As a teenager, I squeezed into size-12 jeans. Over the past three decades, I’ve put on about 20 pounds, mostly below the waist. I now wear a size 6. People in the garment business call that bit of flattery “vanity sizing.” Sizes aren’t what they used to be.
But some things haven’t changed. No matter how low the digit on the hang tag, trying on clothes is still a frustrating, even traumatic, experience. Though designed as a mere convenience, clothing sizes establish an unintended norm, an ideal from which deviations seem like flaws. There’s nothing like a trip to the dressing room to convince a woman—fat, thin, or in between—that she’s a freak. Her torso is too long for the jacket or too short for the dress. Her arms are too short for the blouse that fits her bust. Her seat is too flat for the pants that hug her waist. Her hips nearly split the skirt that fits her waist. The more tailored the garment, the greater the problem. (Men’s clothes are easier, because they tend to be looser and because, as one industry expert puts it, men “have fewer bumps.”) Jeans are particularly troublesome. With its body-hugging fit, America’s egalitarian uniform provides little room to hide deviations from the norm.
And nobody’s normal. Sizes are standardized. Bodies aren’t.
Clothing sizes reflect a classic modern dilemma, a conflict between human heterogeneity and mass production. Standardized sizes made inexpensive, off-the-rack garments economically feasible. They gave shoppers a reliable guide to finding clothes in self-service shops. (Historically, the biggest advocates for standard sizes were mail-order catalogs, whose customers couldn’t try on the clothes they were buying.) Standardized sizes seemed efficient and scientific. Clothes could be as predictable as screws or frozen peas—and as regimented and impersonal as an assembly line.
From the 1940s through the 1970s, the U.S. government established and maintained size guidelines, using data from about 16,500 women, including 6,500 members of the Women’s Army Corps measured during World War II. The guidelines specified the proportions that defined, say, a Misses 12 or a Junior 7. These standards were always voluntary, however, and over time they broke down. As Americans got fatter, garment makers discovered the marketing wonders of vanity sizing. Equally important, makers of different brands found that different proportions—a larger waist-hip ratio or narrower shoulders—could attract loyal customers who fit that profile. Every deviation from the standard represented a potential market niche. Although individual brands still adhere to in-house size standards, competition killed national standards. The government got out of the size-specifying business in 1983, and nowadays only sewing patterns adhere to the old sizes.
Those sizes weren’t all that efficient at fitting the population anyway. In 2002 and 2003, an industry consortium called [TC]2, originally the Textile Clothing Technology Corporation, used computerized 3-D scanners to collect precise measurements from about 6,300 women and 3,600 men. Unlike the young, almost entirely Caucasian women in the government’s earlier research, these subjects represented a broad cross section of the population. The most striking result: Not many American women have the hourglass figures assumed by most apparel sizes. This is a question of shape, not weight; a recent study in South Korea, where women are much smaller, found that hourglass proportions are even rarer there.
More significantly, [TC]2 scanner data revealed just how varied body shapes are. The scanners use white-light beams to create a body-shaped “point cloud” of 40,000 data points that captures not only about 200 different body measurements, including six different ways of measuring the waist, but also posture and left-right asymmetries—much richer data than a tape measure can collect. “When you scan someone, you get an image on the screen made of X-, Y-, and Z-coordinate data that is assembled on the screen. You have that person,” says Susan Ashdown, a professor in the department of fiber science and apparel design at Cornell University and a leading researcher in the small community of scholars trying to improve clothing fit. You can’t recognize yourself from a list of measurements; you can from a point cloud, because everyone’s body is different.
BODY SCANS of five distinct size 8 body types
Video: Watch the body scans in full rotation
“There’s an incredible amount of variation, much more than we’re aware of,” says Ashdown. “When we see a clothed population, we don’t really see the range of shapes that are underneath that clothing. Thank goodness.” Clothing creates the illusion that bodies fit an aesthetically pleasing norm. And that illusion depends on getting the fit right. Garments that bunch, pull, or sag call attention to figure flaws and often make people look worse than they would without clothes.