Mikaela Pronk: Vanity Sizing

Courtesy of Mikaela Pronk’s post detailing her research on the subject of vanity sizing comes these clarifications.

I spent all the weeks of the project researching and making graphs

The practice of culling Google for anecdotal reports from individuals and journalists, the gathering of selective excerpts taken out of context to conform to one’s preconceived ideas is better known as confirmation bias. Qualified research is another animal entirely. Mikaela is not to take offense at my observation. Students such as she are led in practice and performance by their instructors -and academics on this subject can be the most felonious contributors of all.

60 years ago the American government created guidelines for women’s clothing sizes. The measurements were taken from women in the military during World War II. The women were fit military women, which is one reason why the average women of today seem so much larger or more overweight than the measurements of the women back then.

Not exactly. An anthropometric survey was initiated by Sheldon in the mid to late 1930’s and subsequently facilitated by the US Dept of Agriculture. The so called Sheldon study aka PS 42-70 of women’s body sizes in the 1940’s did not create guidelines for clothing sizes although this was the intended and arguably cursory result of the survey. Also, the participants were civilians, mostly white unmarried women who lived in or near land grant universities with agricultural extension offices. But yes, women from predominately rural areas were more fit than urban women then as it is likewise true today.

However, the only branch of the US government to create guidelines for women’s clothing sizes is the US Navy but this wasn’t done until the early 90’s. While this data set is limited to admittedly fitter women, it is the only taxpayer funded survey conducted by qualified anthropometrists. It is a nice data set, very high quality and available for purchase ($23).

Around the 80s the U.S. standard clothing sizes stopped being used and U.S. Catalogue sizes were introduced. Companies now provide their own measurements for their sizes. This is why a person’s size varies from store to store.

First, there never were “U.S. standard clothing sizes” but in any event, the PS42-70 was never widely adopted because its results were highly problematic then as now. In the 80’s several catalogue companies joined forces to develop voluntary commercial standards, now withdrawn. But yes, today’s companies use measurements that are particular to their customer base just as they always have but the lack of applied commercially uniform standards does not explain why they do this. And that is a very very long story.

Each decade more and more Americans are overweight or obese. This problem plays a big role in causing vanity sizing. If Americans weren’t getting bigger, than clothing companies wouldn’t need to change their sizes to make their customer’s feel better about themselves.

It is correct to say that increasing consumer girth contributes to size evolution or size inflation. However, to say that clothing companies relabel sizes to pander to myriad psychological self esteem issues of their customers is the biggest fallacy of all.

Previously vanity sizing was only a problem effecting women because a men’s size 32 inch pant really should fit a size 32 inch men’s waist. But now popular clothing brands are even labeling men’s pants as a few sizes smaller than they should be.

I rebut this in two parts, one of which I have not published in public because I have yet to duplicate the rife methodology and conclusions from Esquire. The second part is that styling and fit preferences vary a great deal from person to person. By way of example, I have a family member who is two inches shorter than me and who weighs at least 25 pounds more than I do. Yet we each wear the same size at the very same store (a vertical operation; that means they have their clothes made to their specs). My family member would say I wear clothing that is too big for me while I would say my family member wears her clothing too small. That she is nearly 20 years younger than I am and has a different lifestyle is not incidental. While we’re both educated professional moms, I’m a middle aged vegetarian (both factors contribute to a thicker waistline) and she’s a centrist Republican (drives a Prius rather than an SUV).

In short, fit is not objective no matter how much better qualified I am to think that. The subjectivity of fit depends entirely on the perceptions and interpretation of varying individuals. More to the point though, styling, how clothing is designed to fit, is all over the map. It is currently popular to wear “urban” type clothing that is very loose but it is obvious that styling has always played a critical role in sizing (see parts one, two and three).

There is also rampant misunderstanding of what clothing sizes mean. A size means that the predominant customer of a manufacturer, given the styling and fit attributes of that garment, would wear a certain size. For example, the actual waist measure of a man’s size 32 waist in Ralph Lauren’s most expensive business attire will vary dramatically from a 32 waist of casual wear. The casual slacks are intended to be worn more loosely, wholly unlike the fitted suit dress pants but the same man would wear a 32 in both presuming he wanted the tighter and looser slacks for each given occasion and circumstance.

This could lead to health problems because people often base how small they are on what size their clothes are. But if your clothes are getting bigger with you, you won’t realize you really don’t have that 32 inch waist anymore, it’s a 36 now and your pants are lying to you.

The notion that clothing manufacturers are responsible for monitoring the girth and health of the public is ridiculous. It is incumbent upon individuals to assume responsibilities that are wholly their own. That consumer narcissism is coupled with the desire to avoid responsibility in all facets of life is epidemic, doesn’t mean it’s true. If I am unhealthy because I am fat, it is not McDonald’s or Wal-Mart’s fault. And neither is it Sears’, Bloomingdales’ or Macy’s fault either.

5 thoughts on “Mikaela Pronk: Vanity Sizing”

  1. I am not at all offended, I am flattered that you read my little blog and took the time to write that.

    I am a clothing construction minor, but this project was for a graphic design class. You are right, we were told not to do any primary research for this specific project because our research was not what was graded. Our graphs and overall design aesthetic was what was graded. We were just to learn all we could about a topic and take that information and make interesting info graphs and graphics from what we found from others research.

    I found articles both for and against vanity sizing, but there was a lot more research and information for it, for me to make graphs on. And in my own experiences I’ve found my clothing size to vary greatly from store to store. And I’ve been the same size for years and I seem to wear smaller clothing sizes than I have in the past, and yet I have not lost weight. My mom and others who I’ve talked with that have lived through more decades than I have, also experienced this.

    So, my post was just sharing what I learned and some of my project’s design. Thanks for your post, it’s always good to hear both sides of things.

  2. It is nonsense to invoke the concept of “fitting” to explain away the fact that a 32 inch waist is no longer a 32. Fit refers to things like hip room, leg circumference, etc. That casual fits looser than formal is a misrepresentation by the manufacturer. A garment should match what the label says. While it is not a manufacturers job to monitor the health of its customers, it certainly knows that most people judge their size by their clothing and it is misleading to change the sizes without changing the numbers. It has gotten so bad that I as a 6 foot 200pound male can fit into extra smalls at VS and size 00’selsewhere.

  3. Call it what you want, but when I walk into Blue Notes and there is a 3-5 inch variance amongst regular size 32’s either someone is “pandering” to men of larger girth, or the quality control is incredibly poor. And Blue Notes isn’t the only retailer I have experienced this with. The Gap is another. Funny enough, Walmart who I stopped buying jeans from years ago becuase they wore out and faded within a couple months, are the only accurate or at least consistent amongst sizes.

    And why wouldn’t they use this clever marketing scheme to woo customers. Of course I want to shop at a store that makes me feel like I’m not the chunkster I know I am! Well, it works once or twice anyway, but if you can’t be authentic with myself, then with whom can you be?

Leave a Reply