Vanity Sizing and Size Charts: A Brief History

The complex and organic evolution of clothing manufacturing has lead to the current state of sizing in today’s garment industry.

“Why isn’t there a universal sizing standard,” consumers cry. Unfortunately, brands can’t turn every frustrated tweet about vanity sizing and the need for clothing size chart conversion into a history lesson, though there is a reason for the size madness. This article aims to shed some light on the sizing problem by taking a quick look at the fascinating history of apparel sizing standards and what the future looks like for sizing.

Long before vanity sizing created a dire need for clothing size chart conversions, apparel was handmade for the wearer. While there are a few examples of garment makers thinking ahead of their time, clothes were produced in the home until the 19th century.

American Civil War uniforms

The First Mass Produced Clothing

War and The Industrial Revolution

Unfortunately humans are a warring species, and many technologies we take for granted today were born out of wartime necessity. While there have been isolated cases of clothing production at volume throughout the ages, the need for war uniforms was the first driver in the mass production of clothing. There is evidence that Roman military uniforms made as ready-to-wear garments were available as early as 1400 BCE. But it was more than a millennium later that a need for military uniforms coincided with the Industrial Revolution to pave the way for a garment industry.

The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), the Crimean War (1853–1856) and the American Civil War (1861–1865) accelerated the need for mass produced military uniforms, outpacing the ability to sew them by hand at home. Shortly before these wars, the invention of The Roller Spinning Machine in 1738 and The Power Loom in 1784 planted the seeds for the infrastructural framework needed to meet the impending demand for mass produced clothing.

By this time in history, clothing was more fitted and tailored than styles in previous eras. In order to make the military uniforms in factories away from the soldiers on the battlefields, uniform makers came up with a simple sizing system based on male chest circumference.

Garment factory workers in Leipzig, Germany ca. 1953

Sizing Standards Before The Vanity Sizing Free for All

It took decades to get to the point of establishing sizing standards within local garment industries – especially for women’s apparel. In the late 19th century, the taboo around ready-to-wear clothing gradually eased as fancy department stores offered affordable copies of coveted French fashions, making store-bought clothes more accepted. While vanity sizing was long from being an issue, looser fashions made it easier to make clothes for the masses. Industry leaders recognized the need to set some standards for how garments were measured and made. This move to standardize sizing was driven by profit loss due to the need for alterations, returns, and ill-fitting mass-produced clothing.

North American Vanity Sizing 

North American sizing standards weren’t set until the US Department of Agriculture funded an initiative to define sizes in the early 1940s. Before 1939, clothing sizes were related to age for girls and bust size for women. These basic, simple sizes were thought to be acceptable based on the assumption that someone at home could alter the store-bought clothing. Recognizing the need for garment sizing standards, the Women’s Measurements for Garment and Pattern Construction undertook the first national body data project in the USA. The study measured 15,000 women across the United States with the intention of establishing a national size index. The study distilled 59 unique body measurements into the ones we recognize today: weight, height, chest, waist, and hip.

While theoretically a good idea, the study was flawed and unscientific. The pool of participants, mostly white and from a single socio-economic class, was not diverse enough to truly represent the average female body in an increasingly diverse society. In addition, it was based on the assumption that adult women have the then preferred hourglass shape, popularized by the corsets of the Victorian era. At that point, the hourglass figure only accounted for 8% of the adult female population. The study and later revision in the late 40s was the basis for all US clothing sizes for over 30 years. Though there was a major revision in the 1970s, the limited homogeneous standards paved the way for vanity sizing to take hold a decade later.

Fashion model 1940s reflecting vanity sizing

Sizing in International Markets

North American garment manufacturing history reflects the evolution of sizing in one market. The sizing story does not stop there. All other markets where clothes are made (read: the whole world) have their own equally complex histories with sizing.

In the UK, the post Crimean War economy led to a boom in white collar jobs, increasing the need for suits and tailored clothing for the masses. In the late 19th century, British manufacturers used the chest-measurement standard as a basic model for men’s clothing patterns. For British women, the enduring popularity of corsets delayed the evolution of standard sizing. Though fashion started to loosen up in the early 1900s, the first study of body measurement standards was introduced by the The British Standards Institution in 1951.

European garment makers were taking body measurements into consideration much earlier than originally thought. In 1589, Spanish tailor and mathematician Juan de Alcega wrote the first known tailoring manual complete with illustrations. Further north and a few centuries later in 1810, J.G. Bernhardt published a German tailoring book which included body measurements and analyses of common sizing issues. In Germany, it wasn’t until 1966 that the first sizing standards were published, with a second study appearing in 1983.

Though not an exhaustive list, other established sizing standards include China’s sizing standards (1981), South Korea’s height-based standards (1990), and the 1996 Alpha Standard (S, M, L, XL) which is based on European sizing conventions.

Vanity sizing fashion show runway models

Vanity Sizing

By 1983, the flawed North American women’s measurement guide was abandoned all together in favor of a trend now known as vanity sizing – most popular in the US and UK markets. There are many interpretations as to why vanity sizing exists, from the well intentioned “brands are re-centering and adjusting their clothing to […] make clothes for their customers” to the more sinister “appeal to the growing egos and waistlines of consumers.” 

In the 50 years between 1958 and 2008, a US size 8 expanded by up to 6 inches. This trend can be seen across clothing styles and brands, with companies usually opting to list a smaller size than the historical measurements would dictate. However, there are different approaches to vanity sizing. There are even brands who only make one size to the exclusion of the majority of the population’s body types. Amid frustrations about these inconsistencies, there are continued attempts to reestablish a universal sizing standard. However vanity sizing already boasts a 40 year tenure and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Fit, Style, and Inclusivity

From what we’ve learned so far, it’s not a surprise that the paradox of the complexity of human morphology and the seeming lack of diversity when physical measurements were taken created mass confusion. The world has changed with the assortment of styles and apparel functions growing each season, the real changes in human physicality, as well as the increased demand for inclusivity.

Body Positivity

The 1990s saw the first instances of plus size clothing. What started as a brand has grown into the Body Positivity Movement. While consumers have increased their demand for inclusive clothing over the last 30 years, brands have been relatively slow to adapt their apparel offerings.

Body positivity plus size model

Fit and Style

With all the complexity inherent in body measurements, fit and style are two additional key elements that contribute to size labeling decisions made by apparel brands. For many brands, the size and shape of their clothing patterns is a key part of their brand identity and is even considered by some to be part of a company’s intellectual property.

Sizing is complex. There’s no question about that. When determining which size is correct for any customer, hundreds of small considerations from garment specifications, physical body measurements, to fit and style are taken into account. Today, each brand has its own formula – even with sizing sometimes varying within a single brand. Because clothing is so personal, it’s only logical that consumers turn to the twittersphere to express their frustrations. 

How Technology is Fixing the Sizing Problem

While a noble idea, implementing a universal sizing standard is not the right solution for a complex problem. Instead the industry is looking to the future, using sizing solutions powered by machine learning algorithms to find the common attributes between apparel items. With sizing solutions like Fit Finder, hopeful shoppers trade frustration for beautifully fitting clothes, no matter who they are or what they look like.

How Machine Learning Gets it Right for the Shopper

Online size advisors use what is called machine learning (which is a subset of artificial intelligence) to match shoppers with the right size item. For many shoppers, AI seems almost mythological. But in reality artificial intelligence simply means ‘a computer program that does something smart’ aka makes changes to its process when faced with new information. So how does machine learning apply to sizing?

Machine learning enables brands and shoppers alike to move away from a static size chart and address sizing on a product level. We are not yet at a point in sizing history where all apparel is custom made for each individual shopper. Production still requires garment specifications which have set sizes. However, machine learning-based size recommendations close the gap between shopper and apparel item at the buying stage. The recommendations will tell a shopper if an item (as is) is likely to fit well or not.

The algorithms utilize information provided by the shopper and compare that to all other shoppers who have purchased that same or similar clothing. All that data is aggregated and calculated into a ‘fit score’ for the shopper, indicating how likely the shopper is to like the fit of an item based on their stated preferences. The advantage here is that the size recommendations are independent of local sizing conventions. The machine learning algorithms relativize and relate different sizing systems to one another and provide a recommendation on an individual product level.

The Future of Tech and Sizing

We now know that technology is bridging the gap between shoppers and apparel which has already been produced. The next step in the future of sizing is leveraging this technology to inform clothing production. The information shared by millions of shoppers who used sizing solutions can be transformed into garment specifications which reflect real shoppers. Using the anonymized information shared by shoppers to make new size charts will ensure the sizes reflect people and not the outdated size charts of yesteryear (see the beginning of the article!).

Images: Library of Congress, National Archives at College Park / Public domain, Deutsche Fotothek‎ / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer / Public domain, AhmadArdity, Renepfister.


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