There are few people who have not been victimized by the flawed clothing sizing system used by American clothing retailers. Have you ever thought that you needed to fit into a certain size in order to be worthy? Did you ever correlate a specific number with a sense of worth? Did you find yourself frustrated moving from store to store and finding that you wore wildly different sizes at each one? Did you find yourself gravitating toward specific brands because you know you can wear a certain numerical size in those brands? Did you find it difficult to even know what size you ought to be trying on? Do you swear that one pair of pants in a size fits and another hypothetically identical pair in the same size from the same brand doesn’t? Are you baffled by shopping online, having to return items which don’t fit as promised? Do you find yourself flummoxed by the variety of sizes on display in secondhand stores?
These are some of the many ways in which a perplexing and paradoxical sizing system can cause harm to people who are shopping for clothing as well as contributing to the problems of waste and inclusivity in the fashion industry. The sizing system for clothing lacks standardization while being arbitrary, uninclusive, and imbued with implicit value judgements.
Lack of Standardization:
My first issue with the clothes sizing system is the utter lack of standardization. Imagine a world in which you would measure the circumference of your waist, take that number to a store and select clothing with that circumference. It might not be the color or style you want, but it would fit your physical self. This is, practically speaking, the opposite of the sizing systems used in American clothing.
Speaking from my personal experience, I own clothing in sizes x, x+2, x+4, and x+6. A little fluctuation might be to be expected, but such a great variation implies a total lack of consistency and therefore meaning behind any clothing size. The alphabetical clothes sizing system does not really offer a solution. I own clothing in 5 alphabetical sizes, and this too seems to be the norm among people I know. A number or letter “x” does not correlate to an actual measurement. Owning clothing in a wide variety of sizes is fairly common, because there’s very little consistency from brand to brand or even style to style.
The system fundamentally lacks utility due to a total lack of consistency and standardization. The numbers and letters cannot carry any meaning as they are currently used.
In addition to a lack of tangible connection to measurements the sizing system used by American clothing retailers is almost completely arbitrary. The sizing guide used prior to the 1960s varies by at least 8 sizes from the one currently in use. This is an important reason to look at exact measurements or physically try on vintage clothing prior to purchase.
This phenomenon, known in some circles as “vanity sizing”, involves clothing gradually increasing in size. In the 1950s, a size 8 was the smallest size available. Now, clothing goes down to 00 in some brands, but this greatly reduced numerical size retains roughly the same measurements as this midcentury 8.
Patriarchal diet and fashion culture have constructed a social standard in which the best thing a person can be is small. The lower the number, the higher the worthiness, attractiveness, and fashionability of the person. Especially in the early aughts, it was all the rage for celebrities to disclose “I’m an x,” in interviews as if the totally unstandardized size they claimed to wear acted as a source of identity.
Savvy marketing teams devised strategies to create sizes with lower numbers to entice people to buy clothing. With the boost of being able to wear a “smaller” size, they fought for consumer loyalty and increased spending. These brands perpetuated this cycle of equating a number or letter on a tag with value and played into the social construct for their own benefit.
Many retailers fail to carry clothing which fits a variety of body sizes and types. Carrying a wider range of sizes and styles affords a basic convenience to all people. In many ways, the failure of brands to be size inclusive comes not from an issue with the supply chain or demand but rather with problematic tendencies and aesthetic preferences of the fashion industry and in many ways of society as a whole.
The way we use clothing sizes to talk about bodies is a symptom of a culture which treats bodies with toxicity and hostility. Especially given how arbitrary and unstandardized the sizing of clothing is, it is preposterous to associate a number on a tag with worth. Despite understanding this on an intellectual level, so many people struggle emotionally with this concept due to decades of messaging and manipulation by media and marketing.
In addition to the emotional distress which the sizing system causes to so many, it creates waste and inconvenience in its wake. The lack of standardization between and within brands makes online shopping difficult and contributes to returns, which generally end up in landfills. Given the vast waste produced by created garments, it is ethical and environmental to ensure that clothes are used after production.
I think many people can relate to wandering racks at thrift stores, trying on at least 2 or 3 sizes of clothing if not more, in search of the elusive perfect fit. When dealing with preloved clothes, we confront not only the difficulties of the sizing system but also shrinkage or stretching with washing and wearing.
What can we do?
As with many issues, as an individual consumer, you simply do not have the power to shake your fist and create industry-wide change.
This next suggestion might seem a little bit esoteric. I truly believe that words have power. How we talk to ourselves and to others has a huge impact. If you find yourself saying “oh I am an x” try to replace that language with something like “generally size x fits me best.” In this way, you can sidestep the trap of equating a specific number or letter with your identity or worth, at least in your diction.
If you visit the Thrift 2 Fight online store, as well as several other online clothing retailers, you will notice that clothing is described by the sizes the models usually wear. Some will include precise measurements of pieces or stats on the model. These pieces of information can allow you to shop with greater confidence.
Some efforts are being made to create more standard ways to size clothing. Even if these are successful in labeling new clothes, they will not eliminate the issues with shopping secondhand and vintage clothing. For that, the best we can do is roll with this flawed system, understand that the numbers and letters on tags are largely meaningless, and strive to empower ourselves to ditch the deeply ingrained socialized value structure around clothing sizes. It’s not an easy journey, but it is one which can slowly make shopping easier and more enjoyable.
A little further reading:
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Eleni Georgiadis is a classically trained horn player currently residing in Kentucky. Outside of music, she enjoys knitting, sewing, composting, kombucha brewing, and spending time outdoors. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her thoughts about sustainability and inclusivity in fashion, weaving together her technical knowledge, passion, and research.