Sizing things up

Fashion: In women's wear, designer apparel is often tagged as smaller than other garments. Now there's a move to standardize the numbers.

January 24, 1999|By Patricia Wen | Patricia Wen,Boston Globe

It's a problem that has countless women grumbling in store dressing rooms across America and catalog retailers like Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean, and Lands' End complaining bitterly about millions of dollars in merchandise returns.

In the chaotic world of women's clothing sizes, the numbers that shoppers see on garment tags, from tiny 2 all the way to 20, have become all but meaningless.

Women waste hours trying on clothes that droop or squeeze, and catalog vendors end up with costly returns from similarly frus- trated mail-order customers.

The catalog companies say the answer to decades of frustration over finding the right fit is simple: Create new sizing standards across the industry.

But that is anathema to upscale clothiers such as Donna Karan and Ellen Tracy, which use "vanity sizing" to make shoppers think they are spending their big bucks on fashionably small-sized outfits.

High-end designers have learned that it is profitable to flatter women by offering tiny sizes on big garments. The result is that a woman might fit into a size 8 from one manufacturer but have to jump all the way to a 12 from another.

The push to eliminate the decades-old guessing game in women's apparel is being spurred largely by the fast-growing mail-order and Internet apparel businesses.

Catalog retailers know that accurate sizing is critical, since women can't try on their merchandise. More and more catalog pages are devoted to explaining sizes and measurements.

Some department stores, such as Target, also are pushing for consistency in sizing among vendors to help their customers.

And for the first time since 1942, a major study is under way to measure the size and shape of today's American woman.

This initiative pleases many in the industry, who say too many women are suffering from fitting-room fatigue.

"As the market transitions to a more relevant set of standards, it will make more obvious those who are not in sync," says Michael Alexin, vice president of design and product development for Seattle-based Eddie Bauer.

But the high-end designers are not eager for any of this. They have made money on vanity sizing, and that has led to today's size labeling.

Ellen Goldsberry, associate professor of retailing at the University of Arizona in Phoenix, says pricey designers have learned all too well that many women love to exclaim, "I have a wonderful dress! And it's a size 2!"

Burt Hunton, vice president of Wolf Form Co. in Englewood, N.J., which makes garment- fitting forms for clothiers, says high-end designers will never go along willingly with a uniform sizing system.

"They still want to do their own thing. ... It makes the woman customer feel better," Hunton says.

He says Ellen Tracy sells size 8 clothes with measurements that other apparel makers sell as a size 12.

While some shoppers may feel flattered and pay for the privilege, the sizing game infuriates others, who would like to see women's clothes come with meaningful, consistent measurements -- in inches -- as men's clothing does.

"I would love to see measurements on clothes," says Meredith Pooler, 18, after buying herself custom-fit jeans at Levi Strauss & Co. in Boston. "You never know with different makers what your size is or what a size small, medium or large means."

But most people in the industry don't think manufacturers will start displaying actual measurements on garment tags, as is done for women's clothing in many parts of Europe. They say American women don't want to see their hip measurement on a tag. And some clothes makers say the standard trio of measurements (bust, waist, and hips), plus height, are often overly simplistic predictors of fit.

Whether or not they are eager for standards, almost everyone in the industry agrees that there's a need for updated information on the size of the American woman as we approach the next millennium. This information will help all clothing manufacturers develop better-proportioned and better-fitting clothes, regardless of how sizes are labeled.

The only sizing chart based on actual measurements of American women dates to 1942, when more than 10,000 military women were measured at different body points. The U.S. Department of Commerce used this data to assign size numbers from 2 to 20 to correspond to different sets of measurements.

Without question, this data is hopelessly outdated. The average woman then was 5 feet 2 inches and weighed 129 pounds. Today, the average woman is about 5 feet 4 inches and weighs about 142 pounds.

While makers of mass-produced clothes may have followed these guidelines in the 1940s, companies later began to realize the shape of the typical American woman was growing. Each company tinkered with its numbers in its own way.

Over the next five decades, women's sizing became increasingly haphazard.

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