The numbers on clothing labels don’t mean much anymore, thanks to an industry trick called “vanity sizing.”
When women look at a label, the smaller the number, the better they feel about themselves. The industry reinforces this concept by trying to keep all the numbers as small as possible.
Lynn Boorady, assistant professor of textile and apparel management at MU, explains the reasoning: “There’s no national standard sizing. Manufacturers can put any size on any article of clothing. And that appeals to vanity. People don’t want to see the double digits; they don’t want to see the size 10; they want to see the size 8.”
It’s not only everyday consumers who indulge in such self-deception. Graham Kostic, a former MU student and now a fashion assistant at Modern Luxury publications, has seen vanity sizing in action among the famous. While interning at W magazine Kostic says he saw someone snipping out size tags at a photo shoot. Assistants to Jennifer Lopez, who was being photographed, were hiding the labels so she wouldn’t discover her real size.
Enlightened shoppers do care about how clothing fits, which is why so much time is spent in the dressing room. But for most, the satisfaction is higher if the number on the label is smaller.
But some people consider this a problem. Sarah Goudy, a waitress at T.K. Brothers, finds the inconsistency an obnoxious experience. “I have a pair of size 4 jeans from American Eagle and these,” she says, pointing to the striped khaki pants she is wearing, “are a size 12. From American Eagle! How does that happen?”
(American Eagle did not return calls asking for comment.)
Oddly enough, more expensive clothes, which usually have a fuller cut, are the most able to take advantage of cutting the size number to 0.
As the owner of VintageVixen.com, April Ainsworth knows a lot about the change in sizing throughout the years. “A dress with a 24-inch waist in the 1950s would’ve been assigned about a size 10, while in the present day the same dress, with the same 24-inch waist, would be a size 4.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, a U.S. standard for clothing did exist, but there were many problems with that, Boorady says. A survey had been done during war time, when people were thinner. There also were incentives for participation, which drew the less well-nourished poor. The much more structured styles and undergarments worn then also affected the way clothes fit.
“It’s a psychological asset if your size label is a smaller number,” Ainsworth says. But she stresses that fit should be more important. “Size alone is meaningless except relative to other sizes — it’s one number on a scale of numbers.”
The American Society for Testing and Material has tried to come up with a set of standard sizes, but its last published finding was in 1994, and that was in plus-size standards. Misses sizes have not been touched yet.
SizeUSA, based in North Carolina, is another group that has more recently been trying to make sizing more consistent. It gathered data from more than 10,000 body scans of women age 18 and older from all over the country.
Jim Lovejoy, director of industry programs there, says the goal is to allow meaningful sizing. But what Lovejoy has found was that with the population constantly changing, and obesity levels rising, many types of women make up the target market. “There’s not an average woman out there,” he says.
But the data has had some influence, he says. J.C. Penney completely redid its misses sizes, and others like Victoria’s Secret and Target take the results seriously when creating their sizes.
Men may face vanity sizing as well. Their clothing has been mostly consistent with what the labels read, but that is changing — in one case, at least, indicating a desire to seem bigger rather than tinier.
Fewer men’s clothing marked “small” are being manufactured. The lines often begin with “medium” because “men don’t want to be seen as small,” says Boorady.
She mentions another change in men’s clothing due to an opposite sort of vanity. “What used to be portly is now called ‘the executive cut.’”
When Dan Imhoff, an MU nursing major, goes shopping, he says what is an already uncomfortable experience is made even worse because of the ambiguous sizes. “I don’t know if the world has gotten larger, but it makes me feel inferior, especially when size supposedly matters.”
Am I a 6? A 9? Maybe a 7? Test doesn’t figure it out
I hate shopping.
Especially for jeans.
I know, I’m one of the weird ones. Maybe it’s because I’m picky, or because stores just don’t have the right cut of jeans available. Or maybe it’s because I hate not knowing what size I’ll fit into on the dreaded day I go out to find pants. I used to think my weight just fluctuated like crazy.
And so I set out one day to find what “my” size really is. I went to four stores that I figured most girls my age have shopped at: American Eagle, Hollister, Gap and Abercrombie. At each store I went to the wall o’ jeans for what was “in” at the time, picked out three sizes I thought would fit me, and made a beeline to the dressing room.
The jeans were pretty much the same: stretchy denim, boot cut, low cut (not my favorite, but it was “in”), and just for kicks, I even kept them all the same lighter shade of denim. The goal for the day was to find out exactly what size I would feel comfortable in to buy. That meant telling myself that I would never wash them in order to keep them from shrinking did not count.
Three hours at the mall later, what this college girl found out was it was hard to keep track of “my” size, a 29-inch waist and 37-inch hip. At American Eagle I was a size 6, at Hollister a size 9, at Gap a size 6 again, and at Abercrombie the size 6 was too tight, and the size 8 too baggy, with no size 7 in sight.
I can safely say that stretchy denim saved my self-esteem that day.
(Gap and American Eagle did not return calls asking for comment.)
A few months ago I went to Old Navy to find a pair of khakis for work. I was so ecstatic that the tag read “4” that I didn’t care the pants were too long, looked baggy and made my butt look … not so great. I was a size 4 in those babies!
And now I barely wear them. I’m convinced that if those pants had read a size 6 or higher I would have taken the time to talk myself out of buying them.
I thought online shopping would be better, knowing my measurements. But the inconsistencies continue on the Web. The size chart on American Eagle’s Web site, ae.com, lists a medium in bottoms, as having a 28.5- 29.5-inch waist and 39- 40-inch hip, and says these would be sizes 8-10. However, on the size chart on hollisterco.com, a medium for bottoms is listed as 26- 28-inch waist and 36- 38-inch hip, and these would be sizes 5 through 7.
This excursion has not left me completely faithless in the shopping experience; I just know that there will always be some trial and error in the dressing room. And I guess I’m OK with that. However, I have found a renewed appreciation for sweatpants.