WHY IS IT THAT YOU CAN BUY A size 8 skirt from a company one day and six months later need a size 10, when you haven't even gained a pound?
First of all, it's not because your body is any more flawed than the average customer.
Even models with perfect figures have to try on dozens of jeans to get a good fit, as a recent investigation by W magazine discovered. Their researchers found no consistency between brands in sizes, and even within brands, the size 8s all fit differently. W's leggy 5-foot-9 model found nearly all the jeans too long and one of the best lengths for her turned out to be a pair of Calvin Klein Petites.
The problem, explains Sally Wolf, of Sally Wolf women's apparel, is that "every manufacturer cuts differently. I think they try to be consistent, but it's almost impossible."
Besides, there's very little incentive for manufacturers to share with others the secret to their fit.
"Clothing manufacturing is a very competitive industry," explains Wanda Sieben, an apparel quality researcher at the University of Minnesota. "They differentiate their product from others not just in matters of style and fabric, but on fit -- people can be very loyal to a brand just because of its fit."
In addition, she points out, quality control is everything. "All garments are not cut uniformly and there can be variations in the sewing." (In a study of 240 pairs of jeans, she found that the inseam and waist sizes stated on the label often differed significantly from actual measurements.)
As fashion has moved toward a more fitted silhouette and interest in clothing quality has increased, fit is becoming more of an issue with consumers.
"A few years ago, everything was so oversized and loose -- with the long top and full skirt -- that anybody from a size 4 to 14 could often wear the same size," says Sally Jones, owner of Jones & Jones. "The look is much, much more fitted now and we're not dealing with small, medium and large."
Then there's also the question of getting the best return on one's fitness investment. "So many women are taking better care of themselves," says Ms. Wolf, "that they want to get the best fit they can."
Retailers are helping customers cope with the fit problem in a variety of ways.
"We try to carry different lines to fit different shapes," says Ms. Jones. Nonetheless, as a retailer noted for her fashion edge, she also at times must decide to carry lines that won't fit everybody, for the sake of a great new look.
One line especially good for all sizes, she says, is Helen Hsu. Thoutfits "are wonderful contemporary knits that work for career and travel. They don't cling and the patterns are cut to make you look slimmer."
Hilda Levin, sportswear buyer for Miller Brothers, says, "The reason Eleanor P. Brenner is one of my major resources is because she seems to fit everybody. She's one of those manufacturers who make women feel sexy and tall. And her size 4 is a true size 4."
Another line successful because of its fit is Michi Moon. While the sizes are not necessarily "true" sizes, Ms. Levin says, these clothes are "cut generously. I normally wear a size 8, but in her I take a size 6."
When a line is not consistent in sizing she tends to drop it. "Marc
D'Alcy used to be cut well, but now
skimpy," she says. "If you've been a Marc D'Alcy customer and you wore a size 8 before and now you have to wear a size 10 -- it's a turn-off. Even myself, and I'm a buyer, I get uptight if I have to put on a size 10."
Good fit doesn't always come with higher prices. In Ms. Sieben's study of jeans, the more expensive jeans weren't necessarily more accurately sized.
Designer priced clothes can, however, buy you a larger fit. Ms. Jones estimates that true "designer" clothes, i.e. those priced $500 and higher, "are at least a size larger" than the bridge labels she carries.
Style of a garment also makes a big difference in the uniformity of fit from year to year.
"Designers at the upper end are sometimes not terribly consistent in size because styles vary so much from season to season," says Nan Kaestner, Fifth Avenue Club shopper for Saks Fifth Avenue. "This year they might do a very fitted jacket and you'll need a 10, but another year, in a boxy style, you might need a size 8."
Among her top picks for consistency are Escada at the higher price level and at lower prices, Liz Claiborne, Anne Klein II and Ellen Tracy.
While the quest for a reliable fit has bedeviled manufacturers and consumers for decades, there are indications that improvements are at hand, says apparel researcher Ms. Sieben.
"There is some indication," she says, "that consumers are paying more attention to quality these days. And since [domestic] manufacturers have been getting a lot more competition from imported merchandise in the last 10 years, they're being forced to pay more attention to quality."
Also, the great increase in catalog shopping has made fit a more crucial element to those many clothing manufacturers who supply catalogs.