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Vanity or Science? The Escalation of America’s Convoluted Sizing Standards

Vanity or Science? The Escalation of America’s Convoluted Sizing Standards
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Clothing size is one of the nuggets of personal information many of us keep closest to the vest. To be fair, it isn’t anyone else’s business which size we wear. There is a somewhat more troublesome reason that the size of our jeans can feel like a controversial topic, however. Sizing has become an emotionally charged social issue, one that feels irrevocably intertwined with self-worth, social standing and our perceptions of achievement. It’s not that size never mattered in past decades, but our collective obsession with thinness–and more specifically the perception of it–has lately taken on a bizarre new dimension.

Let’s say you enter a shopping center armed with the knowledge that for the past decade or so, you have worn a size 10 in dresses. Feeling fashion-forward, you stop by a brand new European-based store and try on a size 10 knee-length sheath, only to discover that it’s terribly constricting and you can’t even zip it up. Did I gain that much without noticing? You leave the store dejected and empty-handed, and proceed on to the next.

You spot a familiar American store, and head over there. You try on a similar-looking sheath in a size 12 and bring a 14 into the changing room just in case, because apparently you are no longer a 10. The 12 is swimming on you. The bounce back in your step, you walk back out and select a 10. When you try it on, it’s still swimming on you. After much back-and-forth, you settle on a size 6 and could not possibly be more delighted at how much more svelte you have become without even trying!

Not only can this type of irritating procedure make you feel like the Goldilocks of shopping centers; it illuminates the truly perplexing state of modern sizing. There are theories that certain brands assign inaccurate sizes to their garments to make customers feel better (, while others insist that retailers have simply adjusted their sizing standards to the increasingly larger sizes that Americans wear. As it turns out, the reality can be best explained by applying both theories.

TIME’s study of this issue ( revealed that originally, sizing was correlated with either age or bust size. In the 1940’s, more specific sizing standards were created by the Mail-Order Association of America, but most were based on the forms of female air force veterans. Government sizing standards were then implemented and ignored until the early 80’s, when the standards were taken up by a private company. In other words, sizing was a very loose science to begin with, and the people who tried to govern it hardly had control over the situation themselves.

The stores best known for engaging in size inflation are often those marketed to mature women, as well as brands with classic or timeless styles. Ann Taylor, Loft and Talbots are particularly (in)famous for this practice. Even Banana Republic tends to have a larger sizing profile overall than Gap, which belongs to the same parent company. European and menswear brands are more often found to adhere to sizing standards based on actual measurements, but some of them–particularly menswear brands–have caved to size inflation as well.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some designers completely ignore sizing trends and assign sizes to clothing that would give even the most petite women a complex. This often occurs with high-end designers like Catherine Deane. If you’re sensitive to the emotional effects of ultra-small sizing standards, take care to avoid fast-fashion retailers marketed to the 25-and-under set. Not that you’d necessarily shop at Forever 21 anyway, but just note that the fit of their clothes is not encouraging for most full-grown adults.

Given that more and more brands are created as time goes by, it’s unlikely that this sizing madness will disappear anytime soon. The history also shows us that no matter how much we fret over our perceived size, sizing standards have never truly deserved our emotional involvement. Reducing the frustration of dealing with these inconsistencies requires having a fairly accurate understanding of your body shape and a lot of practice holding garments up to your body and seeing if they appear to be an appropriate size for it. It requires paying a little bit more attention to fabrics so that you’re aware what’s likely to stretch (in which case a smaller size might make sense), and what isn’t.

If you like the look of the clothes at Ann Taylor and the sizing there makes you feel great, great! If you like the look of the clothes at a store where the sizing standards require you to size up, then don’t sweat the numbers. The big scam that brands are running on you is to make you care about the numbers at all–because when you wear something that actually fits you, nobody looking at you has any idea which size you’re wearing. And when you see how great you look in something that fits you, you’ll find that you really don’t care either.

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