Chances are if you’ve ever had trouble buttoning a pair of jeans in a fitting room, someone has thrown this adage over the door: “Don’t worry, Marilyn Monroe was a size 16” — along with the next size up.
Obviously this is supposed to make you feel better because a) size is just a number, right? and b) if you can’t fit your ass into a pair of pants, you can apparently become a sex symbol.
So, let’s play a game. According to measurements used by her dressmaker, Monroe’s dimensions were a 35-37-inch bust, 22-23-inch waist and 35-36-inch hips — making her an extreme hourglass. At the Gap, using her bust measurements, she’d be between a 6 and 10. Using her waist, she’d be a 0. If we go to British sizing, which skews a bit larger, her boobs would maybe make her a 16. Either way, she would have a hell of a time finding “her size” in today’s fast-fashion culture.
So how can Monroe be everything from a size 6 to a 16? America’s system of standardized sizing, although an attempt to make mass-produced shopping easier — for the factory and the buyer — simply cannot account for the huge variation in body types. It also can’t account for clothing companies’ lean toward “vanity sizing,” a type of size inflation making each size bigger over time so we all end up fitting in “smaller” sizes, feeling good about ourselves and buying more ($$$).
“According to standard size measurements, [the] average 155-pound woman should be wearing a size 16, but thanks to vanity sizing, she’s probably buying a size 10 or 12,” said Jim Lovejoy, industry director for SizeUSA, in 2006 of his 2003 survey, which electronically scanned consumers’ bodies to provide updated size data.
Vanity sizing — along with a lack of adhered-to guidelines — is why every time you go into a store, you have to take three different sizes of pants into the fitting room — your “normal” size, plus a size down and a size up.
Before the Industrial Revolution, clothing was made by hand specifically for the wearer’s measurements.
With the advent of the sewing machine in the 1840s, the textile world changed dramatically. People could make more clothing in less time and mass produce items. During the Civil War, the military created a standardized system of sizing based on men’s chest measurements to create mass-produced uniforms. After the war, the same sizing was applied to the commercial menswear industry.
Women’s clothing, however, continued to be largely custom-made until the 1920s when advertising, chain stores, mail-order catalogs, a growing middle class and trend-based fashion all converged to make women’s ready-to-wear apparel a viable market.
Initially, women’s sizing was approached similarly to men’s — via the bust measurement — with arbitrary numbers applied to sizes. Sizing categories were created using bust-to-hip ratios and named things like “Misses” and “Ladies,” and numbered according to age (size 14 = age 14). But this size distinction certainly didn’t mean sizing was the same for every store.
A 1933 Spiegel catalog offered a jacket for women in sizes “14-20 years” directly next to a sweater set in sizes “32-44 bust.” And a 1937 Sears catalog listed women with a 32-inch bust as a size 14 while a 1955 Spiegel catalog classified a 34-inch bust size as “small.”
In the 1940s, in an attempt to alleviate size confusion — and decrease the amount of catalog returns — the Mail Order Association of America asked the National Bureau of Standards to analyze women’s sizing. Statisticians conducted a survey collecting 59 body measurements from about 15,000 American women. The results, published in Women’s Measurements for Garment and Pattern Construction, concluded this: Women are different sizes.
“The Nation’s 40 million white women 18 years old and over, who have to be fitted by the ready-made clothing industry ... present, as everyday observation testifies, an almost bewildering variety of shapes and sizes,” the study read.
Even ignoring the fact that they only used white females to judge an entire nation’s body type, the conclusion that there’s a “bewildering” amount of body types seems obvious. And since these 1940s measurements were devised, they’ve evolved and adapted to the market.
So what do sizes even mean? Basically nothing. The Department of Commerce withdrew the commercial sizing standard for women’s apparel in 1983. And today, companies create garments loosely based on outdated sizing standards or even invent their own — designer Nicole Miller even introduced size 00 in 2007.
End result: Despite the fact that size is just a number, we all want a smaller one. And shopping for jeans will never, ever get any easier. Sorry.
CONTACT MAIJA ZUMMO: firstname.lastname@example.org