As Esther Diddams has aged, her body has changed, making it increasingly difficult to find clothes that fit properly.
"When you grow older, as someone once said, you either blow up or dry up. I'm one of those women who dries up," said Diddams, 83, of Leesburg. She stands 5-foot-4, weighs 87 pounds and wears a size 2 (when she can find one).
"I must drive miles and pay high prices for clothes that fit me. I wonder whether fashion designers will ever consider the exploding population of elderly persons and make clothes with them in mind?"
Marie Rodriguez, 61, is the same height as Diddams but weighs about 60 pounds more. Over the years the Orlando woman has seen her figure "blow up" and bend forward. As a result, her clothes have become tight across the chest and too long in the waist. Larger sizes don't work, however, because they are too big in the shoulders and too long in the bodice and skirt.
The problems facing both women as they grow older are different, but their frustrations are shared by most of the 17 million American women age 55 or older.
Body changes happen slowly but predictably as we age.
"We may weigh the same at 60 as we did at 30, but we no longer have the same shape. We lose muscle tone, and gravity takes its toll. Clothes start to hang on us differently," said Ellen Goldsberry, director of Cooperative Extension at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
She also is the co-director of the Apparel Sizing Project for Women 55 and Older, which is sponsored by the American Society of Testing and Materials and the Institute of Standards Research. It aims to gather data on the changes in size and shape that occur after a woman reaches age 55. At present, the garment industry has no information on body measurements for women in this age category, Ms. Goldsberry said.
"The measurements they're using today were taken in the 1940s, mostly of 20-year-olds. Some mail-order companies have started revise these measurements in an effort to cut down on returns. But basically, the industry still is using the old data," she said.
Over the past two years, the Apparel Sizing Project has collected 60 different measurements of almost 7,000 women in 38 states. The women, whose ages ranged from 55 to the low 80s, also answered 10 questions about the fitting problems they face.
That data is being fed into computers to produce new pattern sizes that manufacturers can use for cutting clothes for older women. Ms. Goldsberry expects some companies to be testing these new sizes later this year.
"We need to break down the notion that women simply get bigger as they get older. The industry is still not sensitive to the changes that occur due to aging. It's a market that's totally untapped," she said.
The predictable body changes that women experience as they age include the following:
* The head is carried in a more forward position, the ball of the shoulder moves forward and the width between the shoulder blades increases. As a result, garments feel tight across the back and around the armholes, but gap across the chest.
* The waist thickens and shortens, the abdomen protrudes and rises, and the buttocks flatten. Pants, skirts and waisted dresses no longer fit properly around the middle. Some women even find it more comfortable to wear elastic-waist pants backward, with the fullness in front, Goldsberry said.
* The discs between the vertebrae flatten, causing a loss of 3 or 4inches in height. This also squeezes internal organs outward, contributing to the thickening of the body. In addition, bone mass diminishes after menopause, causing subtle changes in body shape and posture. Clothing cut for younger figures simply doesn't fit right any longer.
"Some women feel embarrassed by these changes. Others feel guilty. They believe if they'd taken better care of themselves -- eaten better, exercised more -- it wouldn't have happened. But that's not so. It's a little depressing, but it's a natural phenomenon. It's important that women accept that," Ms. Goldsberry said.
It's equally important that clothing manufacturers recognize these changes -- and adjust their sizes accordingly, she added.
She hopes the Apparel Sizing Project will be able to give the manufacturers a set of charted measurements for older women -- in petite, regular and plus sizes -- by the middle of the year.
A number of companies are starting to show interest in re-sizing clothing for an aging population, Ms. Goldsberry said. Among these are 10 companies that have helped fund the Apparel Sizing Project, among them J.C. Penney, Sears, Land's End, Levi Strauss, Butterick and McCalls Patterns.
A name for this new cut of clothing sized especially for older women has yet to be selected.
"I've received 10 pages worth of suggestions," Ms. Goldsberry said. "I've no idea what it's going to be, but it won't be 'senior' or anything dowdy. You can be sure it will project a positive image."