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Why Are We So OBSESSED With Dress Size And Not Other 'Body Statistics'?

Have standardised clothing sizes spawned a culture of women seeking to standardise themselves?  To meet a perceived ideal that has little basis in health or fact?

We asked 500 UK women if their clothes shopping habits are influenced by the size on the label (as in, if an item fits but is bigger than their usual size, are they less likely to buy that item?) and 1 in 4 of them said “Yes”.

It’s considered fair to say that women’s sizing has changed since the introduction of standards, but one thing remains true - as long as you’re healthy and happy, the clothes should be bought to fit you, rather than you desiring to fit the clothes.

Unfortunately, a quarter of us don’t see things that way.

Dress Size Infographic

Surprisingly, national standardisation of dress sizes did not happen with the advent of mass-produced clothing & department stores, but as a part of the post-war manufacturing boom in the 1940s.

Prior to the concept of sizes 8, 10 and so on, clothing was either sold following measurements in store, catalogue-specific size charts, or based on a generalisation of expected size for an age.

Two dominant factors shaped the desire for a more consistent sizing system. Buyers were less inclined and less able to make their own alterations as more women remained in the workforce, and catalogues offered convenient shopping, but lacked the attended sales techniques with the opportunity to measure the customer.

Although sizing charts could help, what was really needed was a simple measure once, buy repeatedly system that all clothing manufacturers and customers alike could understand. The US Department of Agriculture commissioned the research relatively early.

Performed by Chief Statistician Ruth O’Brien with William C. Shelton, their guidelines - “Women's measurements for garment and pattern construction” - were published in 1941. Previously, many tailors and societies maintained their own guidelines around the world, some of which strongly reflect fashion trends for supportive garments like corsets or girdles.

Intended to avoid the tailors’ bias towards the classes that could afford fitted, bespoke garments, the study was based on data from 15,000 women in the USA, measured at 59 points on the body and with subjects lacking diversity.

The resulting standards came into effect in the mid-1940s and were found to be somewhat inadequate. Primarily based on bust size as a starting point, a lack of diversity amongst the volunteers gave extensive, but poor data on which to define the sizing.

It was still a monumental task for the team working on it, with 885,000 measurements in total to be calculated without the aid of computers.

In 1958 new standards were introduced. Women leaving the air force provided a diverse range of supplemental data, and the availability of computers to crunch numbers alongside more feedback from catalogues gave a meaningful improvement, with sizes ranging from 8 to 32, R - regular,  S - small and T - tall variations and Plus (or Minus) sizing for girth. It may surprise readers to know that plus size does not actually mean larger size absolutely, rather, a larger build within that size range.

The 1950s data formed the basis of further updates in 1970 before being withdrawn in 1983, leaving the definition of sizes in America up to private organisations and fashion houses.

Over time, the sizes that entered popular culture as a definition for the shape and build of a woman became a point of pride as all sought to be the ideal. Where 1930s language might have a variety of words for the build of a woman, the snappy association of a single number becomes too hard to ignore.

As selling a size lower than the definition then pleases the buyer, who feels closer to the ideal, sizes have migrated lower across catalogues and national standards, with minimal variation in the actual shape of the women they claim to represent.

Further confusing sizing guidelines, as sizes alter so must the cut of the garment. Grading from the original design intent includes varying the cut-outs for arms, relative positions and slope of shoulders, neck height and tapering.

With each manufacturer working to their own experiences to mass produce clothing as efficiently as possible, it’s no wonder that your usual size 14 may end up a 12 or 16 to be comfortable.

Ultimately, it is not the number on the garment that matters. You are not a size 6 or a size 14, the clothes are. They’re working for you. Choose the ones that fit well and look good, and make the time to look after the body you have wrapped within them.

Remember that all that number exists for is convenience in the shops.

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