What’s In a Size?

November 14, 2015

When Shakespeare’s Juliet reflected What’s in a name? she was calling attention to the fact that names don’t truly describe the essence of a person (You know, since she’s a Capulet and he’s a Montague, but she really loves him — after one brief exchange at a dance — etc. etc.). She could’ve just as easily asked What’s in a size? and the answer would’ve been the same (except for the fact that sizes weren’t truly developed until hundreds of years later, but I’m getting ahead of myself…)

Short oversimplified answer: Not a lot.

You probably know this from experience. Just because you’re a size 4 in one brand doesn’t mean you’ll be the same size in another brand. In fact, you’ve probably developed a complex matrix of brands and sizes that will — for the most part — fit you well. And, chances are those sizes are not consistent across the board.

But — much like Juliet — I find myself dramatically standing on a balcony on a moonlit night and asking myself: What do sizes mean, anyway? And what are they even based on?

In an effort to demystify the sizing dilemma, I did some digging:


Let’s go back to Juliet who lives in the Renaissance: She didn’t have to worry about sizes because before around the 1940s, it was basically assumed that you or someone you knew or were related to would take care of your own clothing necessities (i.e. most women could sew). Pretty nice, right?


But let’s flash-forward to a pivotal time in the landscape of sizing for “ready-made” clothing: the Revolutionary War. (I know, I was surprised too). Apparently the need to quickly manufacture uniforms expedited the creation of standardized sizing for men. This sizing was based on exactly one measurement: a man’s chest. (Because obviously this is an extremely accurate predictor of the measurements of the rest of a man’s body). Meanwhile, women were still sewing their own garments until well into the 1920s. Splendid.


But then several factors (the rise of the advertising industry, the growth of an urban professional class, the development of chain stores and mail order catalogs, etc.)  contributed to the rise of “ready-made” clothing for women. And, with this rise, came the need for standardized sizing. So here’s what happened in a nutshell:

  • Because men’s sizing was based on chest measurements, that’s where it all started for women too. The problem, of course, was that bust sizes were not accurate indicators of the rest of a woman’s body measurements. (The shocking thing here is that people were surprised).
  • Enter the Works Progress Administration who sponsored a national survey of women’s measurements in the 1940s and found that the data “didn’t cooperate.” So, naturally, what do you do with uncooperative data? Use it anyway, of course! The best system they could muster was based on height and weight and they figured that women would probably not want to be telling the sales clerk their weight so they tossed their best option out the window and settled for a system based on this equation:

1 upper body measurement + height index of either Regular, Short, or Long + lower body girth index of either Regular, Stout, or Slim

  • They came up with a whopping 27 different sizes which was too unwieldy for manufacturers, so things were kind of stagnant in the sizing world for a while until…

(drum roll, please)

  • …the reanalysis of this (questionable) data ten years later (because, you know, data gets more cooperative with time). The pool of women that the original data set accounted for was comprised entirely of white women, many of low socioeconomic status and thus potentially thin and malnourished. Perfect data set. But then, when the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) conducted their reanalysis they further distorted this already distorted data by adding measurements of women who served in the Army during World War II. (Because that’s not going to affect the sizing bell curve at all!). The NBS reanalysis resulted in an official system of sizing that became the basis for all future systems. So what were sizes derived from after the reanalysis? Women’s bust size. (Because that worked so well before). And the proportions of an hourglass figure (You know, since 8% of women have an hourglass figure).
  • Initially there was a lot of enthusiasm around this sizing system, but with time, enthusiasm (unsurprisingly) languished and in 1983 the government withdrew the standard entirely.
  • But surely that’s not the way things are done today, right? Wrong. In 1995, a private organization called ASTM International published a table of body measurements for women’s sizing that was based on the 1958 commercial standard.
  • Also, with time, the ASTM recommendations have evolved to accommodate for vanity sizing — the reason why a size 6 today was a size 12 in the sixties.

So, the gist is that the sizing issue has been around for a very, very long time. In many ways it can be said that it has not evolved with the times. Some designers would argue that their own determination of sizes are part of their brand’s identities. And, okay, maybe standardization isn’t the solution. Maybe our best alternative is to better inform ourselves and others about what fits us and what simply doesn’t.


Information gathered from:

The Bizarre History of Women’s Clothing Sizes

One Size Fits Nobody: Seeking a Steady 4 or a 10

Standardization of Women’s Clothing

A Size 2 Is a Size 2 Is a Size 8

Cover Image via Shoes on Wires/Flickr

Photos via Butte-Silver Bow Public LibraryUpNorth Memories – Donald (Don)…rchappo2002 respectively


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1 Comment

  • Reply Herbert Yang November 14, 2015 at 11:33 am

    To follow Anna’s journey, check out her feed as armedina on Linkqlo iOS app

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