The Truth About Size Charts

There is nothing wrong with your body, fashion is failing you.

This is always very important to remember, but especially when we are all getting bombarded with 2021 resolutions to “get in shape” or to “lose that quarantine weight”. Often times the way clothing looks or feels on us is a big factor in why we are dissatisfied with our bodies. From trying on clothes that are the size we think we are to pants that used to fit becoming too big or too small, there are so many ways clothes affect the way we feel about our bodies.

Today I am going to tell you why there is nothing wrong with your body, and why many, if not all, of the issues you have with your body come from messed-up sizing charts, vanity sizing, fatphobia, and racism.

I'm a size 00 in some stores and a size 8 in others. As a straight-size, white person, with little to no curves, I have it the easiest of all and I have been brought to tears in dressing rooms more times than I can count. 

In September, I attended the Redesigning Fashion conference hosted by Mary Alice Duff, founder of the beautiful sustainable clothing brand Alice Alexander. The conference centered on size, gender, and racial inclusivity in all aspects of sustainable fashion. I attended panels for four days with many self-identifying fat people regarding many things including the “look” sustainable fashion currently has, how brands can expand their sizing, and how to meet the needs of a plus-sized consumer. But the one that inspired this article was about how to get the best fit in your clothes. Everyone in the panel lamented the ways in which clothing never fit them and the hoops they had to jump through just to get clothes that kind of fit. As a fashion history nerd, when the history of sizing was touched on by the panelists, I was familiar with what she was talking about, but I realized that I only knew a little bit about it. So if I, someone who researches this kind of thing for fun, doesn’t know much about the topic, many other people must not know anything at all about it. After the panel, I knew I wanted to discuss with anyone who would listen exactly why clothing sizes are meaningless. 

But before I tell you why, I have to explain what you’re going to find as you continue reading. The history of clothing worn by enslaved people in America and the history of clothing worn by the Indigenous people in America are two topics that deserve their own posts, though I am not the one who should tell those stories. The history of American clothing sizing is much like the history of everything: it largely neglects people of color and anyone who is not of means. For example, something commonly mentioned in any discussion of the history of clothing sizing is that until the early 1900s, women’s clothes were made specifically to fit their bodies by dressmakers. Um, no. White middle to upper-class women had their clothes made by others using their exact measurements. However, even people of the lowest incomes often had their clothes made to their exact measurements, just usually by a family member rather than a tailor or dressmaker. While the upper class had many outfits and garments that fit them exactly, people of lower incomes usually had two outfits: one for every day and one for special occasions. These outfits were taken in and out, up and down, as the wearer grew or changed.  

The two aforementioned groups of people who are some of the many often neglected by the history of clothing sizing, have their own rich histories which I highly encourage you to look into and have included some resources to view. 

Encyclopedia Virginia About Clothing Worn by Enslaved People in America

MESDA Journal Slave Cloth and Clothing Slaves: Craftsmanship, Commerce, and Industry

Washington Post In Search of Slave Clothes- A museum director's hunt for a painful symbol

The NTVs Native American Clothing History 

Love to Know - Fashion History North America: History of Indigenous Peoples' Dress

However, the ways these groups have historically worn and obtained clothing are very different than the way they and we do now. The historical clothing ways of white people of means are more similar to how most American’s purchase, treat, and wear clothes, so we will be focusing on how that history impacted our purchasing and wearing practices now. Though, the topics are impossible to completely untangle and will be referenced throughout. 

A note on terminology: Through this article, I will be using the word ‘fat’ to refer to people who self-identify as such, and to people who are plus-sized. This is because we have a culture of fatphobia where the word fat has become something we associate with being mean and awful when it is not something we should be afraid of. Saying a person is fat is not an insult or comment on their character, worth, or beauty. 

A Brief History Of Clothing Production In America

Up until the time of the Napoleonic Wars and the Civil War, clothing was made one piece at a time, and for specific people. These wars meant many things, including a need to dress thousands of men quickly. This was the beginning of clothing mass production and sizing charts. They were able to achieve this because of industrialization, but also standardized sizing. They used one main measurement to make the uniforms: a man’s chest. The circumference of his chest was his clothing size. Using the chest measurement, clothing was created for men assuming they were entirely proportional. Later, this is what they tried to do with women’s clothing. 

The mass production of women’s clothing didn’t come long after. By the end of the 1800s, it was very common for men and women to wear mass-produced clothing. Though even by the early 1900s, plus-sized clothing was still hard to come by, and women who didn’t fit into the sizes that were made had to spend a lot more money and time to get dressed than their straight-sized (women who enjoy the privilege of being able to purchase clothing that is considered to be in the ‘regular’ size range) counterparts.

Eventually, parts of the fashion industry realized that by excluding ‘plus-sized’ women they were missing out on an entire buying market. In the early 1900s, ‘plus-sized’ clothing wasn’t a thing; instead, it was called stoutwear. Stoutwear targeted women who didn’t fit into regular, off-the-rack clothing. The idea of the time was that young fat people didn’t exist, fatness was considered a product of age. Thus, they rarely marketed towards younger fat people, targeting only women of advanced age.

In the wake of the Great Depression, the people within the fashion industry thought that fat people “didn’t exist” anymore, that the fat “race” had been eradicated by poverty and hunger. Of course, this is ridiculous. However, this is probably one of the reasons that clothing for larger bodies is still harder to come by. 

The history of stoutwear is fascinating and you can learn more about in this episode of Dressed, hosted by two Fashion Institute of Technology professors, featuring Dr. Lauren Downing Peters, in her words, “I write and teach about the history, theory, and politics of  plus-size fashion.”

Listen to the Dressed: The History of Fashion Episode - A History of Stoutwear

A Brief History of Clothing Sizing in America

As it became clear that ready-to-wear clothing was the future of fashion for everyone, not just those in the military, it became necessary to survey women’s bodies to determine their measurements and produce size charts. 

In my research, I have found mentions of two different large-scale studies of women's measurements in the 1900s. 

The first took place in the late 1800s to early 1900s. According to Dr. Lauren Downing Peters in an episode of Dressed: the History of Fashion, this survey took measurements from women at elite colleges, colleges like Smith. In this time period, take a wild guess who was attending such colleges. Yup, mostly, if not entirely, white, upper-class women. Taking measurements from this group of women and assuming they are a representative sample of the entire female population sounds insane to us now, but that is what they tried to do. Not only that, but they likely wanted those measurements to be representative because they probably conformed to the ideal body type of the time. During this time, women were told by fashion magazines what measurements they should have, and what their bust, waist, hip ratio should be, but only (white) women of means would have had enough time to work towards this ideal.

Second, in 1939, government-funded statisticians collected data about women’s bodies. They wanted to know what size the “average American woman” was. Now, they say the average American woman, but of course, meant the average American white woman. The statisticians surveyed 15,000 women's bodies, taking 58 measurements and the weight of each person. They did take measurements of some women of color, though it is unknown how many, and they did not use these measurements in the final results of the survey. The data they did use was from only the white women. Because they received compensation for their participation, many of the measurements used were from poor, malnourished, white women. This led to a highly skewed report. The sizing chart made from this study was released in 1958, but by 1983 was so unpopular it was withdrawn. Without a standard sizing chart so companies could do whatever the heck they wanted. 

Women were accustomed to numbered sizes like 2, 4, and 6 so companies used this to their advantage. And thus vanity sizing was born. Studies still show that women are more likely to purchase clothing with a smaller size tag. 

Vanity sizing is when clothing is deliberately labeled as a smaller size to make the consumer feel better about themselves. Nowadays, using a form of vanity sizing is the only norm across the fashion industry when it comes to sizing. There are plenty of numbers, so there is no reason for a 000 size to exist. But it does because brand’s size charts continue to use smaller and smaller numbers to correspond with a size, making women feel like they are a smaller size, making them buy more.  As it seems women feel better wearing a smaller size, so they’ll choose and be loyal to a brand where the size charts say they are a smaller size. 

But What About Now?

Though here in America we do not have any sort of size chart regulation or standards, our charts are still rooted in the size charts from the past. Our clothes are still made as if we are all elite, white, women who have perfectly “proportional” bodies, and an hourglass figure. Many brands still try to size-up the proportions of their straight-sizes for their plus-sizes, leaving the plus-sized community largely underserved and ill-fit.

Studies have shown that in America today, almost 70% of women are considered plus-sized, as in they are a size 14 or above. So if most women are “plus-sized”, shouldn’t size 14 and above be the “regular sizes” and smaller than 16 be “small-sizes” or, better yet, shouldn’t the straight-sizes and the plus-sizes just be...sizes?

Additionally, if, as we already talked about, sizes don’t mean anything, this calculation of how many women are plus-sized seems very hard to calculate, as the term plus-sized is defined by above a certain numeric size. If a size 14 in one brand is a size 10 or even 18 in others, how can we really know the state of bodies in America?

The simple fact is if you’ve always thought that women’s clothing sizes make no sense, you’re right. The numbers, the letters, the ‘waist’ measurements, they essentially mean nothing. 

Now That You Know All This, Here’s How You Can Get The Best Fit.

First, buy something because it fits not because the size sounds right. And if the size you are in a garment bothers you, cut out the tag. It’s probably itchy anyway. 

Second, learn how to measure yourself. And if you have questions about your size, email the brand. They are there to help and if they aren’t helpful, maybe find another brand to support. 

How to measure yourself:

For plus-sized people. For sewing and online shopping. Specifically for straight sized people, but includes helpful tips for everyone.  

How To Support The Size Inclusivity Movement, Even If You’re Straight-Sized 

If you support or love a brand that only sells size small, or seems to always have their plus-sizes out of stock or sells plus-sizes, but never advertises them or lacks any plus-sized models, let them know what you think. 

Clothing brands want you to buy from them, that is their goal. If you tell them you won’t be making any purchases until their sizing and models are more inclusive, they will listen. If many of us tell them this, they will listen even faster. 

Also, follow pages and influencer’s dedicated to the cause. Here are just a few of the amazing people working in this field who I learned about at the conference:

@styleethic Kat Eves

@ajabarber Aja Barber

@styleisstyle Lydia Okello

@marielle.elizabeth Marielle Elizabeth

@jacquelinecieslak Jacqui Cieslak

Need To Know Even More About This Subject? Check Out Some Of My Favorite Articles I Found While Researching!

The Washington Post The absurdity of women’s clothing sizes, in one chart

Mic The troubling history of the plus-size section

Medium A brief history of sizing systems

Queercut Sizing Up the Fashion Industry

Time Why a Size 8 in the 1950s Would Be a Size 00 Today

1 comment

Loved reading this article!

Miss Mary T Awoniyi September 28, 2021

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published

Ease is more than how you feel in our clothes; it is knowing that your wardrobe was artfully, ethically, and sustainably made.

Gina Stovall, Founder