Why The Size of Your Clothes Is Just a Number

Shopping is often referred to as women’s national pastime (with some men enjoying it too, of course) but shopping for clothes can sometimes be tough for people, whether it’d be in a designer store or in a high street retail shop. Why? It has got to do with the clothes size.

It can get a bit demoralising when you go into the store, confident of what your size is but as soon as you try out that dress or those pair of trousers that practically beckoned you over, they just don’t fit. Sometimes, they’re too tight (which makes you wonder whether you’ve gained weight) and other times they’re too loose (which you rejoice thinking that you’ve lost weight) and it can be confusing. Thus, we ask that proverbial question of what’s in a size?


Why is there a discrepancy in size? Why is it that sometimes it can be hard to really discern your own size and what impact does this have on one’s body image?

Brands do this by playing on human psychology and this phenomenon is generally termed as vanity sizing. Firstly, you must understand that there’s no regulation on clothes sizes. Thus, each brand can come up with their own numbers and what that translate into when it comes to the body measurements. Because of this, a size 8 from one brand could actually be a size 6 or 12 from another brand. Not just that, but in a 2003 study of over 1,000 pairs of women trousers, it has been discovered that the more expensive the brand, the smaller the sizes on the labels are.

Nominal sizing refers to the size that the industry normally refers it to and vanity sizing has inflated this. For example, in a 1937 Sear’s catalogue, a size 14 dress had a bust line of 32 inches (81 cm) but in 1967, a dress with the same bust line was sized an 8 while in 2011, it was a size 0. This is done so because women want to feel like they’re a smaller size, with some arguing that this smaller size number helps women feel better about themselves. Some designers argue that they came up with smaller size labels to cater to Asians and petite women who are generally smaller than the average European or American. Though more common in women’s clothing, vanity sizing also occurs in men’s clothing, with possibly the same reasons.

Arguing against this seemingly body positive aspect of this size discrepancy, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer claims that vanity sizing normalises obesity in society because people are wearing smaller sizes than they ‘should be’. We reckon that this may be rather sweeping because no matter what number it is, people are trying to get into the smaller number or even the zeroes and subzeroes which designer brands are catering to. This still feeds into people wanting to be thinner and trying to fit into society’s definition of what is sexually attractive.

But is this sizing thing really all because of a marketing ploy to fit into our unconscious need to fit into an ‘ideal’ size? Perhaps not.

You see, back when clothing sizes were originally measured and standardised about 70 years ago, the nominal sizes were measured based on just a small group of young, white women who were probably very thin and undernourished as they were paid to have their measurements taken and no ‘proper’ lady at that time would’ve wanted to be involved in such a project.

Fast forward till today, we now see that there is a huge diversity in sizes thanks to better nutrition, various lifestyles and simply the fact that there are different body shapes due to genetics.

Also, one must remember that different countries (or continents) have different sizing conventions and when brands have factories in more than one country, it might also result in slightly different measurements even for the same labelled size.

So where does this leave us in this clothing conundrum?

Well, understand that due to the sheer variety of combinations of body types, it’s ok if you can’t find clothes that fit you exactly. If you wanted that, a tailor or seamstress would be a better option than purchasing ready-to-wear clothes off the rack. Nonetheless, it is good to know what your measurements are and make sure to measure them well. You should at least know the rough measurements of your bra, hip and waist sizes as well as inseam, thigh, shoulder, and feet sizes. Knowing these will enable you to decide which sizes to try on, especially when some brands do include some of these details on their labels so as to better inform customers.

Most importantly, especially now that you know that it can be arbitrary, don’t let the size of your clothes define you. Fashion is meant to be fun and a reflection of your personality. It is more important that the clothes fit YOU and that you feel great in them!

Photo Credits: Safe Bee, Berkley Wellness, Odyssey, The Traveller’s Guide

Reference: Wikipedia, The Times (London)

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