Are you a small, medium or large? If the answer is “depends” you are not alone. Clothing sizes are not universal. Not only are there major differences around the world there are differences from one brand to the next.
Why would the sizes differ so much? There are three M’s that should answer it. Measurements, Marketing and Money.
Originally we created our own clothes then we went to tailors who could create garments that would fit better and possibly be cheaper than we could produce them.
War changed that. Unfortunately, conflict does drive innovation. In this case, armies needed to identify each other on the battlefield and one way to do that was to wear the same outfit. Not only would it help avoid you attacking an ally, but you could also have your army all wear the best outfit to protect them.
The uniform became the standard but soldiers did not have much in the way of fit. The US Civil War is one of the first conflicts when uniforms were both mass-produced and supplied in a range of sizes to better fit the soldiers. The measurements and sizing systems developed separately as armies around the world expanded the uniforms and fit for their troops.
The clothing industry was developing too and after World War 1 clothes were cheap enough to be sold in volume according to size, not that the sizes were very good.
That is a century ago now, so you might be surprised that it is still not resolved. A major reason is that the world has never found a single system that everyone agrees on. There is ongoing work to create one, but unless manufacturers, consumers and regulators all agree it is unlikely to happen.
Not only is sizing more complicated when it comes to defining the sizes, but they are also complicated when creating the garment in the first place. With so many fabric types and stitching options, you can get a broad range of fits for the same item.
Consider a pair of jeans, you typically choose your size using the waist and the length of the leg, but you now also need to consider the kind of leg, how tightly the pants fit, how high the waist is and how you fasten them.
This is compounded when you consider you need sizes for men, women, children and infants. You need different sizes for shoes, jackets and coats. We wear a lot of different outfits and most have their own sizing scale.
Assuming you find the outfit you liked and you like the fit, you may still abandon it if the size differed from what you thought you actual size was. One of the reasons a clothing size was created was to spare women having to reveal their actual measurements. Over time as women in some markets have grown larger, retailers have changed the dress size to keep the number the same. These are called vanity sizes and while it works for keeping a size 12, it means you need to add new sizes for those that are smaller, with a size zero being required and sometimes size double zero being used.
One retailer opted to get rid of the number based sizes altogether and uses names instead, so you might be an Amanda when shopping at Grrrl
When you combine the actual size charts used in different regions with the vanity sizes chosen by certain brands things get complicated and even more so when retailers are supplying stores all around the world. It is not just about having a range of sizes it is also having the right volume of units in the respective sizes which differs depending on the region they are being sold.
Retailers don’t want to make buying clothing difficult, but they also don’t want to be the one to have to change everything which could prove costly. This is even more relevant to fast fashion which is not intended to be a perfect-fit wear-forever garment, but rather something you wear for a few months and then replace it with something else.
This is where the problems compound to make clothing retail unsustainable. There are simply too many garments made that never get sold. Those that do get sold are often returned because the size or fit was wrong.
The mountain of waste clothes could be sold in other markets, but fast fashion has reached most markets now so the only places left are too poor to buy it and often not even able to process it for recycling.
It may surprise you that a lot is burnt to generate electricity, but the cost to the planet for the cotton grown or the plastic used to make the garments only to burnt it is not the best plan.
Can it be disrupted?
There are three ways this can be made less of an issue.
Unify sizing and allow consumers to more safely share their size information with retailers.
End the fast fashion trend and revert to smaller wardrobes of clothing that can be worn for longer
- Move to make the garments on demand
The ability to create entire garments on one machine and with minimum human input has been developing since 2000, Japan’s Shima Seiki demonstrates what it can do.
True Fit, Sizer, MeasureTalk, MySizeId and MTailor of just some of the apps that allow you to take your measurements and let you know what your best fit size would be at various retailers. As more of them offer online sales, picking the right size saves both you and the retailer the trouble of having to resend and item and deal with returns.
They can only offer basic comparisons for now, but as they grow the number of people using the apps and which brands and clothes they buy, new insights about general sizes in population will emerge which hopefully makes creating the unified size system a little easier to formulate and get adopted. Europe’s EN 13402 might not have a cool name but it may be the one you finally bring some order to the sizes.
Of course, if we become more selective and are willing to pay more to get a higher quality garment that will fit better and last longer we might not need to be worried about trying on clothes so often not would we perpetuate the low pay work environments that low-cost clothing creates.
Finally, we might be able to return to the beginning when clothes were tailored. Selecting items that are created on-demand and using your specific fit and size profile might be the best option. We would use less material, have less waste, not need to run sweatshops and get just the look we wanted.
This might seem a long way off given the current environment, but the Levi-Strauss CEO believes that they will be able to solve the manufacturing hurdles and do away with sizes in a decade.