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Why Women’s Clothing Sizes Are So Confusing

Why Women’s Clothing Sizes Are So Confusing


If you’ve ever been shopping and found yourself
wanting to slowly bang your head against a mannequin in sheer size frustration–why,
why, why–consider this. From nineteen fifty-eight to two thousand eleven the smallest standardized
women’s clothing size in the US dropped from an eight to a double zero. Most recently J
Crew introduced a new women’s clothing size. The triple zero. Ooohh. Pretty much ever since the nineteen twenties
and thirties when women transitioned away from making their own clothes at home or going
to seamstresses, women’s ready-made clothing sizes have long confounded the female shopper.
Way back then women’s clothing sizes were based off the ideal hourglass shape of a thirty-six
inch bust, twenty-six inch waist and thirty-six inch hips. Take for instance this nineteen
twenty-seven quote from a New York Times article about women’s frustration with clothing sizes.
‘Now I don’t know who this mythical size thirty-six is who forms the basis of clothing but average,
tall, short, thin and plump women come into a department store and a size thirty-six fits
none of them.’ Jeepers creepers. Yes we were talking about this way back then which is
crazy right? If you fast-forward to today women’s clothing sizes have arguably gotten
even more confounding. A recent study which looked at a thousand different pairs of size
four pants and found as much as an eight and a half inch waist differential between them.
Case and point, two pairs of jeans I have that are from the same store, are the same
style and the same size and yet are not the same size. Which is why these fit me a whole
lot better than these. This is not to say that women’s frustration over inconsistent
clothing sizes has been ignored. In the late nineteen forties the US government funded
the very first large-scale scientific study of women’s body measurements in an effort
to develop standardized women’s clothing sizes. Employees with the National Bureau of Home
Economics went around the country collecting fifty-nine different measurements among fifteen
thousand different volunteers to collect a giant data pool that was then handed over
to the National Bureau of Standards to develop these clothing sizes. But there were a couple
of major methodological problems with that sample population. First of all any non-white
women who participated, their results were thrown out. Second the study participants
tended to be poorer and thus back then skewed underweight than the average woman. Ultimately
the clothing sizes that were developed skewed more towards thin and white women. So in nineteen
eighty-three the Commerce Department finally just threw out the commercial standards for
women’s apparel sizing. As all of that is going on the average American female body
is getting larger. And how do clothing companies respond? With so-called vanity sizing. A size
eight by today’s standards corresponds to a size fourteen or sixteen by nineteen fifty-eight
standards. Brands are keeping the sizes the same but just making the corresponding clothes
larger. This has been increasing exponentially in recent years to where in nineteen ninety-five
what was a four or a six is now a two. While some clothing brands come under fire for this
there are also experts who say vanity sizing is but a myth. By their logic all companies
are doing are trying to make clothes to fit their average and growing, or in J Crew’s
case with their size triple zero jeans, shrinking customer-base. A lot of times the size of
a size is going to depend on the price of the clothes in the store. The lower end retailers
tend to have larger sizes whereas higher end retailers tend to have the smaller sizes.
A size eight at an Old Navy is going to be larger than a size eight at the Gap which
is going to be larger than a size eight at Banana Republic even though all of those stores
are owned by the same company. Standardizing women’s clothing sizes they argue would actually
make things worse for the female shopper. As maddening as it can be to find a store
or a brand that fits you, forcing all brands and all stores to carry one set of sizes would
actually not take into account all of the various body types that women possess which
really at the heart of it is the reason why clothing sizes for women are so maddening.
Ultimately it isn’t so much the sizing problem but really the fit of the clothes that makes
it so hard to find a pair of jeans already.

100 thoughts on “Why Women’s Clothing Sizes Are So Confusing

  1. I've noticed that price and size thing. I don't have a lot of money and I'm kinda thin. When I go to Walmart to get a pair of jeans it's hard to find a pair that's small enough to fit me. 

  2. I've heard that cheaper jeans are cut from massive stacks of denim, and the cuts are never even close to being consistent, thus the massive difference in jeans even among supposedly same sizes

  3. @Stuff Mom Never Told You – HowStuffWorks asks: Why is finding the right size in women's clothing about as easy as getting dressed in the dark?

  4. I have given up on finding THE pair of jeans that fits… I just buy jeans that fit over my big 'ol butt and call it a day.

  5. That isn’t exclusive to women, men have the same problem with clothing sizes, but men are less culturally shamed for their clothing size. For me the constant difference between marked sizes to actual size is the reason that I rarely shop for clothes. Sometimes the sizes are different within the same store and brand, forcing me to measure about 4 pairs of jeans to find one that is actually my size (my size hasn’t changes for the last 10 years) and still I have jeans the fit my ranging thought sizes from 40 to 48 (European sizes).

  6. I said I totally envy men's. They have their's by waist and length when it comes to jeans and I wished they did for woman's jeans. I am really skinny and whenever I find a good waist the legs are long but my tall larger friend has the opposite problem. I wish woman's just had waists and length listed on them.

  7. Try having a curvy body where jeans will fit my thighs but not my waist because it's much smaller or the other way around. Jeans shopping is my worst nightmare.

  8. Many is the time I tried buy clothing for sibs, Mother & G/F as a gift. All too often said items were returned over size issue. On the other hand I can recall going with a G./F who used to buy her jeans & tighty whities in the teen boys section of the store as she had that kind of figure. Why boys undies? She pointed the big price disparity. Boys were multi packs for the price of 1 ladies under garment. She had plenty of nice ladies lingerie but for daily use she wore boy's underwear.

  9. I think it really comes down to intelligence. Women are, in general, smarter than men and can thus handle a more confusing environment. Retailers know this, and because there is so much competition they need to find more creative ways to appeal to the vanity of women. The issue is even more confused because every woman wants to think of herself as smaller than average. Lower size numbers fit better than larger size numbers.
      Have you noticed no one has yet tried to do another study to find what the real average sized American is based on ethnicity or social class?
      It's because men usually run these types of things and men are stupid!

  10. The pants sizes in my closet include the ridiculous range of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 26, 27, and 28. It doesn't help that I could fit into pants that have junior's, women's, or european sizing schemes, as well as "petite" and "regular" lengths, so I have to remember what size I am in any given store or brand. I rarely find inseam lengths listed for an item in store, just online. It's become a waste of money to buy bottoms or dresses online, as there are way too many chances for some part of the garment to not fit right. Even t shirts aren't safe anymore, I could be an XS or an L depending on the shirt. It's madness.

  11. I once bought a pair of size 4 shorts and a pair of size 12 shorts in the same day… the size 4 ones are looser. I have learned to love terrible sizing, though, because I can see a "small" or "xl" shirt I like and I don't have to automatically assume it's not going to fit me. There's a lot of hope. A lot of disappointment, but also a lot of hope.

  12. The way my body is, I have a small waist and big hips. Combine that with the legs I got from my dad, which are long and muscular with my thighs carrying a bit more fat, I have a very difficult time finding pants. And I'm not even that tall, 5'5 5/8". Where I am now I have a 26.5" waist, 33.5" hips, and my thighs are 19.5" around. I often find that Juniors sizes fit me a bit better than Women's sizes, and I'm 20 now. What really irritates me is how many skinny jeans they have in stores. I can't wedge myself into them so I have to look a bit harder to find a pair of size 6 or 9 long darkwash bootcuts. Do you see my dilemma?

  13. A long time ago, I had bought one pair of pants made by this famous lady, I see her face but forget her name. Anyways the pants went by waist size and lengths in increments of two, like 28-30 etc. and either short, medium or long. They're still my favorite, most comfortable pair of pants. I think we should do that for women's pants sizes, it would be a wonderful thing and make shopping a heck of a lot easier! 

  14. So if you are smaller/thinner/less curvy and more expensive jeans are likely to shape you better… it actually costs to have no curves? I mean doesn't it suck enough? God why did you curse me with reverse hips?! I mean why???

  15. Now try to shop talls at 6'1". It's a nightmare. Can only go online for a lot of things and HOPE it fits.

  16. Areopostale already sold 000 jeans. I'm a 'petite' girl, so that's the size I have to get, and they're STILL too big. 😐

  17. I prefer Junior's clothing so I wear a size 3 or 5 depending on the fit but also some places I like women's so I'll wear a size 2 or 4. My problem is that I have to buy the size in a long (that is sooo hard sometimes and I end up special ordering online to avoid the frustration).
    Long story short, I found a perfect balance by buying my jeans from Hollister at a size 1-3L and shirts are pretty consistent in a size small or XS.
    There is no hope for shoes though. I pretty much have to try them on regardless.

  18. Could we please just mark cloths with the measurements required to fit in them? I know what my measurements are. I have no clue what size I wear.

  19. why do woman care about cloths at all ? US guys just care how to get your cloths off , them we lose all interest in the cloths.  

  20. This is so true!! I'm usually a L. At Old Navy, Target, and  JC Penny's the sizes seem to be bigger than the stores at the mall. I feel like mall sizes are so small. If I go in Rue 21 or Wet Seal sometimes an XL doesn't even fit.

  21. I have a backside that sits up high and looks like it is on my spine. So I have to purchase men's jeans. I have stocky shoulders, so I have to get larger shirts to even things out. I love my body and its double digit size. It is like Cristen said, you have to find your store and your brands, and stay with them.

  22. Maybe we should all just go back to the days of old and wear robes, togas, wraps, and tunics.  If you're a "larger" size, you use more fabric.  If you're a "smaller" size, you use less.

  23. I have a friend who's mother still has clothes from the 80's and 90's.
    My friend needed a new pair of pants, so her mom gave her a size 4 pair of jeans to try on and they were too little on her.
    When they went to the store the next day, my friend picked out a size 4 and her mom was /so mad/.

  24. I think the main problem with "womens' sizing" is not the sizing itself but the fact that women's fashion is rarely if ever designed with mass production in mind.  They create these very tight, fitted looks that work extremely well if you can afford to have your clothing tailored, or if you happen to be of the precise physical dimensions that the industry enforces as a standard… but simply put, it is impossible to reduce tailored fashions to a one-size-fits-all or even ten-sizes-fit-all format that can be mass-produced and sold cheaply to us plebians.  How exactly do you create a simple sizing system to describe fashions that require four or five or eighteen measurements?  Adding lycra can help a garment adopt the shape of its wearer but it can only go so far before you end up with jeggings.
    So as far as I'm can tell, it's mostly just a 1.001st world problem.  Ya'll want the closely-fitted yet comfortable styles of a garment made by a professional tailor, but the price tag of a garment made by a ten-year-old Malaysian child.  I'd like to say you can have both, but you can't.  That's economics.  

  25. Men's pants somewhat easier. Hard because I'm not of average man size, but it's not that big of a deal. Though, is it me or has men's pants become err what's the word…looser. I seem to only find two types of pants these days for men. Skinny jeans, which I absolutely despite. Or straight cut, but baggy or maybe it's because I'm short, ha. I like a good old fashion pair of khakis and some cargos with a bootcut. Not hard to ask.

  26. I'm 4'10" which makes shopping for clothes so much harder. Generally if it fits around me, it looks really weird because it's tailored to a certain cut and the waist or the hips on the clothes are NOT where mine are haha

  27. Something I find very interesting about men and women's sizes, especially when it comes to pants, is that by using your actual measurements instead of a number assigned to a hopefully standardized set of measurements, men's clothing seems to help ease body image issues. I'm a woman who enjoys wearing men's clothing. In men's pants, I'm a 31 inch waist and a 32 inch inseam. In women's sizes, I'm about an 8. For some reason, knowing that women's sizes could possibly begin at 000 and I'm all the way at an 8 (even if 8 might be average) my self esteem takes much more of a hit. Knowing that I'm 31 inches in my waist has always been far less threatening to me. It could be because men's sizes typically begin at a 28 inch waist so there is far less of interval as with women's sizes, but I think it lies more in that going based off a custom measurement is more comforting than being thrown into what seems like a giant category.

  28. i know right?! so i gave up on finding any womens clothing and just go into the mens section ^.^ cheaper and nicer fabrics anyway

  29. It also annoys me how they don't have enough of a certain size in stores- smalls and mediums tend to sell first, and then all that's left is extra large which is left on clearance.  Why don't they stock more of the most common sizes?

  30. … I think we should start making out own clothes again. Yeah, then i could add huge pockets and metal bits and embroider stuff on them… sick.

  31. Please, please, PLEASE stop using arbitrary numbers for jean sizes and use the actual circumference of the waist band to determine the size. This would make things better for everyone. So what if banana republic caries sizes 12-32 whereas old navy has sizes 24-46? At least shoppers would know what size jean to try on. As it is now, every time I go into a new store (or one I don't go to often) I have to rediscover my pant size. How is that better for anyone?

  32. Speaking of clothing, here's another question for another video: Why is it the non-necessary but functional/ornamental zipper on women's jeans tends to go the opposite way that the very necessary zipper on men's jeans does? I've also noticed that that sometimes (maybe all the time?) men's shirts and jackets have the buttons and buttonholes flipped from the way they are on women's button-up shirts and jackets. WHY?

  33. Or we could just have the measurements (in inches or cm) on the tags like men's clothing? I mean it may have to be more than one measurement but that would still be a thousand times simpler.
    Also, I'm pretty sure part of the reason no stores are making an effort to be less confusing is that, the more complicated things are, the longer you have to be in the store; the longer you're in the store, the more things you see; the more things you see, the more stuff you want!

  34. My measurements are actually legit 38-28-38. This means I'm a 12 according to my bust, a 6 hypothetically if you go by my waist, and an 8 in jeans. Why can't I live in the 50s when they had stuff catering for my shape sigh.

  35. This is why I love Seven for All Mankind. You know what they do? Go by actual inch measurements, not arbitrary number sizing! They also make several lengths for each one, so as a short-legged lady I am so happy. <3

  36. Seriously/ I think it is ridiculous. I can never find something that fits me because the sizes are ridiculous!
    men have it easy

  37. i own about 3 pairs or jeans. Sizes 3, 5, and 7    all fit the same. i hate this    i wish is was easier to shop for pants

  38. And this why I love wearing dresses. I either wear a medium or a large. Besides the ones that are in weird sizes  which I don't buy a lot. 

  39. I've heard that part of the reason stores have introduced 00 and now 000 is because teenagers want to wear their clothes so they introduce newer sizes to expand their customer base.

  40. fucking hell! for men we just have a regular 1 size system! why? because if anything our guts will hang over the jeans and we won't care (if it's too loose just wear a belt, if it's too tight go a size bigger) simple for men, completely screwed up for women!

  41. helping my girl friend shopping the other day ….damn  NUTS !!! all them  shapes and curves ,…fit to go nuts !!  

  42. I'm a size 4, and even though pretty much every store sells my size, most seem to favour straight/banana shaped bodies over hourglass shapes (to be fair, straight body types are way more common). If I can find something that fits over my chest, it's too baggy at the waist, and maybe even be tight on the hips. If I find trousers that will actually go past my thighs/butt, they're so often baggy at the waist… sighs.

  43. An ironic thing, I'm size 14-16, the average size for an American female- yet my size falls between regular sizes and plus sizes.  So when I go clothes shopping, a store that carries mainly regular sizes has few clothes big enough for me, and plus size stores have few clothes small enough for me.  Part of my problem too, is that I'm very pear shaped. :/

  44. When I was younger I had a size 00, size 1, and size 5 pair of jeans all from the same store. They all fit me, but the 00 was the one I needed a belt for.

  45. I wish they made clothing sections marketed towards body shapes, with subsections "petite" "mid" and "tall". I could go right to my section, knowing the entire thing is filled with clothes that are waaay more likely to flatter me, and ignore the other sections.

  46. just buy clothes that are easily affordable and get them tailored. as you said there are far too many bodytypes for a store to carry them all, so either learn hwo to sew – or spend less and get it tailored to fit you perfectly.

  47. It's not so easy to find nice clothes when you're as short as me, 150 cm, and I'm curvy. Gets even more confusing if you try shopping clothes in another country.

  48. Please don't hate on companies for creating smaller sizes. J. Crew created a size 000 to accommodate their ever growing East Asian market. East Asian women are much more slim and petite than average American women. However, thousands and thousands of tourists, particularly from China, visit the US and shop their hearts out every year. J. Crew is just trying to cash in on that market.  

  49. It is not just women's clothing that this has happened to. I am now finding it difficult to find clothes of a standard size here in the UK in one shop I might be a 32 inch waist and in another shop I might be a 34 this sucks and standardised clothing needs to be made, so that you can go into any shop and get what ever size you want and it is the same in all shops. That said the sizes in the UK are different from the USA and in Europe they don't recognise imperial measurements as they use cm not inches :-S

  50. This explains why I (a very thin and relatively tall girl with healthy thighs and small hips) struggle to find clothing because it is all so gosh darn large.

  51. I went once into a store and I could only fit in an XL size jeans.. Surprising knowing that I usually wear S or M. I think is a branding trick, like she explained in the video (the so called "customer oriented"). Psycologically they want to chase away average size people (not to even talk about larger people..) to only sell to very skinny girls therefore making them the only ambassadors of their products. I studied fashion design for a while, where the haute couture standard measurements were used, so I try to keep that as a comparison point when going into a shop. It does not personally influence my choise that much (if a size L fits better than the M I will take L), but most of my friends would never pay for a label-size that they don't agree with, instead they'd prefer to get the smaller one out of principal! It's sad how much the corporate desicions have an impact on people's self esteem.

  52. I'm the type of female who tends to have a very large ribcage and really large shoulders because of genetics. Unfortunately, that is so not the beauty standards so finding a dress or top can be torture. Bottom-wise, I have wide hips, but not thick hips or thick thighs. I've gotten shorts at Old Navy (I love Old Navy for everything except pants) that were the correct band size of 12 but had the legs cut out to be about three times my leg width. So, I have to get all of my jeans and shorts from American Eagle who seem to be the only clothing brand that fit me correctly.

  53. Also, this is basically why I switched to stretchy dresses, which I begin to wear exclusively when weather gets into the 70s.

  54. I don`t get why women`s clothes can`t be gauged according to the same sizing system Men use. Are the shape of womens bodies really that different from men?

  55. Instead of letters or strict single digit numbers, how about putting what size of shoulder/hip/waist/etc would fit the mostly comfortably in this brand's small or medium shirt/pants.
    All women would have to do from there is know their basic measurements, and pick out clothes that would seem the most optimal for the better fit right there on the rack. Instead of going back and forth three different times because you got something too small/big and couldn't accurately judge if the style is for you or not.
    Trying on three sizes of the same article of clothing is the real time waster in shopping!

  56. i love high waisted jeans, but i have a tiny 25 inch waist compared to a 33 inch hip measurement, which means i have to buy the larger size and just alter the waist so it tapers to fit me properly.

  57. yeah, because just using the inches of the waist of a pair of pants and just make THAT the size would totaly not work… not like guys have been using that system for ages….. And you can even do the same for leg length…. how shocking!…..

  58. So I love your videos and I watch them quite often. I am currently at the OBGYN and they are playing this one in the waiting room! How cool!!

  59. It's so annoying having a 32 inch wait and 45 inch hips. The boot is a curse. Pants that fit my butt still fall down because they are too big up higher. I wanna lose weight just so I can fit pants right again. Like I swear anything above a 12 is made like mom jeans but then again I dont like them to low waisted either.

  60. I bought a pair of shorts during the later summer one year and only wore them a couple of times. The next year I bought the exact same style and size and found that it was smaller than the pair I already owned

  61. Someone should build a website where you put in your measurements and are then told what brands in what sizes would fit you best and where to find them.

  62. so true that fit is more important! I thought losing weight and not being fat anymore would make it soooo much easier to find pants/clothes that fit. I was so wrong, despite losing weight, Ive still maintained a curvy body type *35-25-36)that makes it difficult to find anything that fits . its even worse because my thighs are 22 each and people dont even put thigh size into consideration when they post size charts and such; thighs are ALWAYS tight on me when i wear any pants

  63. I always get so jealous of my husband when it comes to clothes shopping. He can just walk into the men's dept., grab a pair of pants in his size, buy them, and leave. No fuss. No fitting room. In and out in like 10 minutes. And there I am, trying on like 14 different pairs of pants just to have maybe one sort of fit. So maddening!

  64. clothing sizes are particularly annoying for me because I don't have the typical feminine body and i also have a bit of fat. so my butt, hips and boobs are tiny but my legs, stomach and shoulders are larger. so women's clothing very rarely fits especially shirts that are meant to be form fittings because my form is so different than the average woman.

  65. That is why I make my own clothes. I can't be bothered trying on millions of pieces whilst a saleswoman pressures me into buying "something".. I'm 5ft 8" and finding dresses or skirts ready made that is long enough is an nightmare. So it is quicker for me to make something in an afternoon than get upset and angry in a shopping centre.

  66. in India every store i have been to tag the jeans according to the measurement of the waist or hip with centimeters or inches . so i guess that's not a problem here…. how is the numbering system in clothing work in america anyways?

  67. I wish female pants came in waist-hip-length measurements or something. Then they can have your boot cut or skinny jeans or what have you so people can figure their calf size into it. I hate shopping for pants, I often end up leaving stores empty handed.

  68. easy solution. instead of sizes, use easiest band inches, butt inches , rise inches and perhaps thigh inches. and make them meet their advertisements.

  69. Men's clothing is confusing as can be anymore. I can wear some Medium shirts while others are too small and I require a Large. I used to wear a 34 inch waist and now I can only wear 34 inch skinnies which have elastic waists, though I do own a couple of pairs of 33 waist skinnies that fit great. I actually wear a 35 jean, but no jean company manufactures size 35 jeans for men so I have to buy 36 inch jeans and wear a super tight belt if they aren't skinnies. I tried on some large slippers that didn't fit me in one brand, but fit in another brand. I never know what size shirt, jean, or shoe to buy without trying everything on. So annoying.

  70. you flirted around the mark, guys want to take a tape measure and then buy something that size. women don't want to know, the fact is, that if you have two different brands of jeans both the same size, but one is labeled as a six and the other a 7, most women will buy the six

  71. They should have a system that works for women as well. Firstly it should be like men's (30×30 means your waist is thirty inches and your inseam is 30 inches) that just mathematical sense. Afterwards if you buy something that doesn't fit properly, you go to the tailor so it fits like a glove. Most people just want cheap, fast, poor quality fashion that doesn't last and you can get immediate gratification and throw it away like a tissue.

  72. This is very confusing for a European because in Germany we use very different sizes. However, one thing that is much easier to do in shopping, (At least for teens) is that we have ages assigned to our sizes, that corresponds with our height, and body shape. Maybe this would make things in America easier?

  73. My shirt size is simple. I always wear a small. My pants size, however? Somewhere between a 3 and the center of the universe

  74. I buy guys clothes. I've got broad shoulders women's shirts feel like they constrict my shoulders. And my legs are longer then torso so let's just say wedgies where big problem I faced before realizing that guys inseem generally fits me better I get guys pants without the hole. It started cause guys shirts had better designs. And looking at inseem of women's pants like no..

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