On some level, most people probably suspect that clothing sizes don’t mean very much, if only from the experience of struggling to fit into garments that should fit but don’t (or vice versa). But put your mind at ease: it is undeniably and objectively true that the sizes of different “sizes” vary dramatically. Measurements for a women’s “size 8” waist can vary by up to five inches depending on manufacturer and brand–according to a 2011 NYT investigation–and the average size of each size has been creeping up over time (presumably so as not to hide how the average American’s size has increased over that same time).
Given an apparently standardized system of sizing, you would think these sizes would be, well, standardized. Why aren’t they?
Before the factory mass production of household commodities, clothing was, for the most part, custom-made. Most people wore handmade garments (or hand-me-downs), but if you could afford it, you hired a tailor or dressmaker to clothe your family’s individual array of bodies. Because each garment was created to fit a specific person’s dimensions, clothing was linked, literally and conceptually, to the specific body of that individual. The kind of standardization required to mass produce and market factory-made clothing did not exist.
Manufacturers first figured out how to mass produce men’s clothing to meet the need for military uniforms, the millions of variously-sized but otherwise identical garments that the deep pockets of the state would gladly pay out for. But ready-to-wear clothing for women and children took longer: it was easy to churn out identical copies of the same garment, but modifying the adult male standard was more difficult. Basing garment dimensions on age (for children) and bust measurement (for women) turned out to be far from ideal. (Though a positive outcome of the quest to standardize clothing sizes was debunking the hypothesis that bust size indicated anything beyond the size of a person’s bust.) In the 1930s, clothing manufacturers estimated that a lack of standard sizing was costing them $10 million per year, and the Mail-Order Association of America–representing retailers like Sears Roebuck–was overwhelmed with returns of poorly-fitting items.
Who could solve this problem? Would it be the producers? Or the consumers?
“Home Economics”–also “Domestic Science” in the academic settings where it originated–offered an answer, as reform-minded (mostly) middle-class white women stepped into the morass of uncertainty and attempted to create order. Clothing was just one of the many household objects that were becoming factory-produced commodities, and purchasing from the market was replacing homemade, in general; as a result, as Carolyn Goldstein describes in her history of home economics, Creating Consumers, “decisions about what to buy constituted an increasing portion of the work of household management.” But how to make these decisions? Virtually nothing was labeled–and if it were, it might not be accurate–so buyers would have no idea what materials went into any particular item, or how best to use or care for it. In the late 1930s, the Texas Home Economics Association found that less than one third of the dresses they examined carried the name and address of their manufacturer; “many labels had no fiber identification, and some were misleading as to fiber content.” The few labels that specified anything related to size bore comments such as “this dress runs large,” or “this make is small.” With the creation of entirely new synthetic materials–such as rayon in the late 1800s, the first human-made fiber, and early synthetic polymers, the antecedents of plastic–things got even more complicated.
Home Economics “offered a roadmap,” as Goldstein puts it, “at a time when the essential elements and practices of the ideal home were in flux and consumer capitalism seemed inherently irrational.” A rational and scientific approach to questions of consumption and home management could be a way to solve the problem on both ends: to teach consumers how to navigate this chaotic marketplace and also to make the marketplace itself less chaotic.
After the fledgling movement proved its worth by helping American households adapt to wartime restrictions, a Bureau of Home Economics (BHE) was established within the Department of Agriculture in 1923. It was to be an information hub, providing recipes, tips, and other information for households to meet the national economic challenges of World Wars and the Great Depression (radio broadcasts like “Variety meats for wartime meals” (1942) and “The economics of canning fresh fruit and vegetables” (1930) give a sense of the content). The BHE endeavored to set a positive tone for discussions of wartime policy (as in this lighthearted dialogue between two USDA bureaucrats on how to best to stay “well and happy” within the ¾ lb a week wartime sugar ration that began in 1942) and worked to keep Americans informed of exciting new household management practices and technologies; as the refrigerator became a ubiquitous kitchen appliance, for example, people had to be explicitly taught which foods require refrigeration.
Since waste was the problem, consumer behavior became a part of national service, linking individual households to the welfare of the nation as a whole. “Every woman who practices strict economy puts herself in the ranks of those who serve the nation,” as Woodrow Wilson declared (according to the epigraph to Clothing: Choice, Care, Cost, a 1922 book on appropriate consumption of clothing by a former professor of “Household Arts Education”). Women were on the front lines: “Because of present economic conditions,” argued a volume called Textiles and Clothing, written the same year by two New York City instructors of “Domestic Art,” “a definite obligation is laid upon [the woman consumer] to understand the nature and real worth of clothing material and house furnishings, in order to buy with judgment and economy.”
But how could she “buy with judgement and economy” without reliable metrics to evaluate the products she was buying? The garment sizes we have today–which do not communicate what they insist they communicate–are the chaotic detritus of the many and repeatedly-failed attempts to produce uniformity in the nation’s clothing.
According to the visionary chemist and consumer advocate Ruth O’Brien–head of the BHE’s Division of Textiles and Clothing–the value of standardization was “not only to manufacturers and distributors but also to homemakers who must buy clothing, patterns, and yardage” (as the BHE put it in a summary of one of O’Brien’s articles from the trade publication Commercial Standards Monthly). O’Brien and her staff used the press to bemoan the arbitrary nature of garment dimensions, attempting to raise public awareness that most measurements used to assemble garments were “the result of traditional ideas modified by individual experience,” communicating with authority what readers might have guessed based on their own shopping experiences, namely that “there is practically no garment on the retail counter today large enough for a normally developed child of the age for which the garment is marked.” O’Brien compared the experience of shopping for textiles to “Blind sailing with no lights to mark the channel. . . when the rocks become animated and flock around the ship, disaster is sure to follow.” And just as ships required official interventions to help them navigate channels and other waterways, O’Brien argued, so too would the modern consumer need the guidance of independent standards regarding size, quality, and durability, among other textile characteristics.
An exceptionally well-educated woman, Ruth O’Brien had two degrees in chemistry and one in law and already inaugurated the study of textile chemistry at Iowa State College when she was hired by the BHE in 1923. In her role at the BHE, O’Brien lobbied relentlessly for textile standardization that would empower women to make informed purchases, and would mastermind the first national attempt to empirically devise standard garment sizes. In the 1930’s, she secured federal support, directing WPA workers to collect dozens of body measurements from thousands of people: 150,000 children between ages four and seventeen were measured in 1937, in more than a dozen states, and in 1939-1940, 14,698 women were measured for weight and 58 other measurements deemed of “use in pattern and garment construction.”
With rigorous statistical analysis of that data, O’Brien hoped that a sense of the shapes and sizes of American women could be used by clothing manufacturers to develop standard garment sizes. She would have preferred a much larger sample size, but neither the federal government nor clothing manufacturers would fund it. So although her study was a historic effort, its utility was limited by an inadequate sample–about 15,000 women were measured, with data from about 10,000 suitable for analysis–and the sample skewed rural and working class, comprised of only white women. Furthermore, the study was premised on the idea that most women have an hourglass-shaped figure, an assumption that wasn’t correct then and still isn’t today.
When the BHE published their findings in 1941, and recommended a size system based on measurements of height and girth (perhaps length of torso or inseam and waist or bust size), they anticipated problems; though the ideal system would incorporate height and weight, they sensed that women would not appreciate a system that required them to disclose their weight to shop attendants. But it would be their efforts to persuade manufacturers to adopt their size standards where the project would run aground, stymied by the disorganized and decentralized industry over which the BHE had little direct control. Since adoption of the garment size standards offered by the federal government was voluntary, manufacturers simply chose not utilize them (or to alter them as needed).
(O’Brien was more successful in reforming the nature of children’s clothing, promoting “self-help” clothing that would allow children to more easily dress and undress themselves. A mother wrote to O’Brien praising the designs, observing the contrast to her children’s nonsensical former wardrobe, in which her son’s clothing had 19 buttons on the garment’s front and back and her daughter’s had no buttons at all.)
And so, having been identified, the problem persisted, as did attempts to address it. In 1958, the Department of Commerce’s National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) invented a set of (voluntary) standards based on the measurements of women who had served in the Air Force; these were not widely adopted, perhaps because the sizes were based on a decidedly more athletic sample than the average American woman. But after taking another stab at it in 1971, the Department of Commerce withdrew their voluntary standards in 1983; it was left to a private organization, ASTM International (formerly American Society of Testing and Materials) to be the loudest voice in favor of industry-wide garment size standards.
The industry-wide system envisioned by Ruth O’Brien and the BHE remains elusive. Manufacturers are, themselves, part of the problem; there’s evidence that manufacturers resist industry-wide size standards because, as the New York Times quoted a clothing designer saying in 1986, “Fit is a type of identity.“ “We don’t market to the whole world,” said Victoria’s Secret’s chief marketing officer, echoing the 2006 comments of Abercrombie and Fitch’s CEO, “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong.” Some brands deliberately choose not to design clothing for certain bodies.
Of course, another reason none of the proposed standard size systems have been adopted is that they’ve all been deeply flawed by the lack of standard sizes in bodies. And so, the question needs to be asked: is it even possible? Could a standard-size system accurately capture the range of bodies it would need to embrace? While O’Brien and her Division of Textiles and Clothing correctly identified the mass-production textile industry’s need for greater standardization, was their solution too ambitious to realize?
Although clothing manufacturers never unified under a single system, the cumulative effect of all these efforts has produced an expectation that a size system was needed. None of these systems were ever enforced by law (or widely adopted), and, today, each manufacturer more or less operates with its own system. But they all have a system, and consumers expect them. And because most brands use similar sets of numbers or letters to differentiate between sizes, it creates the illusion that a standard size system could represent all American women and would be the ideal way to organize the clothing market; if it doesn’t exist, perhaps it should.
And so, while clothing manufacturers and retailers rarely acknowledge it, the arbitrary nature of sizes remains an open secret: it’s why stores have fitting rooms, why tailors make alterations, why every retailer has a clear return policy, and why online stores that offer free returns by mail make more money than those that don’t. Some brands offer guides that list the dimensions of each size, but these will be of limited utility for (most) people, who neither know the dimensions of their body (nor have bodies whose size is fixed and constant, anyway). Instead, every effort to describe the standard sizes only reinforces the fiction that bodies come standardized.
“Clothes are a social phenomena,” as fashion historian Anne Holland writes in her book Sex and Suits, and “changes in dress are social changes.” Shifting to mass-produced clothes altered how Americans thought about themselves in relation to what they wore. It’s not surprising that a unified system of garment sizes began with uniforms; does it also codify a hierarchy of bodies, the way the military submerges the individual into the unit? Prior to mass production, garments were made in the right shape and size to fit the body, but today, it can seem like the body must be the right shape and size to fit into the garment. Words that describe the size and shape of clothing (size 2 or plus sized, for example) now also apply directly to bodies themselves; fashion models–instead of demonstrating the clothing they wear–have become punishing beauty standards for bodies, themselves, to aspire towards (or fall short of).
In one sense, this is profoundly odd; the concept of set sizes was created as an economic tool to make industry more profitable–and to help consumers find clothes that fit–not an accurate or meaningful way to describe bodies. But mass-production reversed the dynamic between body and garment, which also had the effect of transferring considerations of style and fit from the clothing designer to its wearer. While ready-to-wear and standard-sized clothing creates an expectation of standardized bodies, it also creates space for individual divergence from the standard, a blessing as well as curse. “The custom tailor’s client doesn’t need visual taste; the tailor will have it for him, and won’t let the client leave the shop unless his suited looks are a credit to the firm,” as Holland observes. “But the ready-to-wear customer’s looks are his own responsibility.”