Why are women's clothing sizes so inconsistent?

By Beth Kennedy. Cover image - Youtube/Vox

You know how it goes - in H&M you might be a size 14 but in Primark it’s an 18 (or vice versa). So why are women’s clothes sizes so inconsistent? It’s not just in the UK, the US have the same problem as us... and much of it can be attributed to vanity sizing.

What is vanity sizing? In short, it’s a marketing tool. Clothing companies wanted to compliment shoppers by reducing the sizes to make women feel they’re a size or two smaller than they really were. Well, it was a marketing tool but apparently it isn’t used as much today with the advent of ‘plus size’ outlets such as Evans and Curvissa.

But this meant clothing designers started to set their own definitions of sizes - just take a look at this info from The New York Times. A pair of Dolce and Gabbana trousers with a 31 inch waist is actually 26 inches for a pair of Banana Republic trousers - that’s five inches of extra cloth between the two!

Why is this considered a problem? Part of it is waste. A lot of us shop for clothes online and 40% of us have to return clothes because they don’t fit. Not all women are the Marilyn Monroe hourglass shape (but that’s great if you are!) - there isn’t a single defined shape for a woman. For example, at GFW clothing we’ve got 7 different sizes to pair with 4 body shapes, and because there is no uniform ‘size 14’ we created our own size numbering system. Sure, there are way more than 4 body types, but the concept can make a big splash in the clothing ocean!  The variety of shape / sizes we offer, combined with our extensive sizing guide means that our exchange rate is only 7%, pretty unique in the on-line retail world.

Sizing has changed so much over the years. In the 50s a UK waist size 8 would be a size 12 today, while a 38 inch bust is now a 44 inch bust. Is it because we’re just getting bigger as a population? Well, yes and no. Clothing sizes have changed dramatically at both ends of the spectrum.

This Vox report breaks is down well.

In the mid noughties, you probably remember the huge campaign against ‘Size Zero,’ the US equivalent of a UK size 4. Luisel Ramos, a size zero model, died from anorexia in 2006. This prompted Madrid Fashion Week and the Milan Fashion Show to pull size zero models from the fashion show indefinitely. A lot of fashion designers and shows have banned models with a BMI of 18 or under (the underweight category).

While this does encourage clothing manufacturers to consider that not all women fit the supermodel body type, it is risky to shame those who are ‘skinny.’ Just as we should support bigger body types, we should support those with naturally slimmer figures too. After all, there is such a thing as ‘petite size’ and the ‘tall’ in outlets such as New Look.

With this in mind, fashion retailers should treat us with respect. H&M’s biggest size is a 16 - but plenty of taller women with a healthy BMI are sometimes size 16 and above. It all depends where the fat is on your body. Surely cutting off clothing sizes halfway through the average sizing spectrum would damage a person’s body confidence? Ruth Clemens, a student shopping at H&M, tried on a pair of size 16 trousers in H&M and you can see for yourself how small they were - despite Ruth being a perfectly healthy size.

Another reason why sizing is a problem for women is a big one - expectations. We’re constantly under the magnifying glass for what we wear, whether it’s playing tennis at Wimbledon or being the Prime Minister. Who cares who ‘won the fashion face-off,’ Daily Mail?!  Women are shamed, objectified and insulted for wearing almost any outfit - ranging from ‘too frumpy’ to ‘too slutty.’ It seems we can’t win and, to top it all off, we can’t find anything in the right size.

Some might say ‘but this is a first world problem', but at GFW Clothing, we believe that everyone should be able to access clothing which suits their style,  identity presentation as well as fitting their body.


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