When more is less: Downsizing widens shoppers' horizons


February 28, 1993|By Alice Steinbach

It may surprise you to learn that one of the little-known side effects of Ronald Reagan's deregulation policy has to do with the size of women's dresses.

They got bigger.

And they got smaller.

Which is to say: Bigger clothes now come in smaller sizes.

See, thanks to the abandonment of federal sizing standards during the Reagan years, dress designers are now free to size their fashions as they wish.

Or to put it another way, women who used to be a perfect size 12 can now claim to be a perfect size 8.

It's called downsizing.

And it means that the size dress you buy has no real relation to the shape you're in.

But Alice, I hear you saying, I don't get it. Why would a designer go from using a size 10 dress form that has a 34 1/2 -inch hip line to a size 10 form with a 37-inch hip line?

My answer?

Oh, grow up, already! It's called giving the customer what she wants. And along with snake oil, it's the oldest trick, retail-wise, in the book.

But don't take my word for it. Take the word of Richard Conrad, president of a dress firm called Castleberry Knits, who is, as you will see, a very wise businessman.

"We all took new measurements and adjusted sizing to a woman who now had a backside and some hips and came up with a fuller 8," Conrad said of the downsizing phenomenon in the fashion industry. "We weren't going to be the ones to tell her she really was a 10."

Or worse yet, a 12 or 14.

Although, come to think of it, I don't know anyone who wears a size 14 anymore. The stores I frequent all seem to stop at around size 12. Not that you'd ever actually shop in person for a size 14. That, after all, is what catalogs and telephones are for.

Which reminds me: Didn't dress sizes used to go up to size 16?

And not only that but somewhere in the dim recesses of my past lurks a memory of something called "half-sizes." As in a dress sized at 16 1/2 or, dare I say it, 18 1/2 . In fact, I think in the downtown stores there may have been entire departments devoted to "Half-Sizes."

If such a thing did, in fact, exist, it may have been a clear example of upsizing to get to downsizing. Which is to say: The woman who really wore a size 17 could be fitted into a 16 1/2 .

Actually, now that I think of it, upsizing is quite common in the world of infants' fashion. Example: If you buy the 12-month size jumpsuit for your 2-week-old infant, it's already too small. Unless, of course, you have given birth to kittens.

But in the world of adult women -- where thin is usually better -- upsizing would never fly. Except in the lingerie department where, as we all know, outsizing has taken over. Now the former 34A finds herself easily filling out a 36B. But that's another column.

Downsizing, naturally, has had a large impact on fashion. In the old days, there were rules for those women who wore apparel above, say, the 14 through 18 dress size. No horizontal stripes, for instance. No bright colors. No ruffles at the hip. Now all that's changed.

Case in point: My friend "X," who used to wear a size 14 or so, recently showed up at a party in an orange-and-black, horizontally-striped knit dress with a faux-gold hip belt.

"It's a size 6," said "X" proudly.

(Note to reader: Some names -- although not the author's -- have been changed for reasons I don't feel like explaining.)

If this trend of downsizing continues, we all know what will happen: Designers will go into negative-based sizing.

Which means that the woman now wearing a size 8 will find herself wearing a size minus 2, and the woman who is now a perfect size 6 will become a perfect size minus 4.

By the way, does anyone know whatever happened to what used to be called the "housedress?" The question arises because in reading the reports on downsizing I came across a statement saying: "Today's older woman won't buy the frumpy old housedress 'Grandma' used to wear."

I thought of my own grandmother and that led me to picturing the kind of shapeless, flower-patterned cotton dress she wore when working in the house or garden. And that led me to recall how it felt to lean into that soft material as we sat on the porch. And of how the cotton always smelled so clean and fresh.

I have no idea what size dress she wore. All I know is that to a small girl it seemed large enough to hold the whole world.

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