IT'S NOT OFTEN the fashion industry comes to the population and asks for help. In fact, the last time was 1940.
Recently, the American Society for Testing and Materials poked the fashion industry in the ribs and told it to take notice: The last time anyone took a hard look at the standard for women's ready-to-wear sizing was in 1940. That year, the measurements of 8,000 military women were taken and the results averaged to develop the standard size ranges still in use today. Everything's been fine for about 50 years, but something has happened to the population that has made the industry realize that study may now be obsolete.
More than 76 million people were born between 1946 and 1964 -- the baby boom. By virtue of their numbers, these boomers have shaped all aspects of life in America -- especially in areas of fashion and style. As the baby boomers age, the fashion industry is beginning to realize it may not be meeting the needs of this major chunk of the population.
"Our preliminary study shows that as women age, their bodies change," said Naomi Reich of the School of Family and Consumer Resources, University of Arizona in Tucson.
"Since the original study of women's sizes included less than 2 percent of women over 55, it does not reflect these body changes. Therefore, women in this age category have great difficulty finding garments that fit well and are comfortable."
To determine exactly how these changes in the normal aging process affect the clothing needs of women, the American Society for Testing and Materials, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service and the University of Arizona, has launched a national study to determine body measurements of women 55 years and older.
It is their hope the information will help manufacturers by providing a standard of sizing that will better meet the consumer's needs. Reich is the research supervisor for the project, which is funded by the fashion industry.
The study entails taking the measurements of 8,000 women over 55 years of age, from 42 states. In most communities, volunteers from universities or the extension services are in charge of gathering the statistics.
"We are going to retirement homes, senior centers and clubs, asking for volunteers to be measured," said Marie Maschmeyer, a clothing and textiles instructor at Sacramento City College, currently on sabbatical to work on the project. "Each woman will be weighed and 57 measurements will be taken. The process takes about 45 minutes."
To obtain uniform results, women being measured will be asked to wear a romper-style, spandex bodysuit covered with grid-style ribbons that mark areas to be measured. The suits are extremely stretchy and come in a variety of sizes to fit petite to large-size women. Under the bodysuit, women wear their normal undergarments.
In some geographical areas, additional information will be gathered pertaining to style, fabric, color and comfort preferences, although comments are always welcome.
"At the end of the study, the results will be available to the women who were measured," Maschmeyer said. "And they will be given a copy of their own measurements if they'd like, which would be very handy for women who sew or use dressmakers."
Maschmeyer said the researchers hope to gather statistics from 1,000 women in California.
"What we are fighting for," said Reich, "is establishing a new body type in the garment industry and requesting more information on hangtags -- not just size, but measurements. Men have traditionally had that information and it simplifies their shopping and fit problems.
"One of the questions we've been asking during the survey is, 'If the industry should come up with a new body-type size range based on this study, what should it be called?' At this point we haven't gone through any of the return data, but I don't think women want something marked elderly, they just want guidelines so they don't have to go into the fitting room with arms filled with clothing in order to find one item that fits."
"I would hope that this study would give more standardization to sizes in general," Maschmeyer said. "It would help consumers tremendously and eliminate vanity labels [lines cut larger to appeal to the egos of women who like to think they wear small sizes]. If we end up with a whole new size range, like those for petite or large sizes, I would hope that designers keep style in mind.
"Women in this age group are active, they like to wear color, they want fashionable clothes. They don't want to dress like 'little old ladies.' If designers are smart, they will take this information and accommodate the needs of the consumer."
Maschmeyer has learned a few things about the women she's measured:
"They hate shoulder pads. Tie belts are too short. They don't like to shop because finding clothes that fit is such a struggle."
The goal is to finish collecting the measurement data by the end of February and complete the analysis by December 1992. The findings will be presented to the American Society of Testing and Materials subcommittee on Body Measurements and Apparel Sizing, which is made up of representatives of the Mail Order Association of America, the fashion pattern industry, retail buyers, corporate buying offices, manufacturers, university faculty and consumers.
"We could begin seeing changes as soon as 1993," Maschmeyer said. "The industry is hungry for this information, especially the mail-order retailers. They know their profits depend on meeting the needs of their customers."