, we’re throwing away millions of dollars of clothing because it was never meant to fit us in the first place. If there’s ever been an argument for sustainable fashion, this is it.
Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and is currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance writer and content creator with a focus in sustainable fashion. Audrey is deeply passionate about conscious living and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.