Why size does matter - at least when it comes to clothing

Black wide leg cropped trousers, Autograph €55, Marks and Spencer nationwide. If these are a 10, I must be a size 8 in Marks and Spencers' sizing.

There’s nothing more frustrating than being a size 10 in one shop, and finding you’re a 12 in the next. Rose Mary Roche explains why vanity sizing has become such a big issue.

WHY is a woman a size 10 in one shop, a 12 in another and maybe even an 8 in another? Irregularity in the sizing of female clothing isn’t new but does seem to be growing more pronounced. High street retailers seem to be increasing the measurements of their clothing by as much as 2” per size (while keeping the same nominal label), while exclusive designer labels are cutting their silhouettes neat and narrow to keep larger women out of their brands.

The phenomenon, known as vanity sizing, has made it difficult to identify your true size and can lead to tears and trauma when buying clothes. Whether size inflation, whereby clothes have become larger in physical size, is merely a reflection of changing demographics (people are getting larger) or a devious ploy by manufacturers and retailers to seduce us into more consumption, it can make shopping an emotionally draining experience. A recent UK report illustrated how a size 10 has grown from 31”-24”-33” in the 1960s to 34”-27”-37” today. So no, you haven’t shrunk, sizing has just become more elastic.

Why size does matter - at least when it comes to clothing

Cropped red trousers, Liz Quin €139, BT2 Dublin. A good clean fit and an accurate 10.

Sizing for women’s clothing has always been inconsistent — it was developed initially in the 1920s as catalogues and ready-to-wear became popular and replaced traditional dressmakers who worked on a made to measure basis.

Women’s sizing has always been more variable than for men — it has never been standardised and within Europe there are three different sizing systems. Add the fact a 2013 study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that smaller size labels increased the self-esteem of the customers while larger size labels reduced their self esteem (with this negativity then transferred to the brand), and the whole issue of size assumes a degree of sensitivity that makes it difficult to for even the sanest woman to remain rational.

Cynics would say that the practice has evolved to satisfy our vanity — if we feel thinner because the size label is smaller, we are flattered, and therefore more likely to buy. Siobhán Selway, a professional pattern grader and fashion consultant, has been fascinated with garment sizing her entire career. She reveals: “Recently I found a vintage vogue pattern that had a beautiful shape, the comparison size to my now size 10 block was between the size 16 and 18. The measurements for a 16 in the ’60s, was 36” bust, 28” waist, 38” hips. Which is now our size 10.

“The sizing most sold a decade ago were size 10-12 it is now moved to 12-14.”

Selway’s comments confirm that we are all getting larger, but a contemporary female who is larger than her grandmother isn’t necessarily wearing a size 16, but a modern size 10 or 12.

One of the most vivid illustrations of this is what I call the Marilyn Monroe myth. Popular legend that Marilyn was a size 14/16 never seemed strange until I saw a selection of her dresses at the Newbridge Museum of Style Icons: they were more like a modern size 10. Indeed, Monroe’s measurements, as recorded by her dressmaker, were 35”-22”-35”. Essentially she was an hourglass with a smaller waist and hipline than the average contemporary UK size 10. However, during Monroe’s lifetime her measurements placed her somewhere between a conventional size 14/16. We also have to bear in mind that many women wore corsets that reduced their measurements considerably. Today a contemporary size 00 (that’s a sub-zero) is waist 23½” and hips 35”. In fact the size 0 phenomenon evolved as a response to vanity sizing. As sizes grew, petite customers (particularly Asians) were swamped and demanded a size scale to fit them correctly.

Is vanity sizing dangerous self-delusion on a mass scale or are there rational explanations for the increase in sizing? Changing demographics are evident on every street. And while fat may previously have been defined as a feminist issue, the sexes are now equal in terms of sizing manipulation. Men are also having their egos massaged by flattering labelling — in a recent investigation a selection of 36” waist men’s trousers were found to have measurements from 37” to 41”, with the Gap’s Old Navy label the worst offender.

Why size does matter - at least when it comes to clothing

Cream wide leg trousers, Sportmax, reduced to €77, JuJu Greystones. Good fit but a wide fluid leg is not good for diminutive size 10s, best for taller 10s with a longer leg

I am usually a size 10 (although 20 years ago I considered myself a 12). For this feature I tried on many pairs of trousers across brands and price points. The fit was varied, from extremely snug at Lennon Courtney (they wouldn’t close), to a perfect fit at Joseph, to loose at M&S (nearer a size 12 to me).

Both Caroline Donnelly’s and Liz Quin’s slim trousers fitted well, while the slouchier fits from Maje and SportMax sat lower on the waist with a more fluid leg. Louise Kennedy’s were a beautifully tailored classic fit while the Italian trousers from Marni and Max Mara Weekend were slimmer through the hip but more generous at the waist than the Irish trousers.

When creating a sizing profile for a brand, it isn’t necessarily always a conscious decision to delude customers that leads to varying sizes. A typical sample size will reflect the ideal of the brand and whether that brands’ core customer is a waifish teen (Topshop) or a more mature woman (Marks and Spencer) is obviously going to have a major influence on sizing. Essentially each designer or brand is looking to attract a certain silhouette and their sizing reflects this.

Siobhan Selway explains this profiling: “I think on some level it is unconscious and others it is very much calculated and a conscious decision made to sell more garments, based on the fact women want to wear smaller sizes. When I say it is an unconscious decision, it is when the designer is the owner of the label and has an established customer base that almost grows with the label (in more ways than one). So in their 20s they were a size 10 , and through the changes of age they are a 40-year-old version of a size 10, which is very different.”

Factor in that different ethnicities have different body shapes and that fits and silhouettes fluctuate with fashion and it’s easy to see how confusion can arise. It is also true that the more expensive premium lines from designers generally have a smaller fit than their diffusion lines, as wealthier consumers are typically thinner than lower income customers. Normalising sizing to the average is also a major factor — sizing has evolved to reflect changing demographics and just as people have grown larger and taller, sizing has evolved to reflect this. Humans are unique creations and there is no such thing as absolutely standardised sizing.

Selway explains: “If you take a sample of 10 women all measuring a basic size 10 and fit one garment like a shift dress on all 10 it may fit only two or three women well, as depending on height, length of torso, posture, etc, all have an effect on the look. This is why we have room for so many different labels. As shapes in women are so different you find the designer who suits your shape the most. The last survey on women’s sizing was done by Next and then M&S in the late 90’s. The general conclusion to the sizing survey was that there were too many variables to definitely give an overall measurement chart of the women surveyed.”

As online clothing retailers are discovering accuracy regarding sizing is essential to the success of their enterprises. Inaccurate sizing means lower profit margins not to mention customer disillusionment when they have to buy two different size garments and then return one to ensure the right fit. With stores such as House of Fraser and Burberry using body-scanning software like True Fit and virtual fitting rooms, modern technology is proving an ally in helping shoppers interpret sizing variations.

The best advice to negotiate the sizing maze is to shop for your silhouette and not a defined size. Levis have already pioneered this concept with their Curve Jeans line that has three styles, depending on how rounded a woman’s derriere is. Research your brands, dress for your shape and damn the size — and if the label offends you then you can always cut it out.


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